Give barley more than just a grain of thought

June 26, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Given the circumstances and the choices, I think I would rather be remembered for planting fields of barley than building an obnoxious mega-development near a wildlife refuge on the Chesapeake Bay - not only because it's an environmentally touchy-feely thing to do, but because there's a pretty good future in barley.

Of course, that's me.

I'm not Duane Zentgraf.

Duane is the prime developer of the 2,700-home Blackwater Resort south of Cambridge on the Eastern Shore. His vision consists of hundreds of houses, roads, driveways, a retail center, a hotel, a conference center and a golf course where there are now farms and wetlands, in the Blackwater watershed.

He has the support of local, development-hungry politicians, the governor from Arbutus and the governor-wannabe from Baltimore. They all apparently think this $1 billion development is just what agricultural Dorchester County needs. (Duane's lawyer referred to environmentalists who oppose the project - your Chesapeake Bay Foundation types - as "Birkenstock knuckleheads." A bunch of Dorchester County farmers oppose the project, too. I guess that would make them "Red Wing knuckleheads.")

So I can't image that there's anything that would take Zentgraf's eye off the prize - a big, dumb-growth plan to pretty much double the population of Cambridge over 15 years. There's no doubt a lot of money to be made, and some people see sprawl development as a respectable legacy, I guess.

To each his own.

But it's too bad barley didn't get into the mix earlier. I'm not about to declare it "the next big thing" - someone said that about the emu-meat market, and look what happened - but let me put it this way: If I had hundreds of acres of land south of Cambridge, I wouldn't be tearing it up for townhouses. Come fall, I'd be planting barley, the hull-less variety.

Like corn, the hull-less variety of barley is a desirable grain for the ethanol market, according to Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association.

Ethanol. Biofuels. The greening of the American motorist.

The United States needs to become less dependent on imported oil - even President Bush seems to comprehend that - and it needs to develop cleaner fuels to reduce carbon monoxide emissions that contribute to global warming. That's why ethanol is gaining momentum as an alternative to petroleum products for transportation fuels.

Five years ago, the nation consumed about a billion gallons of ethanol annually, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, but consumption has climbed to nearly 6 billion gallons a year.

Auto makers have been producing "flex fuel" vehicles that can use gasoline mixed with ethanol, and, according to a report in The Sun last week, there are an estimated 5 million such vehicles on the road today. (There will be 5 million and one after I buy my next car.)

The grain producers association is one of three groups looking to build multimillion-dollar ethanol plants in the Baltimore area. Hoot says her association is bullish on having farmers not only grow the grain that's needed but invest in ethanol production. "We want them to invest in the plant, to buy into the process," she says.

A recent story in The Star Democrat in Easton noted the standard knock against ethanol - that the system for producing it is too costly and inefficient.

"But," the Eastern Shore newspaper added, "the U.S. Department of Agriculture now claims producing ethanol yields 67 percent more energy than it consumes - up from a 24 percent yield it reported in 2002."

There's another benefit to barley: It's a cover crop. That means it grows through the winter, draws excess nutrients - nitrogen and phosphorus - from the ground, preventing them from entering waterways and feeding into those "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay.

Barley can fit into crop rotations and keep soil from washing away during the winter.

The hull-less variety, according to a study at the University of Kentucky, provides a "low-fiber, nutrient-dense grain ideal for animal feed." The Kentucky study concluded that farmers could reclaim part of an old barley market, for feed, while opening a new one, for ethanol.

In other words, barley can make farming more profitable. And, as Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley puts it: "The best agricultural land preservation program is a profitable farm."

When farming becomes more lucrative, fewer farmers give in to the pressure to sell their land to developers. Barley could keep the surveyors and well-drillers away.

It's probably too late for Duane Zentgraf and his Blackwater Resort, but consider the choice: Fields of nutrient-sucking, erosion-controlling, profit-producing barley to make a biofuel that could reduce the nation's dependence on oil and its production of greenhouse gases - or acres and acres of houses, thousands of new residents driving thousands of new vehicles through an area near a wildlife refuge many consider a national treasure.

No choice at all. I go with hull-less barley.

But that's me. I'm not Duane.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

To hear Dan Rodricks on the radio, tune in to WBAL (1090 AM) from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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