Carbon farming

Instead of incurring the high cost of pumping carbon into the ground, the Alberta government should pay farmers to sequester greenhouse gases.

Ron Witherspoon speaks at the Ag Choices conference at the Capri Centre Wednesday.

Ron Witherspoon speaks at the Ag Choices conference at the Capri Centre Wednesday.

Instead of incurring the high cost of pumping carbon into the ground, the Alberta government should pay farmers to sequester greenhouse gases.

This was a suggestion of Ron Witherspoon, a prominent ag venture capitalist who shared his expertise and opinions at the AgChoices 2010 conference in Red Deer on Wednesday.

A former senior executive with Farm Credit Corporation who now owns or provides consulting services to ag-related companies, Witherspoon described how the provincial government is proposing to spend about $100 a tonne to mechanically sequester carbon. He’d like to see farmers offer to do the same thing biologically for $50 a tonne.

“How do you think you’re going to get re-elected if you go out to your constituents and say, ‘No, we’d sooner pay a hundred bucks a tonne to these oil industry guys and not pay people in rural Alberta.”

At $50 a tonne, the revenue would pay for a biodiesel refinery in about eight years, said Witherspoon. The cost of a facility to process organic waste could be recouped in just over five years, he added.

Pasture land planted to forest could generate revenues to replace beef production, he said, pointing out that the United States and Australia are both jumping into agri-forestry.

“Farmed trees are going to be big in the future.”

Witherspoon also discussed advanced wood combustion, which would use forestry by-products and farmed trees to generate heat and power. They already exist in Europe, with more than 1,000 advanced wood combustion facilities in Austria alone, he said.

“If Europeans are doing this already at their land cost, it should be a no-brainer that we can make it work here.”

Witherspoon said he always seeks opportunities out of problems.

Two of the companies he’s involved in are producing dietary and nutraceutical products that help address North America’s obesity and health crises. Another is converting organic waste material into high-value fertilizer and other outputs — diverting material from landfills, addressing the pending shortage of phosphorous and sequestering carbon in the process.

Clean Canadian water could be used for aquaculture operations to help fill the huge Asian demand for fish that isn’t contaminated; empty hog barns might be converted for the production of chickens that would be shipped to China for final processing; and beef and elk could be produced here and cut in China where labour is plentiful and cheap, said Witherspoon.

“China is a huge opportunity for Alberta.

“The growth of wealth in China is where you want to be.”

Conversely, he cautioned against relying too much on sales into the United States, where the massive debt could spur inflation and reduce buying power.

“As a customer, I would say they’re a drunk who has charged up their credit card up to the maximum.”

Witherspoon also worries about selling to countries that could default on their payment obligations.

“We sold wheat to Russia back in the ‘70s that we still haven’t been paid for.”

In the case of Japan, he added, a 2 1/2 per cent jump in world interest rates would drive up the cost of servicing its national debt by more than the value of government revenues.

“So I’ve got real worries about chasing Japan.”

About 250 people registered for AgChoices, a one-day event held annually in Red Deer.

hrichards@www.reddeeradvocate.com