Whenever I get overwhelmed by the latest reports on climate change, I think about Ferman Milster sitting in the back of Dan Black’s barn last fall, a ball cap pulled over his eyes, as a packed crowd of cross-armed farmers and bottom-line skeptics listened to a presentation on why they needed to grow miscanthus tall grass. An impish grin stretched across Ferman’s face. His years of research, those endless powerpoint presentations, the bags of rhizomes–it had all come down to this: He had turned that barn into a prairie revival for regenerative agriculture and energy.
Ferman Milster, the principle engineer and former power plant manager brought me “down to the dusty soil,” as one poet wrote, when I overheard him speaking about miscanthus for the first time.
“We’ve got to do something different with energy and agriculture,” Ferman told a small crowd at the library. “And when you put those two together, this is an opportunity to use new agricultural techniques and crops to help with our energy situation. And climate change. It all ties together. What a perfect nexus to be able to use our solar and soil resources to produce energy locally.”
Our solar and soil will save us: Long before I picked up Kristin Ohlson’s groundbreaking book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” Ferman had already planted the seed for a new way of thinking in Iowa. Ohlson reminded us that the “world’s soils have lost up to 80 billion tons of carbon,” and therefore, we need to not only get beyond fossil-fuel use, but also “extract excess carbon from the atmosphere by working with photosynthesis instead of against it.” Ferman made that real in Iowa.
He would nod at my questions, his grin would widen. He spoke passionately about his work. My notebooks suddenly filled up with his points: Miscanthus can sequester more carbon in the soil than traditional row crops; grow on “marginal” agriculture lands; require significantly lower inputs of fertilizer and pesticides; provide a new revenue source, coupled to energy prices; improve both soil and water retention as well as quality; and improve wildlife habitat. We can decrease our run-off, build soil organic content. We can put money back into the local farm economy instead of out-of-state fossil fuels.
Ferman Milster turned me into a prairie revivalist and forced me to think in a different way; as someone who has chronicled the dismal tales of the coal industry for years, I had to reconsider regenerative ways of energy and farming in the heartland.
In the process, Ferman has given me a reason to believe in the still small possibility of climate hope.
And not just me–virtually everyone he has cornered with his scary miscanthus stalks and charts and powerpoint presentations has come away affected, thinking anew, enthused about the possibilities of restoring our elusive prairie state with clean energy.
Take Jeffrey Ding, one of our Climate Narrative Project fellows, who met with Ferman to discuss corn ethanol. The corn conversation didn’t last long. “I left with three pages chock-full with notes and a completely new inspiration for my project – soil conservation and dedicated energy crops as bridges between farmers and environmentalists,” Jeffrey wrote. “And my initial impression of Ferman has only been further solidified; he is someone who inspires people to pursue divergent ideas and then brings them back together to actualize those ideas.”
In the Climate Narrative Project we talk about cultivating stories like seeds, which will continue to grow and take shape in ways beyond our imaginations. When the UI biomass fuel project harvested the miscanthus on Dan Black’s farm last month, I thought about the stories Ferman has planted on campus, in the fields, in the corridors of academia and policy makers.
And that grin back in Dan’s barn, and all those reasons to believe.