Season 2 Available Now
Hosted by Brent Gloy, David Widmar, & Sarah Mock
From the farm financial crisis of the 1980s (Season 1, Escaping 1980) to the future of carbon markets (Season 2, Corn Saves American), join us as we size-up agricultural issues through the lens of history and economics to consider what we can learn and how to think about the challenges faced today and in the future.
Ep 1: Is Farm History Repeating Itself?
What happened in the 1980s was neither the first farm financial crisis nor the last, but for many farmers who are alive today, it was the most economically devastating time of their lives. The way we remember the ’80s informs the way we think about today. But to figure out if today is as bad as the 1980s, we have to start by answering a different question… what, exactly, happened during the 1980s?
- Recommended Reading: Farm Income During the 80s
Ep 2: The Boom
Every farm crisis is unique, although they all follow a common trajectory of stability, boom, bust and recovery. But where does the “boom” end and the “bust” start? In this episode, we dig into what happened to the farm economy during the 1970s to better understand where we might be headed today. Houston, we have a problem.
- Recommended Reading: The Farm Economy, Inflation and the 1970s
Ep 3: The Slide
In the wider economy, two oil shocks hit the U.S. in the 1970s, leading to economic and political disruption and turmoil. The effect was global, national, regional, and local, and led not only to gas rationing and unprecedented lines at the pump, but also to deep financial and psychological impacts that would nudge the farm economy over the edge. Wade into the murky waters of the broader U.S. and global economy to understand how causes well outside the agriculture sector started to push an industry at its peak toward a long slide into crisis.
Ep 4: Bottoming Out
At the lowest points of the 1980s, farmland prices had collapsed by 60% and thousands of farmers were underwater and losing their farms. Excessive leverage and too much financing came up against spiking interest rates, and the combination became incredibly unsustainable. We dig deeper into what today’s more stable farmland prices mean for today’s farm economy, and whether they’re really a good indicator of economic health.
Ep 5: USDA Steps In
Dig deep into the farm policy response of the 1980s, which represented some of the biggest direct payments and government programs ever attempted in the farm economy, and better understand how today’s farm policies, within the Farm Bill and without, might play out in the coming years.
Ep 6: Stability
We’re going to put the crisis of the 1980s to bed, understand how the farm economy clawed its way out of peril, and evaluate how close we are today to achieving the same end: stability. But what exactly does “stability” mean?
Ep 7: Escaping 2020
We’re training our gaze on the horizon, armed with a solid understanding of what happened during the last farm crisis. The 1980s and today are not perfect foils for one another, but there are certainly similarities. And though the differences might offer some comforts, those similarities should give us pause. Dig into where we are now, where the biggest risks lie in for the modern farm economy, and how to prepare your thinking for a less predictable world.
Ep 1: Are Carbon Markets the New Ethanol
Fifteen years ago, corn ethanol was a wunderkind, set to cure the U.S.’ addiction to foreign oil, reduce the pollution caused by driving, and revitalize American agriculture and rural economies. In the intervening years, the problems evolved while ethanol remained, and today many question what the future of the sector might look like. Today the U.S. is facing a different set of challenges, particularly around climate change, and the search for a solution – perhaps a silver bullet – remains. Ag carbon markets look promising, and advocates and entrepreneurs are flocking to them in the hopes that saving the planet might be a lucrative endeavor. Might the history of ethanol, ag’s past environmental policy, offer insight on what might be ahead for carbon markets?
Ep 2: Origin Story
Corn alcohol has a long history as a fuel, going back well into the 19th century. Over time, it’s fallen in and out of favor, from being a pet project of Henry Ford’s to being outlawed during prohibition. By the 1970s, an oil crisis prompted farmers and lawmakers to take ethanol off the shelf, but it would languish until environmental concerns in the 1990s brought it back into the agricultural mainstream. Carbon markets are still very much experiencing their origin story, but by understanding how ethanol rose to prominence, we can gain a new understanding of what the next several years might look like for ag carbon markets.
Ep 3: Chosen One
Ethanol’s rise was fueled by the introduction of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). Often lost in debates about implementing RFS has been the motivation, political shuffling, and history of two historic pieces of legislation. How exactly did RFS come to be, and what can we learn as it applies to the voluntary programs proposed for carbon?
Ep 4: Chosen Too
Though the amount of enthusiasm and excitement around voluntary ag carbon markets might make you believe that we’ve already determined that it’ll be the best way to involve agriculture in climate action, it’s definitely not the only, and likely not the best solution out there. In fact, there are several ways policymakers could create or motivate change, with various carrots and sticks, in the way that agriculture operates. Adding to the complication, even within a general policy solution – such as carbon markets – there are many details and nuances about how the program works.
Ep 5: If You Build It, They Will Come
The Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) bolstered the market for corn-based ethanol, but also fueled a frenzy to build ethanol plants. Proposed plants got larger, building costs jumped higher, and a surge of potential projects created a regulatory and construction logjam. But just as fast as the mania turned red hot, the prospects of an even better technology and the ripples of the Great Recession shuttered projects that were years into planning.
Ep 6: Hitting the Wall
The goals of every policy are eventually tested in the real world. For ethanol, the challenges came in the form of the “blend wall,” which effectively capped the growth of this formerly booming sector. Even the best-designed policies will struggle to navigate conditions that were uncertain or difficult to predict when legislation was passed. For carbon, detecting those potential limits on future growth is critical, and making sure our eyes are open to the possible pitfalls in terms of policy and market growth that might be on the horizon.
Ep 7: Over Promised, Under Delivered
Just as corn-based ethanol production was surging to fulfill the mandates of the 2007 RFS, enthusiasm began shifting to the new kid on the block: cellulosic ethanol. With the help of the government – including mandated usage- the even better renewable fuel made from switchgrass, corn stover, or other biomass feedstocks was just around the corner, or so we thought. This raises important questions for carbon markets, what happens if the technologies needed, despite the enthusiasm and investments, don’t materialize?
Ep 8: Shift Happens
What happens when a demand shift pushes commodity prices and farm incomes higher? To answer this, we have to consider the short-run and long-run implications. Just as the challenges that ethanol faced evolved and shifted, so will the future of carbon and carbon markets.
Ep 9: Does Ethanol Have a Future?
From policy to electric vehicles, the future of ethanol is arguable as uncertain as it has ever been. Have the seeds for ethanol’s demise already been sown, or is the outlook less dire than it initially seems?
Ep 10: Corn Always Wins
For the final episode, Sarah, Brent, and David reflect on the season and key lessons. From biases to mental models, it’s important to consider how our own thought processes can impact our conclusions about ethanol and shape our expectations about carbon.