Sustainable Intensification: Boosting Energy Efficiency

By Bruce Knight

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Even as conferees wrangle over the final provisions of the 2013 Farm Bill, I think it's vital for farmers and ranchers to be looking further down the road.  We need to concentrate today on maximizing production while minimizing inputs.  I've called the process of getting the most out of the resources you have “sustainable intensification.” 

Earlier this year, I stressed the need for research to help producers determine the best land-use strategies-such as planting cover crops and double-cropping.  We need help in identifying the best place to put our resources:  Can we get a better return by improving our best land or our less productive acreage?  I've also emphasized the importance of getting the most out of available water resources by improving irrigation systems and employing precision irrigation to make every drop of water count.

Lets Talk Food

As we look toward increasing production to feed a rising world population that is seeking a higher protein diet, another aspect of sustainable intensification is improving energy efficiency.  USDA offers a myriad of programs through Rural Development (RD) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to help farmers and ranchers use energy more efficiently.

A good beginning place is the energy audit which can help pinpoint potential savings in fuel use for cropping or electrical or propane use.  Even savings of one, two or three percent add up when you are buying diesel by the tanker load.  Last month when I toured dairy farms, one producer shared that an energy audit, which probably cost him $500 to $1,000, saved him $12,000!  How?  By uncovering the fact that he was being charged a residential rate rather than an agricultural rate for electricity for one of his milk barns. 

But energy audits are not just about saving fuel.  They can also identify ways to generate on-farm energy, whether through solar panels or anaerobic digesters.  It's unfortunate that the situation involving Solardyne has clouded the picture for others who legitimately want to move forward in producing energy on the farm.  On-farm energy generation through RD and NRCS programs offer real opportunities for real working farmers and ranchers across the country to produce power for their operations.  These programs should not be painted by the Tea Party and others with the same brush as inappropriate gifts to campaign contributors such as in the Solardyne scandal.

RD and NRCS energy programs provide real assistance to regular people who want to increase energy efficiency and boost energy production.  Under the Rural Energy for American Program (REAP), RD offers agricultural producers and rural small businesses loans and grants to help build renewable energy systems, improve energy efficiency and participate in energy audits and feasibility studies.  The NRCS on-farm energy initiative under its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) offers an on-farm energy audit and then provides cost-share assistance to help the producer implement recommended measures.  Some of the core practices in this effort include livestock lighting improvement, plate coolers for milk, heat exchangers, tillage management, irrigation improvement and cover crop planting.

I support reauthorization for both RD and NRCS energy efficiency improvement programs, and I encourage farm bill conferees to also provide full mandatory funding to ensure that producers and small rural businesses across the country have access to these programs.  We need to help producers improve energy efficiency today as part of the sustainable intensification in farming that will be essential tomorrow to help feed the world.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems

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