Renewable energy has become a key component of agriculture
Recently we were asked what energy has to do with agriculture and the answer is — everything. Agriculture relies on various forms of energy to power equipment, to heat and cool buildings from barns to greenhouses, to run fans in barns and silos, to light barns and pens, to run well pumps, to heat water, to run robotics, to electrify fences, to heat and refrigerate tanks, to manage manure, to plant, harvest, store and ship crops and commodities and more.In addition to the required energy to produce nutritious and affordable food, farmers and ranchers utilize energy to off-set expenses. Corn is grown to produce renewable energy in the form of ethanol. Natural gas is produced by manure digesters at dairies. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that biomass energy has the potential to provide as much as $20 billion in new income for farmers, ranchers and rural communities. Farmers and ranchers are also adding to their monthly income and helping to support their farming and ranching operations with wind and solar farms. They are doing this by either installing their own or leasing ground to renewable energy companies.
Renewable energy is just that — renewable, and so is agriculture. Windmills co-exist with farms and ranches, and so does solar. There will also always be a need to manage manure, and there is nothing better than turning manure into clean energy, clean water and nutrient-rich soil amendments. The bottom line is that renewable energy produced on farms and ranches can fuel the operation and become its own cash crop.
The USDA has recognized the synergy between agriculture and renewable energy and in response, has developed several programs including a matrix and a “Bioeconomy Tool Shed.” These tools help farmers and ranchers recognize and take advantage of renewable energy opportunities. The USDA website states:
“USDA has many programs to assist farmers, rural residents and the nation to respond to energy-related issues and opportunities. These range from basic scientific research to the development and commercialization of new technologies. From more efficient farming techniques, wind farms, and ethanol plants to biochemical and genomics research, USDA is deeply involved in and committed to the nation’s quest for energy security.”
According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, renewable energy projects on farms are a win-win for farmers and the environment. This organization has developed a program called, the Rural Energy for America Program, which provides grants and loans to farmers and rural businesses interested in making energy efficiency improvements as well as supporting the purchase of renewable energy systems.
On Sept. 21, 2023, Pen State University’s Extension published an article titled, “Harnessing Renewable Energy: A Sustainable Future for Farming.” This article focuses on the fact that “…one of the most accessible and widely adopted forms of renewable energy for farms is solar power.”
The Kleinman Center for Energy Policy published an article in 2020 titled, “Can Renewable Energy Benefit American Agriculture?” The opening statement reads as follows:
“The energy footprint of the American agricultural industry is considerable. But renewable energy systems have demonstrated benefits to farmers in terms of their profitability, sales, income streams and commercial resilience.”
“For a number of crops, energy inputs constitute a substantial proportion of farmers’ production costs, and fuel price volatility can cut into farm incomes and pose risks to the economic welfare of rural communities.”
Unfortunately, we are losing producers because it is becoming more and more difficult to make the business of feeding Americans a break-even proposition, let alone turn a profit. In today’s world, with expenses increasing from property taxes to inputs, and with the demand for affordable and nutritious food increasing, farmers and ranchers are having to become creative in their efforts to continue to produce food and to literally keep their lights on. When farms and ranches close up shop rural communities lose.
Opportunities to offer renewable energy as a cash crop create a pathway to an economically viable future for farms, ranches and rural communities.