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Why going green is growing on U.S. farmers

April 26, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
The U.S. agriculture industry used enough energy in 2011 to power a state the size of Iowa for a year. Today, as renewable energy becomes cheaper and more accessible, many farmers are committed to going green, both as a means of cutting costs and for the sake of future generations. Harvest Public Media’s Grant Gerlock reports on how and why farmers are keeping fossil fuels out of the cornfield.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Even with advances in technology, farmers are continuing to look for ways to cut energy costs. Fuel and electricity are the main big-ticket items, but there are others.

From Harvest Public Media in Nebraska, Grant Gerlock looks at some of the many ways farmers are trying to keep fossil fuel usage down in the cornfield.

GRANT GERLOCK: Greg and Sandy Brummond live and work on their farm in Northeast Nebraska, just outside the town of Craig.

GREG BRUMMOND, Farmer: This is our shop that we do most of our repair work, and just literally about live up here for 10 hours a day, it seems like.

GRANT GERLOCK: This shop is the epicenter of the Brummond farm, and its energy use. With the lights, machinery for equipment repair and other implements, it uses more power than their home. In fact, sometimes, it is their home.

SANDY BRUMMOND, Farmer: We actually added an office and a kitchen. We don’t even have to go back down to the house. We can fully function up here.

GRANT GERLOCK: It’s like having your house on top of your shop and everything. It’s all that stuff that uses power that you would think of.

SANDY BRUMMOND: Oh yes, is in here.

GRANT GERLOCK: The shop and its high energy needs are why the Brummonds made a recent investment in solar energy.

GREG BRUMMOND: We have got 36 panels down there. The angle was good for the sun.

GRANT GERLOCK: These panels are capable of supplying 10 kilowatts, enough power for all those lights and machines in the shop. They were put up a few months ago by Graham Christensen, who runs a small business installing solar panels.

GREG BRUMMOND: Well, you can see even on today, which is a cloudy day outside, we’re still producing 506 watts of energy currently. We’d like to see it more up around that seven to 12 points.

GRANT GERLOCK: Christensen grew up on a farm in Burt County, not far from the Brummonds. Today, he’s back in the area with an electrician to survey another farm looking to cut energy costs.

KEVIN ANDERSON, Farm Owner and Operator: Down this side of the lane, we might put in some geothermal wells.

GRANT GERLOCK: Kevin Anderson would like to install enough solar panels to generate 25 kilowatts.

GRAHAM CHRISTENSEN, President, GC Resolve: Basically, with 25 kilowatts, it would get soaked up right into these buildings, this grain elevator, all the fans on the grain elevator. The dryer that they have connected there, I believe is electrical. And all the out-buildings around, and then as well as their home.

So, the energy that the solar panels would produce would just get sucked up right into this area right here.

GRANT GERLOCK: Federal tax credits and government grants are making renewable energy more affordable. Solar is the popular choice for farmers looking to cut energy expenditures.

According to a 2013 USDA report on agriculture and energy, 93 percent of farms that produce renewable energy use solar. Anderson wants to take advantage of the financial incentives while they are available, but that isn’t his only motivation.

KEVIN ANDERSON: It seems like, as you get a little older, you get a little more concerned about it, legacy we’re leaving our kids and what type of environment they’re going to live in, grandkids, their kids. I think it’s the right thing to do.

GRANT GERLOCK: Back on the Brummonds’ farm, they have got hopes of adding more panels and using less energy from the local utility, which generates power mostly from coal.

GREG BRUMMOND: And I flew over Gillette, Wyoming, and that’s where a lot of our coal comes from. And to get that perspective of looking over those humongous holes in the ground where the coal is taken out, I was like, wow, I wonder when this is going to run out.

GRANT GERLOCK: U.S. agriculture used around 1,600 trillion BTUs of energy in 2011, enough to power the energy needs for a state the size of Iowa or South Carolina for a year. Most of that energy is for direct uses, such as electricity for buildings or gasoline for tractors.

But farms also use a lot of a energy in indirect ways. For instance, farmers apply synthetic fertilizers containing nitrogen to keep plants healthy, allowing crops such as corn to show big yields every year. But most nitrogen fertilizer production comes from natural gas. After fuel for trucks and tractors, fertilizer is the second largest energy component on farms and one of the biggest expenses for farmers.

In Bladen, Nebraska, Keith Berns and his brother Brian have developed a business selling seeds for plants that can restore soil health and curb a reliance on synthetic fertilizers.

KEITH BERNS, Owner and Operator, Green Cover Seed: We can produce, you know, anywhere from 100 pounds to 200 pounds of nitrogen from a cover crop.

GRANT GERLOCK: What are cover crops, and why are they called that?

KEITH BERNS: Well, cover crops are basically crops that a farmer would plant in between periods of their normal cash crop. We’re taking that carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and we’re putting that carbon into the soil through the photosynthetic process. And that carbon that gets put into the soil is what becomes the immediate food source for all these microorganisms.

MAN: This is a winter oats. And I pulled up a chunk here just to show you the roots.

KEITH BERNS: Even without any scientific equipment, you can take a good, healthy soil, and you can smell it, and it just has that really good, earthy smell.

GRANT GERLOCK: Instead of yields above the ground, the Berns brothers point to a harvest taking place below the ground, carbon transferred from the atmosphere, nitrogen fixed in roots and in soil.

KEITH BERNS: This whole thing right here is very high in nitrogen. When it decomposes in the spring, it will release quite a bit of nitrogen for my next corn crop.

GRANT GERLOCK: With the right cover crops, farmers can grow more fertilizer for themselves, which means that much less needs to come from fossil fuels.

KEITH BERNS: There’s a lot of petroleum, a lot of oil needed to make any type of fertilizer. So any time we don’t need it to produce it, we don’t need it to haul it, we don’t need it to apply it if we can grow it naturally through a cover crop.

GRANT GERLOCK: For farmers across the country, finding energy savings from solar panels and cover crops means it could take fewer fossil fuels to get food to your dinner table.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Grant Gerlock in Bladen, Nebraska.

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