When small farms go solar

By , Rob Aiken is research assistant for the Small Farm Energy Project.

Jack Siemen's dry-land corn crop in central Kansas is in poor condition this year. The hog farmer has suffered drought conditions with temperatures soaring over 100 degrees for 34 days this summer. Though dry weather brought a rapid wheat harvest, the corn tassled and sybeans bloomed under stress conditions resulting in poor pollination.

Dave Tobias, a young farmer in central Nebraska, has run out of alfalfa for his 40-cow herd of beef cattle.

Drought hits farmers hard in these days of high overhead and operating expenses, according to Harold Rathje, director of the Greater Missouri Community Action Agency in Pierre, S.D. Farmers lack the reserve financial resources, and reliance on credit sources for operating expenses gains importance while vulnerability to rising costs increases.

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The concerns of Siemens, Tobias, and Rathje were shared by 125 farmers and others in the farm community attending a seminar on farm energy alternatives led by the Small Farm Energy Project, sponsored by the Center for Rural Affairs, and initially funded by the Community Services Administration. In the view of the energy project, the dependence on energy inputs accompanying farm expansion and specialization is a liability that farmers in the drought-prone plains can ill afford. As a recent Department of Agriculture publication, "Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming," indicates: "The intensive and highly mechanized agricultural technologies now utilized in our US agricultural production system have led to greatly increased productivity and labor efficiency, but also to a concomitant decrease in energy efficiency and to other concerns involving both farmers and the general public."

The project included 24 low-oncome farmers in Nebraska's Cedar County, exploring the impact of various energy alternatives on their productivity and income. Beginning in 1977, the full-time, grain-livestock farmers cooperating with the project have built their own solar energy devices and applied other energy innovations on their farms to reduce the impact of rising energy expenses on their operations. In a three-year period, cooperating farmers reduced energy consumption by 20 percent relative to a comparable group of 24 farms also keeping track of energy expenses and production levels.

The final report issued by the project indicates that small family farmers can reduce vulnerability anf protect their incomes by minimizing dependence on costly farm inputs. Though production levels remained consistent between the two groups of farms, each cooperating farmer spent an average of $1,138 less than record-keeping farmers in 1979, a difference of 17 percent.

In a time when farmers are encouraged to specialize in crop or livestock production, the report also indicates lowest energy expenses and highest incomes (relative to energy expenses) among the more diversified farmers.

Marty Kleinschmit, who operates a dairy, hog, and beef operation, explained his farm practices. "By depending on manure and a crop rotation of corn, oats and alfalfa, I maintain soil fertility without heavy reliance on commercial fertilizer and chemicals With a diversity of livestock I can respond to weather and market conditions quickly. I can either sell of feed out my calves and pigs depending on livestock prices and availability of feed."

This rationale was supported by David Gurr, head of the energy program of ACTION, a federal volunteer agency. In addition to other concerns, Mr. Gurr fears consumers may be held hostage by the growing number of agribusiness operations such as those producing hogs in factory-like confinement facilities. REliance on confinement hog production, said to increase vulnerability to disease, could lead to rapid price increases in the event of epidemic.

To support the small family farmer, ACTION has pooled resources with the Community Service Administration (CSA) and Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) to establish 17 small farm assistance projects in 17 states. By joining ACTION volunteers with rural outreach programs of CSA and the credit resources of FmHA, the projects may enhance farm stability by developing the problem-solving skills among small farmers which farmers cooperating with the Small Farm Energy Project in northeast Nebraska have demonstrated.

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