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National Meeting on Energy Efficiency in Agriculture
Farmers, experts plot strategies for conservation and generation at meeting sponsored by the National Center for Appropriate Technology.

4/21/97: Reducing dependence on fossil fuels in agriculture and exploring the role of renewable energy sources on farms were the main topics at a recent meeting in Minneapolis of invited farmers and energy experts from around the country. The March 17-18 gathering, "On-Farm Energy Strategies for Sustainability," was sponsored by the non-profit National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and the University of Minnesota's Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.

"The dependency of America's food production system on fossil fuels was a hot topic for a couple of years when fuels were in short supply in the late '70s," said NCAT Executive Director Ron Kroese. "But it has pretty much fallen off the plate as an issue over the past decade, even though our dependence on foreign oil has increased. We believe this is a risky situation for Americans in general and farmers in particular."

Kroese said the Minneapolis meeting was the first step in what NCAT hopes will be an on-going effort to raise the issue among farmers and the public, and to begin dealing with the problem from the local level on up. "We could think of no better way to get the effort started than by bringing together a group of farmers committed to sustainability to discuss the energy concerns on their own farms and begin to plan for implementing on-farm approaches to reducing dependence on oil."

To kick off the discussion, participants heard from speakers on a variety of subjects including:
  • A review of the private and public efforts that have occurred over the past 15 years to promote energy efficiency and renewables on farms.
  • A talk by North Dakota ecological farmer Fred Kirschenmann on farmer-based initiatives to add value to agricultural commodities at the local community level.
  • A presentation by Roger Blobaum about the Small Farm Energy Project, a Nebraska-based initiative he directed that demonstrated a variety of farmer-built conservation and renewable energy innovations in the late '70s and early '80s.
Blobaum, now associate director of the World Sustainable Agriculture Society, pointed out that the on-farm working demonstrations, such as solar grain dryers and passive solar wall units for farm homes, brought significant savings in energy and dollars to the farms involved, noting it could provide a model for a similar effort today.

The meeting also featured a workshop on the implications for family-sized farms of the upcoming restructuring of the electric utility industry. Speaker Michael Noble, executive director of Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy, noted that while increased competition in the utility industry could mean increased opportunities for farmers to generate and sell electricity on their farms, it likely will result in bigger electric bills for farmers.

Restructuring probably will mean lower energy costs for big energy customers with smaller businesses like farms getting stuck with higher rates, unless they can join together in groups and cooperatives to purchase power, Noble said.

The meeting ended with the three dozen participants agreeing to work together in several areas, all aimed improving energy efficiency and increasing the use of renewable energy on farms. Kroese noted that NCAT will focus its efforts on three fronts:
  • Revitalizing a plan originally developed by the Carter administration aimed at making U.S. agriculture energy self-sufficient within two decades.
  • Organizing a network of farms demonstrating innovations in energy efficiency and sustainable power generation, starting in the Upper Midwest.
  • Stimulating a discussion among public and private sector funders on farm energy issues in the next three years.
For more information on the conference and its outcomes, contact: Al Kurki, NCAT, 4308 Jim Town Road, Helena, MT 59601. Phone: (406) 475-3729 Email: akurki@desktop.org

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