Since World War II, Midwestern farmers have been encouraged to use machinery, chemicals and government policies to ramp up crop and livestock production to feed the growing population and economy. But since then, many farmers have felt the harmful effects of this quantity-over-quality production model, and have started to investigate how to make their methods more sustainable.
During the past few decades, small organizations promoting sustainable agriculture have been popping up and banding together across the Midwest to create a patchwork of information, support and tools for those interested in taking part in the sustainable agriculture movement.
Groups like the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group and its lobbyist sister group the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition started promoting ideas of sustainable farming in 1988. The coalition is made up of farm, food, rural, religious and conservation organizations that work together to advance grassroots sustainable agriculture perspectives within the Department of Agriculture.
Other organizations, like the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service and the Foundation for Agricultural and Rural Resources Management & Sustainability, provide resources, create programs and host conferences and workshops for communities and farmers interested in sustainability. MOSES hosts one of the largest annual farming conferences in the country (in my hometown of La Crosse, Wis.), provides an organic farming directory, and supports a host of educational projects to support farmers who want to transition from traditional to organic farming.
Information providers, like the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA), offer farmers a database of searchable success stories and informational links about how farms are choosing to invest in renewable energy and in efficient machinery that saves water, conserves fuel and protects the soil.
Under success stories, ATTRA lists Wisconsin farms Deer Ridge Farm in Nelsonville and the Tinedale Farm in Wrightstown. Each has recently installed anaerobic digesters, a machine that turns biodegradable waste into electricity. These farms report that they are now creating so much energy, that they're able turn a profit by selling their surplus power back to the grid -- now creating a mutually beneficial production model. ATTRA hopes that success stories like these will encourage other farmers to try producing renewable energy on their own land.
The work of world changing organizations like these helps show farmers and other community members that new ideas and technologies concerning sustainable agriculture can not only reduce harm to our environment, but can also help them reduce energy costs and improve their own economic conditions.
According the Union of Concerned Scientists fact sheet on Renewable Energy and Agriculture, tripling U.S. use of biomass energy could provide as much as $20 billion in new income for farmers and rural communities, and reduce global warming emissions by the same amount as taking 70 million cars off the road.
Solar and wind power are two other renewable energy solutions that are helping farmers and our environment. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists:
Solar heat collectors can be used to dry crops and warm homes, livestock buildings, and greenhouses. Solar water heaters can provide hot water for dairy operations, pen cleaning, and homes. Photovoltaics (solar electric panels) can power farm operations and remote water pumps, lights, and electric fences.
Wind energy alone could provide 80,000 new jobs and $1.2 billion in new income for farmers and rural landowners by 2020. Each turbine uses less than half an acre, so farmers can plant crops and graze livestock right next to the turbine's base. Some farmers have also purchased wind turbines; others are starting to form wind power cooperatives.
Farmers generating and using renewable energy creates a win-win situation that is just the tip of the iceberg for the Midwest sustainability revolution. When I imagine a bright green future for my childhood home, I can see myself traveling back to Wisconsin from Seattle on a high-speed, zero-emissions public transportation system (like France’s TGV). I can see wind turbines slowly spinning above the fields and small-scale farmers working together to share in creating methane digestors to power their farms and neighboring towns. I see fewer acres of cropland being used by megacorporations for things like corn syrup production, and more communities buying their food straight from local farmers.
I see vibrant sustainable communities, working together to create a local food and energy economy.
What do you see?
No-Till: How Farmers Are Saving the Soil by Parking Their Plows
- Scientific American, July 2008
Does a methane digester necessitate feedlot farming? Otherwise, how do you efficiently get the manure into the digester? If you're driving around a front end loader to gather it up and put it in there, what does that do to your energy return on investment? Also, I'd like to mention a huge opportunity that is usually overlooked in combustion processes--cogeneration. If you're burning methane to produce steam to run a turbine or burning it in an internal combustion engine to drive a generator, there is plenty of extra heat available and it is usually wasted. That heat can be used to heat water for all kinds of uses (to supplement the solar thermal system) without burning any extra methane or impacting electricity production.
As the WorldChanging crew often points out, biomass gasification is also a very promising emerging technology to provide electrical and thermal energy and biochar. Biochar, when applied to fields and combined with other sustainable practices, prevents the use of natural gas to synthesize fertilizer and petroleum products to synthesize biocides. It also results in less water use for the same yield and greater resistance to pests and disease.
Farms are exciting blank slates for ecological design. They use most of society's available water and have vast energy-production potential. Let's get started!
As mentioned in the previous comment, there are considerable opportunities for synergies. To elaborate upon a few other possibilities.
If you are biodigesting animal manure, using the spent waste from that process as fertilizer is certainly an option. The biodigestion process eliminates a large percentage of potential pathogens in the waste.
There have been pilot projects, particularly in Asia, where spent biodigester waste has been integrated into aquaculture. Farms utilize the waste to stimulate the growth of algae for fish to feed upon. The pools are subsequently drained and used for irrigation since the water has been infused with nutrients from the fish waste.
Similarly some waste biomass is used as a mushroom substrate, which can then be utilized as animal feed after mushrooms have been produced. Integrating these systems not only reduces eutrophication improving water quality around animal feedlots, but also helps diversify the farm economy reducing potential shocks from food price fluctuations.
Sustainability is indeed coming to the midwest. One project (mine) is a facility which will incorporate two commercial size greenhouses with a Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS) into an "aquaponic" system which will produce organic vegetables and "organic" fish (the quotes are there because the rules for calling fish "organic" have not been finalized). The facility will get most of its power needs from biomass and solar energy, and the manure from the fish will be easily routed to field crops. The fish will be fed insect larvae which will be grown using food waste from the local community.
A primary goal of the facility will be to instruct others in this "industrial permaculture" concept, and to spread it as far and wide as possible. To that end we will host interns from all over the world, and have an online educational division.
Anyone interested in learning more about this facility, which will be in southern Illinois about 90 miles east of St Louis, feel free to email me at aquaponicdave(at)gmail(dot)com. We are currently taking investor inquiries for the second phase of construction, a full description of the facility and opportunities to invest will be online soon at SynergyFish.com