Statement to House Agriculture Committee On Energy Saving Innovations Of Small Farmers | 1977

Statement of Roger Blobaum, Roger Blobaum & Associates
to the Subcommittee on Family Farms, Rural Development, and Special Studies, House Agriculture Committee, Washington, DC
May 24, 1977

Mr. Chairman, I am appearing today as principal investigator of the Small Farm Energy Project, a national research and demonstration project sponsored by the Center for Rural Affairs at Walthill, Nebraska, and funded by the Community Services Administration.  We appreciate this opportunity to discuss our alternative energy project, which involves 50 low-income farm families in Cedar County in northeast Nebraska, and to comment on the prospects for adoption of energy-saving innovations by smaller fulltime farmers.

Although less than 4 percent of the nation’s total energy budget is consumed in agricultural production, this is an area where important energy-saving changes must occur.  These changes are essential because agriculture has become increasingly energy-intensive and farmers and ranchers, even those with smaller operations, are highly vulnerable to energy shortages and price increases.

Agricultural producers consume large amounts of propane for space heating and grain drying, of nitrogen fertilizer made from natural gas, of fuel oil for space heating, and of gasoline and diesel fuel for operating tractors and other machines.  All of these products come from oil and gas, rapidly-disappearing nonrenewable resources, and it is this fact that lends urgency to the need to begin making changes that will permit agriculture to become less dependent on fossil fuels and more reliant on renewable energy sources.

Experience with the project thus far indicates farmers can, and will, respond to this need if they are given some encouragement and if they have access to technical assistance.  Although considerable energy-saving technology is available, agricultural producers still have difficulty obtaining either the hardware or the technical assistance that will enable them to use it.  A farmer or rancher still is unable to go to the local farm supply store and buy a methane digester, or a solar grain dryer, or a machine to turn compost, or a wind generator large enough to meet his electric power needs.  Yet all these things can be made without too much difficulty by innovative individuals and many are being used on farms.

The Small Farm Energy Project is designed to show how close a group of 25 low-income farm families can come in a 3-year period to making their farming operations self-sufficient in energy.  It also will attempt to show that this can be done without reducing total production.  The project assumes that reducing the vulnerability of low-income farmers to increasing energy costs will enhance their financial situation and that this enhancement will become greater as energy costs rise and further shortages develop.

The energy innovations involved include generation of electricity from wind power; pumping water with wind power; solar crop drying; solar heating of milking parlors and other livestock facilities; producing methane gas from anaerobic digestion of animal wastes; composting organic wastes from the farm and applying the compost as fertilizer; applying municipal, feedlot and food processing wastes to land as fertilizer; insulating farrowing barns and other livestock facilities; adopting minimum tillage methods, and farming without chemicals in rotations that include nitrogen-fixing legumes and applications of manure and other wastes.

All of these energy-saving innovations are of proven technological vaiue and some, like rotating crops and applying manure, are part of long-standing farm technology.  They are innovations in the sense that they are not part of current standard management practices.  Many of them are theoretically feasible for farm operations but have never been tested on working family-type farms.  Few have been tested for their adaptability to small farm operations and none have been tested for their impact on the incomes of low-income farmers.

The project calls for studying two groups, made up of 25 fulltime farmers each, from one rural county.  One group is the cooperators, who are being given technical and other assistance in adopting a wide range of energy-saving innovations.  This assistance includes a small amount of cost sharing of outlays for purchased equipment and for lumber, hardware, and other materials needed to construct and install energy-saving projects. The other 25 farmers make up the control group and its only involvement is providing extensive economic and energy-use data.

It was suggested at the beginning that we would never find 25 low-income farmers in one rural county who would be willing to become involved in a project of this kind.  We weren’t certain that we could do this because it had never been attempted before. After issuing one press release, holding two public meetings, and sending out letters to about 150 farmers suggested by local lending institutions, however, we ended up in about three weeks with 70 applications.  This convinced us that farmers are much more interested in saving energy than is generally assumed.

Although the farms in the two groups are not paired on a one-to-one basis, the two groups have been carefully matched on an aggregate basis.  Average farm size in both groups is 357 acres, with an average of 239 acres of cropland in the cooperator group and 241.1 acres in the control group, and the farms in both groups had average gross sales last year of about $31,000.  All have strong livestock programs that emphasize hog production and dairying.

The total number of family members in the cooperator group is 124, one less than the 125 persons living on control group farms.  This comparison is important because the project deals with household energy consumption as well as energy consumed directly in agricultural production.  Project data collected for 1976 shows the two groups are well matched in terms of energy use and in the number and kinds of household appliances, power tools, tractors, and other machinery.

Work with the cooperators began last December with a series of seven all-day workshops, an educational effort involving energy experts from six Midwest states.  Included were architects, engineers, agronomists, and others working on energy-saving innovations at universities, on farms, and for private companies. The workshops emphasized such well-known alternative sources of energy as solar, methane, and wind.  They also covered such things as minimum tillage, crop rotations, windmill repair, efficient use of fertilizer, gravity ventilation of hog units, wood stoves, manure handling, tractor maintenance, composting, and weatherization.  All farm homes in the cooperator group that needed it were weatherized.

The cooperators now are working with the staff and several energy consultants on preliminary plans and cost estimates for a long list of projects.  The emphasis is on those that are home-made, that can utilize some used materials, and that can be built by farmers working together.  This is aimed at reducing investment of scarce capital in ready-made technology, at keeping labor costs low, and at helping farmers become as self-reliant as possible.

This is the preliminary list of 91 projects under consideration for the first year (all will not pan out in 1977 but this shows how the cooperators have responded thus far):  solar home heating, 10; solar heating of farm buildings, 10; solar grain drying, 2; solar heating of water, 5; wind generation, 3; composting manure, 11; insulating farm buildings, 13; windmill repair or replacement, 10; heating with wood, 7, and minimum tillage, 3.

Among the first home-made projects being costed out are two solar grain drying units, which apparently will cost the farmers involved between $500 and $600 each, and three solar heating units for farrowing houses.  The grain drying units will be mounted on steel bins with storage capacity of about 5,000 bushels each. It appears that the farrowing house units, designed for buildings large enough for 15 to 20 sows, will cost around $1,500 each.

Although the project’s work plan has been followed during its first eight months without difficulty, it is still too early to tell how well the farmers involved will do in cutting energy costs and making their operations less vulnerable to shortages. We are convinced, on the basis of our experience thus far, that farmers would try a lot of new energy-saving approaches if they had more encouragement and assistance. We also have some general observations that might be helpful to you.

One involves the need to modify lending policies of the Farmers Home Administration.  This became apparent when the agency turned down a loan for a cooperator’s dairy barn construction project because it included a solar space and water heating unit.  Although the farmer was receiving about $1,000 in cost-sharing from the Small Farm Energy Project for the solar unit, he was told that it still was not economically feasible.  The cooperator involved had considered this his major energy-saving project for the year.

We are disappointed for two reasons.  One is that this opportunity to build two energy-saving innovations into a farm building apparently has been lost.  The other is the dampening effect this will have on other farmers who were considering solar applications in projects involving FHA financing.  We would urge you to do what you can to make this lending agency, which is so important to low-income farmers, a genuine partner in the adoption of energy-saving innovations on farms.

Another cooperator was turned down when he explored the possibility of hooking a wind generator into the local rural electric cooperative system.  This would have made it possible to put electricity into the system when it was not needed on the farm, an approach that may be important in the future.  The spokesman for the cooperative stated that it had to purchase all of its electricity from the Nebraska Public Power District and could not become involved in such an arrangement.  We would urge you to encourage rural electric cooperatives to work more closely with farmers who acquire wind generators.

It also has been our observation that a lot of good work is underway at colleges and universities on energy-saving innovations but that this technology is not getting out to the farmers.  We would suggest that it is more important to get some of these innovations out on farms than to work on them until the best design or the most efficient system is developed.  We also feel that much more should be done to help farmers, especially low-income operators, who are interested in building some of these systems for themselves.

Mr. Chairman, you asked a witness during last week’s hearings what the farm of the next century should look like.  We have seen suggestions that the modern farm of the next century will feature climate-controlled high-rise buildings filled with poultry and livestock, irrigated field’s covered with huge plastic domes, and crops planted and harvested with computer-operated machines. These things may be technologically possible but it would be unwise, to say the least, to move toward industrialized production systems that are even more energy-intensive than those we have now.

It is time to begin making American agriculture less dependent on nonrenewable energy sources and to move as fast as possible to develop a production system that conserves fossil fuel energy and utilizes solar and other renewable sources.  This kind of system will be much more sound, both economically and ecologically, than what we have now and it is the only kind of system that will endure.  Our experience thus far leads us to suggest that farmers are ready to begin moving in this direction.  We would urge you to do all you can to influence government agencies to help them do it—or at the very least to assure that these agencies do not stand in the way of this sensible and necessary change.

Statement of Roger Blobaum, Roger Blobaum & Associates
to the Subcommittee on Family Farms, Rural Development, and Special Studies,
House Agriculture Committee
Washington, DC
May 24, 1977


R. Blobaum, Statement to the Subcommittee on Family Farms, Rural Development, and Special Studies, House Agriculture Committee, Washington, DC. May 24, 1977

Summary: Small Farm Alternative Energy Project, which involves 50 low-income farm families in Cedar County in northeast Nebraska, and comments on the prospects for adoption of energy-saving innovations by smaller fulltime farmers.