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Useful documents on sustainability of energy production from farms

July 16, 2008

Submitted by mkbomford on Wed, 2008-07-16 10:17.

I am impressed by a recently-released document called Clean Energy Farming: Cutting Costs, Improving Efficiencies, Harnessing Renewables (pdf). It recommends a holistic approach to small farmers that emphasizes energy conservation and the use of renewables such as sun and wind. Among other things, it highlights an innovative system that uses solar energy for on-farm fermentation and distillation of waste fruit. This publication, from the USDA-funded Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, is very much in the spirit of The Small Farm Energy Primer (pdf) released by Nebraska’s Center for Rural Affairs back in 1980. Both documents look to successful small farmers for real-life, small-scale solutions to energy constraints. It’s just a pity that it took 28 years, and a brand-new energy crisis, to get from one to the other.

In a less optimistic vein, The Community Food Security Coalition released a report late last year called Fueling Disaster: A Community Food Security Perspective on Agrofuels (pdf). It emphasizes the threat posed by industrial-scale biofuel production to food security, farm workers’ rights, community economic development, and the environment. A recent article by the Exectutive Director of Food First makes many similar points. Called Biofuels: The Five Myths of the Agro-fuels Transition, it casts light on the economic and environmental devastation associated with industrial biofuel production, and asserts that much-touted cellulosic ethanol technologies will not solve these problems.

All of these documents recognize that small farms and small-scale technologies can be more sustainable than large farms and industrial-scale technologies. The articles from the Community Food Security Coalition and Food First both call fuel produced from biomass on an industrial scale “agrofuel”. They distinguish between this and “biofuel”, which can include fuel grown and harvested sustainably on a small scale for the benefit of local communities. Agrofuels aren’t just environmentally and socially unsustainable: According to a program aired yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered, making ethanol from corn isn’t even profitable. Every increase in gas prices has been met by an even bigger increase in the price of corn. At a time of record fuel prices ethanol refineries are going broke.

Why are small farms better? Last month’s article Small is Bountiful, by George Monbiot, suggested it is because small farmers invest more labor in their land, making it more productive. Benefits that accrue to small farmers tend to be more equitably distributed than profits taken by industrial farms.

Michael Bomford provides research and extension services related to organic agriculture and small-scale renewable energy production through Kentucky State University’s Land Grant Program.

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