How Energy Farms Work
Energy Farms grow food, but are also net producers of energy. They can operate at a range of scales, and use a mix of ancient and new crops and technologies.
Less than a century ago most farms were net energy producers; today US farms consume more energy than they produce, and our food system as a whole consumes 7.3 calories of energy for every calorie we eat. In the face of declining fossil fuel stocks, members of the Energy Farms Network are dedicated to relearning how to put food on our plates in a way that produces more energy from renewable sources than we consume from nonrenewable sources.
The Energy Farms Network includes farmers, gardeners, and researchers sharing their experiments with mixed food and energy production systems through a blogs, web-casts, vidoes, and other emerging media.
The various Energy Farms projects are guided by a clear set of priorities intended to steward the Earth, promote social equity, and foster local food and energy security.
Production: Food First
- Grow food for local consumption
The program aims to generate toolsets, methods, and discourse that will prove useful to groups and communities that want to maintain food security in a post petroleum context. Additionally, the program provides data related to the true cost of food without chemicals, excessive transport, or subsidy.
- Improve the soil
The soil is the farm’s greatest resource. If intensive vegetable and grain cultivation are expected, then an equally intensive compost system is required to secure the fertility of the land. When possible the Energy Farm Program makes use of marginal land to grow energy crops and works to revitalize soil with cover cropping, reduced tillage, and compost.
- Trade locally
In addition to growing food, Energy Farms produce commodities that support other farms. They generate items of legitimate value and are cornerstones of local commerce.
Minimize Energy Inputs
- Use muscle power
Before cheap oil drastically influenced agriculture practice in the early to mid 20th century, most agricultural work was performed by muscle power (i.e. human, horse, ox, mule). Agricultural systems that rely on cheap, imported fuel are vulnerable to inflation in energy prices and may not be able to sustain current yields or operation. The Energy Farm program realizes that there is a need for more farms at a smaller scale. These farms must be able to produce consistent reliable forms of food and energy without relying on fossil fuel, heavy machinery, or petroleum based chemicals.
- Use appropriate technology that saves fuel, labor and time
Farmers are famous for improvising tools that meet the needs of specific farm tasks. Likewise, the Energy Farm program is developing tools and assembling toolsets that will meet specific needs of farmers in order to them help cultivate and process farm-based commodities in a post petroleum era. Society cannot afford to revert to primitivism and we must use our historical vantage point to integrate useful methods from past as we experiment with new tools to build the future.
- Use renewable energy on the farm
Food and energy are interconnected and it is imperative that farm infrastructure be powered by renewable energy technology to produce consistent reliable food and energy. Some farm tasks require more energy than a team of laborers can perform and must look for ways to power the tools that has made modern agriculture so productive. Wind turbines and solar panels, ethanol and biodiesel, each have their place in an agricultural system that uses heavy machines only when necessary.
- Prioritize using local labor, energy, materials, capital, and biomass for farm activities
One of the surest ways to build your community is to invest locally in people, projects, and programs that are working toward a common goal of stewardship and sustainability. When groups derive their resources locally they are likely to be less vulnerable to resource scarcity concerns. Energy Farms are built to rely on as few outside imports as possible, and in some instances, even go as far as to grow their own organic fertilizer on site.
- Develop relationships with local buyers of farm goods and providers of farm needs
An Energy Farm is of no use in isolation. Farm members participate in the community discourse and integrate themselves into many facets of the community in order to assist and be assisted by as many people as possible. Local organic restaurants, farmers markets, the Grange, welders and fabricators, master gardeners, universities, other non-profits, and permaculture guilds are all important connections for the Energy Farm because they provide an outlet for produce and a maintain a web of material and intellectual support.
- Promote “relocalization” practices:
- Revitalization of co-ops supporting community supported manufacturing and agriculture
- Co-op acquisition of small threshing machines for cereal and oilseed processing or micro hydro turbines for electricity
- Creation of local waste management systems to collect food scraps to be converted to compost, biogas, and livestock feed.
- Collect data on all farm production, including energy inputs, labor inputs, growing conditions, and yields
Record-keeping allows comparisons between systems and technologies.
- Develop scientifically robust research programs to determine optimal local practices for food and energy production
Findings are only meaningful if they are reproducible. Collaborate with people trained in experimental design. Ideally, research will have untreated controls, and treatments will be replicated, and randomly assigned.
- Share and collaborate
Energy Farm researchers share information through new media, including blogs, videos, and web presentations. These new media can make preliminary research results available to a broader audience, but they do not replace the peer-reviewed journal articles that researchers use to share information. Preliminary results should be viewed critically. Interactive technology, including blog comments, can help shape research in progress to ensure it is meaningful and conclusions are valid. Readers should approach material posted to the Energy Farms blog as critical collaborators, not passive consumers.