Being a “green” farmer used to mean that you were something of an outsider in the industry – that you almost couldn’t operate on a scale above the small family farm. Not so much anymore.
As producers look to increase their yields in a marketplace where equipment and fuel costs can vary wildly from year to year, science is showing us that there are consistent gains to be made. The days of relying on observations of field conditions and throwing water and fertilizer on top of seeds (and hoping that the mix is correct) are swiftly passing by. Thanks to new tech trends, the modern farm is getting smarter, leaner, and cleaner. Farmers are now able to micromanage their crops, reading nutrient levels in the soil through sensors while deciding if the three-day weather forecast offers a reason to skip the next costly round of irrigation.
Armed with such specific information, farmers are more in control of their own success than ever before. Risk is still a heavy factor in the business, but efficient practices will be the key to farmers keeping more “green” in their wallets.
Finding the Energy
A free-stall heifer barn with 720 photovoltaics (solar panels) at Brubaker Farms in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. Solar power can help to reduce a farm’s electricity costs, and with government incentives and a steady decrease in the cost of solar equipment, such renewable energy systems are more affordable than ever. Credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung
Farms have some of the longest history of putting renewable energy to work. The classic wind-powered water pump is a staple of old-time rural imagery, squeaking and turning and letting nature do the work. But the last decade has seen the windmill transform into something completely different, as industrial-scale windmills have cropped up across the country. Farmers started leasing small sections of land to help utility companies generate clean energy. Now, many farmers are seeing another generation of sustainable power come online – this time, harvesting the electrons for themselves with solar panels.
Depending on the type of farm, electricity can be one of the largest annual operating costs. Irrigation systems, barn lighting, and automatic milking systems are just a few of the processes that keep the electric meter spinning. But government incentives combined with the steadily decreasing cost of solar equipment have made the technology accessible to family-scale farms.
The average cost of solar panels has gone from $76.67 per watt in 1977 to just 61 cents per watt today, according to Seth Pepper of Agriculture Energies (www.agriculturesolar.com). “The cost of electricity from solar panels is now lower than the cost of retail electricity for most people,” Pepper said.
Agriculture Energies helps farmers plan and install solar and other renewable energy systems on their properties. Using an energy audit, it estimates how much output the farm will need and consults with the farmer about which systems to install. According to the menu of services offered by Agriculture Energies, jobs can range from installing solar power on a single irrigation pump to creating a system that can power an entire dairy operation.
“One kick that we get out of this new way of powering is to see the reaction when a farmer goes from a large 100-HP generator to the silent power of a solar-powered pump,” said Pepper. It’s a big difference compared to the sound of a diesel generator echoing through a valley.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers loans and grants for sustainable energy development on farms through the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP).
The company offers a few different plans that include complete purchase and installation of the energy systems or equipment leases. With either one, farmers are able to avoid the fluctuation of traditional energy costs. They will, however, continue to be connected to the electrical grid to help supplement power needs. On the other hand, if the system is generating more electricity than required, most utility companies offer energy buyback programs that use meters to record how much energy the solar panels are putting back into the electrical grid.
“We have systems that will pay for themselves in two to three years. The challenge for solar ias that if it is a cash purchase, the cost is all up front,” said Pepper, although upward of 70 percent of the purchase price can be reduced from tax incentives. Farm banks offer resources for low-interest loans to farmers and ranchers. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers loans and grants for sustainable energy development on farms through the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). Once the system is paid off, it is effectively producing free energy, and today’s solar panels are designed to last between 25 and 50 years.
“Solar products are reliable,” said Pepper. “What I would recommend is that you find a developer that you can form a long-term relationship with. What some people will do is buy the product and say that someone on the farm or ranch already can install them. This can create unnecessary risk. Take the time to hire people who do this for a living. … Make sure that you are with people you can trust.”
Better Planting and Nutrient Retention
A field planted using Precision Planting’s vSet Select multi-hybrid planter, which enables farmers to efficiently plant two different types of seed in a single row without having to manually switch from one seed type to another. Credit: Image courtesy of Precision Planting
Farming greener means getting the most yield out of your land with the least amount of irrigation and fertilizers. That means using the right seed hybrids in the correct locations of fields. This year is unique in that it’s the first time farmers will have the opportunity to really start customizing how their fields are planted, thanks to the arrival of automated multi-hybrid planters.
The technology allows one machine to plant two types of seeds in different parts of the same row. Think of it like turning a planter into a giant dot-matrix printer that works its way across hundreds of acres. The farmer – working with an agronomist – pre-programs a map of the field into the planter’s computer, selecting the best type of seed hybrid for the variations in soil quality, moisture, or sunlight. During the seeding process, the planter uses GPS to track its location and which seeds to place in the soil. To replicate this without the automated technology, an operator would have to constantly stop the planter to manually switch from one seed type to another.
Precision Planting released the vSet™ Select hybrid system, which is a retrofit for a variety of existing planters and brands. On the other hand, the Kinze® Multi-Hybrid system is designed specifically for its newer 4900 Series planter.
The technology is new, but 2013 South Dakota State University tests showed multi-hybrid planters do improve yield. “On average … the variable-hybrid plots yielded 5.1 more bushels per acre than did the same hybrids planted as single lines across the landscape,” the study found in a corn test. It also saw increases in yield on plots testing soybean crops. And last year, manufacturers ran tests of their own to hone the equipment and software. 2015 will be the year for early adopters, but expect to see smarter seeding become the norm as farmers look to maximize production.
This year is unique in that it’s the first time farmers will have the opportunity to really start customizing how their fields are planted, thanks to the arrival of automated multi-hybrid planters.
Another technology to improve field performance is coming out of Mississippi State University. The university has been conducting research to help reduce water and nutrient runoff at lowland farms. The initial goal was to reduce the amount of soil and nutrient loss to local waterways that eventually drain into the Gulf of Mexico, creating algae blooms known as dead zones. Some of the farmers experimented by re-grading portions of their lands in ways that would redirect runoff into retention ponds instead of streams.
A tailwater recovery system, which catches runoff from fields for reuse in a farm irrigation system, in place on a Mississippi farm. The REACH program at Mississippi State University works with farmers to develop plans like this tailwater recovery system to enable them to use water in their operations more efficiently. Credit: Photo courtesy of Mississippi State University REACH Program
Farmers are able to capture the majority of water that falls on their land (along with the nutrients and fertilizer) that would have washed away and re-use it for irrigation. The findings come from the university’s Research and Education to Advance Conservation and Habitat (REACH) program. Partnering with theUSDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and state organizations, REACH works one-on-one with famers to develop plans to keep rainfall on agricultural lands. So far, 40-plus farms representing more than 126,000 acres have signed on for the program – with a waiting list. Some farmers are reporting reduced costs because they pump less water from the aquifer and reduced fertilizer usage. The program has also reported improved crop yields.
Though some of the practices in Mississippi might not work in other parts of the country with differing topography, more research-based programs like REACH are starting to show up in states like Idaho and Ohio. Their goals are to reduce nitrogen levels in local waterways; that translates to keeping soil and nutrients on farmlands. Conservation upgrades like these may be eligible for financial assistance through the NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Smart Irrigation: Less Is More
Merely spraying water onto plants used to qualify as good irrigation, but research in recent years found that there are immense gains in efficiency – unbelievably obvious ones – to be made with the integration of some rather basic technology. The problem has not been a mistake on the part of farmers, rather their irrigation systems have been stuck in the 1950s. Smarter systems are being developed at every scale, from nursery farms up to large fields.
Water woes and droughts are no longer a problem of just the West. Even the Southeast – a much wetter area – has started to become the subject of water consumption lawsuits. And USDA reports have shown this region to be witnessing the largest increases in irrigation demand nationwide. Every gallon that doesn’t get pumped onto a field equates to savings (electrical costs) in a farmer’s pocket, and it means more water is staying in local waterways and aquifers. Most important, proper irrigation means better crop yields, because overwatering can be just as harmful to crops as underwatering.
For starters, many new field irrigation systems will be using longer drop hoses to spray water – at lower pressure – closer to the soil. Research at the University of Georgia’s (UGA) College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences has shown that older systems that watered the entire plant, instead of just the ground, needed much more water to achieve proper soil moisture. Properly maintained systems with longer drop hoses and controls to keep water inside the field reduced water consumption by up to 20 percent.
Merely spraying water onto plants used to qualify as good irrigation, but research in recent years found that there are immense gains in efficiency – unbelievably obvious ones – to be made with the integration of some rather basic technology.
New variable flow nozzles have turned watering into more of a precision process than ever. Farmers are able to program their irrigators to turn off when they reach places on the farm that don’t need to be watered. For instance, the system can be set to shut off flow to the nozzles as they pass over farm roads, ponds, or patches of fallow ground.
Now, with the integration of moisture sensors, irrigation is becoming smarter every year. “It’s giving growers a plant’s-eye view of what they need,” stated Paul Thomas, Ph.D., a horticulture researcher and professor with UGA Extension, in a press release about studies in efficient sensing technologies in nursery settings. “Since plants can’t talk, these sensors can tell us what they need.” The study showed that by using sensors on a few sample plants in each of the nurseries’ different crops, managers were able to drastically reduce the amount of water being applied by the system. Less water also means less fungicide and healthier plants, which equates to lower costs and higher crop output.
Researchers from that nationwide study estimate that when calculating the improved crops and reduced costs in water, fertilizer, pesticides, and fungicide, new irrigation systems with smarter datalogging would likely pay for themselves within the first year. That same sort of technology is reaching the field scale. With enough sensors properly placed, farmers can see exactly how much water their crops really need.
The next big gains in water management will come from weather prediction. Free systems like the SmartIrrigation Apps help farmers develop irrigation plans for various crops; for instance, SmartIrrigation offers four different apps for citrus, strawberry, and cotton crops as well as for “Urban Lawn.” The goal is to help farmers avoid running their irrigation systems if rain is in their future – or worse, running their systems while the rain is actually falling. More and more, watering will become a matter of using a tablet computer than actually turning valves.
As farms continue to develop, economics will favor producers who can produce more with less water, the right plants, less fertilizer, and lower energy costs. It pays to work green.