Several years ago, as fuel prices spiked and I read that up to half the expenses of the average U.S. farm can go toward energy, I decided to see how our farm compared. Our energy usage was only 5 percent of our total expenses, and that included two delivery trucks we ran about four days a week. At the time, we determined that diesel fuel could go up to $10 a gallon and we’d still be fine. Although we still use plenty of fuel, we’re consoled knowing we’ll be the last guy standing if everything falls apart.
While this difference in percentage doesn’t necessarily translate to profitability, it certainly does reflect a degree of resiliency. Reducing energy consumption and dependency offers numerous benefits. But how do we do it? Here are some strategic protocols.
1. Reduce feedstock transportation. You should never transport bulky feeds, such as hay, to your animals; instead, transport your animals to the hay. Ideally, we feed hay proximate to where we made it.
Many years ago, we outgrew our single barn and decided to build a second one. Orthodox thinking would put the new one near the old one, clustering the farm’s infrastructure to use existing roads, water lines, and power. But on our farm, all that farmstead infrastructure isn’t centrally located. As a result, we built the new barn toward the far end of the property.
That way, when we make hay, we have two options for storage, greatly reducing transport energy. In spring, when we spread the compost generated by that hay feeding, we have close fields to receive it. That further reduces run time.
Decentralized infrastructure, strategically located to reduce haul time, saves not only energy, but time as well. Multiple structures spread across the farm offer more storage and usage options.
2. Coordinate trips across the field. Trips with machinery are expensive. “Go loaded and come loaded” is a phrase we use all the time to plan our vehicle movements for greatest advantage. This is why our pastured poultry enterprises have on-board or proximate mobile feed storage.
By inventorying feed on-site, we can carefully plan refills for times when we need to go out anyway. Or, we can fill several feed boxes at a time. We can start, make a loop around the various containers, and return home. In the course of a year, saving 30 to 40 single-function trips and machinery startups adds up to energy savings.
One of the biggest energy uses on a farm is the notorious trip to town. How many errands can we run in the same trip? With conscious planning, can we drop trips to town from two a week to one a week? For us, this alone can save thousands of dollars a year in fuel costs.
3. Substitute human labor for machinery. On our farm, the most obvious example of this is our lightweight, highly mobile chicken shelters. The most common complaint about this model is that it takes labor to move the shelters. As a result, folks try to use garden tractors or front-end loaders, or design bigger shelters that require a tractor — anything to get away from human labor to pull the shelters along.
We have yet to find an alternative for using machinery that beats our human labor in time spent per chicken. When you add the cost of machinery, the trip to the field, the upkeep of the road, and the deterioration of multiple tracks across the field, substituting human labor for equipment can often pay big energy-savings dividends.
Numerous gardening techniques are beginning to make the conventional tiller obsolete. From Jean-Martin Fortier’s tarps to Paul Gautschi’s deep wood chips to ergonomically designed broadforks, many gardeners scarcely use gas-powered machinery anymore. Who needs an exercise bike when you can ride a broadfork for an hour? I love my broadfork; it’s a great workout, and it leaves behind the most beautiful soil bed in the world. If the soil is in good condition, you can cover a lot of ground in short order.
A couple of years ago, we experimented with bringing firewood in long lengths to the woodpile and cutting it there. Picking up the long lengths with the front-end loader forks, loading them onto a wood cart, unloading them, and then stumbling and tripping over the pile while cutting them up with the chainsaw — it’s actually more efficient to whack up the pieces in the woods and load them onto a trailer by hand. A dump trailer makes it even more efficient. Many times, a little sweat beats a machine; not always, for sure, but sometimes. Look for those sweet spots where hands can compete.
4. Pasture livestock. Keeping animals outdoors reduces the costs of hauling manure and ventilating structures. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) use enormous amounts of energy to run massive fans, haul manure, and heat buildings in winter. Pasturing eliminates all those elements and provides additional benefits, such as sanitation, fresh air, and exercise.
Certainly anyone with livestock will want to house them protectively from time to time. On our farm, chickens, rabbits, and pigs enjoy winter housing in hoop houses, each situated lengthwise west to east to capture westerly breezes. Rather than one or two huge structures, we have five smaller ones (30 by 120 feet) that are sized to operate with natural ventilation. If they were bigger, we couldn’t get enough airflow through them with natural flow.
Extending the grazing season through management intensity (moving animals every day or two) is the single biggest energy and cost saver with herbivores. In our area, the average farmer feeds hay for 120 days per year. Our average is 40 days per year. That’s a lot less hay we have to mow, rake, bale, store, and haul. Observant readers will notice a pattern developing here: What saves energy also generally saves time. The two go hand in hand.
5. Never haul water. Pipe is cheap. Pumps are cheap. Water is heavy. Many farmers spend accumulated days per year waiting for tanks to fill and ferrying water out to fields. I know. I used to do it too. Then, I discovered black plastic pipe. Wow, what a game changer!
Our farm now has 8 miles of 1-1/4-inch pipe crisscrossing and surrounding every field. Every 100 yards, a valve offers clean, pressurized water. With today’s technology, few can justify the energy required to move water in a tank.
One of the principles of permaculture is to locate buildings on high ground to capture roof runoff, and then use gravity to flow it to lower elevations. I don’t like wells, because they poke holes in the aquifer, and they start with water that must be pumped from inventory located far below the ground. On our farm, we’ve built ponds in valleys on high ground, and our 8-mile system enjoys gravity flow — no pumps, no electricity, no switches. As long as gravity works, the water runs. When gravity quits, I’m out of here.
How long does black plastic pipe last? Perhaps 200 years? Although plastic is made out of petroleum, the one-time energy cost is nothing compared with toting water day after day. Trust me, you’ll never regret installing pipe and parking the water buggy.
6. Let animals do the work. What can animals do that you’d normally use equipment to do? On our farm, the best illustration is turning compost with pigs. When we feed hay, we bed the cows with wood chips and junk hay, creating a fermenting anaerobic pile. As we add bedding, we also add whole shelled corn. When the cows return to pasture in spring, we turn in pigs. They seek the imbedded fermented corn, flinging the material as they dig. This aeration converts the pile to oxygenated compost without any machinery whatsoever.
Eliminating brush with goats rather than with machinery is another example. Debugging with chickens, guinea fowl, or ducks enables work to occur in a specific location without us having to be there. That means we don’t have to drive there.
7. Heat with wood. My house is heated with an outdoor wood-fired water stove. In fact, it heats Mom’s house too. That one unit saves us $10,000 in electricity and fuel oil each year. Some of the most money we save annually is by replacing purchased energy with our own homegrown solar collectors: trees. I agree with the homesteader who said that if the planet’s gasoline supplies dwindle to a gallon, it should go through a chainsaw.
For the record, I’m certainly in favor of solar panels, windmills, biogas, hydropower, and any other kind of alternative energy. But the quickest and most significant way to reduce petroleum-based energy on the farm is to simply use less energy, period. The more all of us can do that, the more wiggle room we’ll have to develop the alternatives. And the further those alternatives will go.
Joel is the author of nine books and lectures and speaks frequently about environmentally friendly farming practices. His books include Fields of Farmers: Interning, Mentoring, Partnering, Germinating; Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World; Everything I Want to Do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front; and The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer.