Mike Bomford, a professor at Polytechnic University in the Department of Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, researches alternative energy systems on farms, both in Canada and the United States. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Canada must phase out the use of fossil fuels. Though the agriculture industry does not contribute a large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions, Bomford says there are opportunities for BC farmers to make an impact. “We could eliminate fossil fuels from farming and still have a very greenhouse gas-intensive system.”
“When we look at the whole system from farm to plate, maybe surprisingly, the largest single user of fossil fuels in the food system is the consumer. – Mike Bomford”
Field operations that account for on-farm fossil fuel consumption include plowing, planting, spraying, and harvesting. These activities use equipment that typically runs on inexpensive diesel fuel or relies on large heat or pump systems. Instead, Bomford suggests, machinery could be outfitted for biodiesel and greenhouse operations moved outdoors. Yet these actions may not be feasible for some farmers and increases our dependence on off-season imports. Bomford says, “From a greenhouse gas emissions perspective or an energy perspective, we would be far better off to move to field production, even though the greenhouses allow us to harvest year-round.” Pumping water for irrigation, particularly from groundwater reserves, contributes to a significant amount of on-farm fossil fuel consumption. Bomford says, “I think what we need to think about in terms of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels in these situations is farming in areas where surface water is abundant and avoiding really arid areas for agriculture.”
There are several factors that contribute to energy use in climate-friendly farming. In animal waste management, specifically in non-grazing systems, there are options for both manure management and renewable energy use. Bomford says, “A lot of animal waste ends up resulting in methane emissions and nitrous oxide emissions because this is an environment where there tends to be excess nitrogen. I think that there are important steps that producers can take to reduce methane emissions, for example through methanogenesis, so trapping the methane. You can use that as fuel. That’s a wonderful way to reduce methane emissions.” Retrofitting farming systems for renewable energy may in fact be more conventional than not. For example, rotational grazing systems that heavily rely on electric fencing may find the use of solar panels are less labour intensive and more cost-effective. Bomford notes, “You can move the solar panel along with the fence very easily. And renewable energy then just makes more sense than connecting to the electrical grid.” Farmers can take advantage of BC’s rugged topography that invites glacial runoff into the valleys below. Sometimes, this makes farming a considerable challenge, but there are advantages. Bomford says, “There’s potential on many small farms to harness this in micro-hydro systems to attach generators to the falling water and produce a little bit of electricity, perhaps enough for the farm using these systems. It all depends on what’s on your particular piece of land.”
Implementing alternative energy systems and sourcing out renewable energy can be costly. Bomford notes, “I think that small farmers need to be very careful about where they are, where they’re willing to invest and need to think about what it’s going to cost. So I think there are some lower-cost ways that farmers can engage in this alternative energy economy or systems.” For example, high tunnels for crops are a relatively inexpensive option for extending the season. Bomford says, “We’re simply harnessing the heat from the sun, storing some of that heat so that the overnight temperature is a little higher and the daytime temperature is a little higher. They tend to be ventilated passively as you just roll up the sides of the vents at the end walls to let some breeze blow through to cool the structure. This is a really simple technology and I think this is a really great example of a way that a small farmer can invest in and capture renewable energy and actually save money.” He makes other suggestions for farmers in BC whose land is not already on the grid, and getting power to the area might be very expensive. “There are a lot of other locations in British Columbia, rural or remote locations, where it’s cheaper to get the solar panels than to connect to the existing electricity grid,” says Bomford.