Alternative Forms of Energy in Agriculture

Posted on Thursday, 10 December 2020 under Farmer Story Series

Atmospheric greenhouse gas measurements are rising faster and higher every year, causing unpredictable changes in our climate. Farmers in BC are adopting practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to fossil fuels to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Efforts include building healthy, carbon-capturing soil; protecting ecosystems; diversifying farms; managing animals regeneratively; and reducing emissions related to energy use. Higher efficiency electrical systems, alternative fuel for machinery, and adopting methods that rely on human power, are some ways BC farmers have implemented alternative and renewable forms of energy to minimize their environmental impact.

20% of Canadian agricultural emissions are from on-farm fuel use. BC agriculture remains a small portion of that, but adopting alternative practices and reducing machine use is important to lower national fossil fuel consumption. The 2019 National Farmers Union report, ‘Tackling the Farm Crisis and the Climate Crisis’, states that in the year prior, “Canadians consumed a record quantity of fossil fuels: coal, natural gas, and oil.” The six major sources of emissions in agriculture are field operations, farm transport, heating, electricity, manufacturing machinery, and agrochemical production. An analysis highlighted in FarmFolk CityFolk’s, ‘Climate Change Mitigation Opportunities in Canadian Agriculture’ report states that, “emissions associated with fossil fuel combustion and energy supply to the Canadian agricultural sector are dominated by three sources: chemical production, field operations, and machinery manufacturing.”

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.

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Canada must phase out the use of fossil fuels. #FFCFClimateAction Click To Tweet

Photo by Wildwood Farm

BC farmers are finding unique and innovative ways to mitigate climate change and reduce their on-farm emissions. Linda and Tim Ewert of Wildwood Farm use draft horses to power their hard work instead of fuel-reliant tractors. They use horses for plowing, discing, harrowing, mowing, raking, hauling supplies and firewood, grinding and elevating grain, hauling compost to the fields, seed grain, and tilling between rows of vegetables. At Fraser Common Farm Cooperative, they have installed solar panels to run their irrigation system, and use unheated polyhouses for season extension.

Reducing dependence on fossil fuels is an important consideration for the entire food chain. Bomford stresses, “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.” Although agriculture represents a smaller portion of fossil fuel emissions, there are several options for farmers to adopt alternative and renewable forms of energy.

Government plays a major role, by creating incentives that support farmers in their transition. Climate change is impacting agriculture dramatically. Adaptation for farmers is important and supporting mitigation efforts to climate change is crucial, whether it’s through fossil fuel reduction or other climate-friendly practices. Bomford stresses, “I think that addressing energy issues and the dependence on fossil fuels, it’s a little piece of the puzzle. But far more important than that is how we farm.”