for National Geographic News
From wind to sun to cow pies, farm-based natural resources are supplying an increasing number of U.S. farmers with homegrown sources of renewable energy.
Farm-based energy can save money and even become a new source of income by powering nearby homes, for instance.
Traditional energy sources are expensive: In 2008 fuel and fertilizers—which are largely made from natural gas—accounted for 12.5 percent of all farm expenses. (Learn more about sustainable agriculture.)
Homegrown energy may also lessen the impact on the environment by avoiding fossil fuels.
Food production—not counting factors such as processing and shipping—accounts for one to 3 percent of U.S. energy consumption and about 7 percent of its direct greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the nonprofit National Center for Appropriate Technology.
(Learn more about what causes global warming.)
Farmers are also drawn to renewable energy because they "like being self-sufficient," said Teresa Bomhoff, rural-energy coordinator for the Iowa office of USDA Rural Development. "They see it as part of their patriotism to reduce dependence on foreign oil."
Bomhoff has gotten 423 applications for USDA's Rural Energy for America grants from Iowa farmers, compared with 10 applications in 2003.
From Waste to Gain
Of course U.S. farms come in an array of sizes, crops, and geographic and environmental profiles, so farmers need to tailor energy programs to their needs.
"There's not really an average American farm," said Ryan Stockwell, director of energy and agriculture for the sustainability nonprofit the Minnesota Project.
The Haubenschild Dairy may be a good model for farmers dreaming of energy independence, experts say. Located near Princeton, Minnesota, this family farm demonstrates the possibilities of farm-energy production.
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