Disenchanted with government subsidy programs, some family farmers are turning away from Capitol Hill and toward their neighbors to develop grassroots responses to the soaring cost of fuel and the eroding rural safety net.
One way to soften the blow of high energy costs is to make the agricultural production process more efficient â€“ for example, by scaling back fuel consumption through water-saving irrigation techniques or reducing the amount of cropland tilled. Energy consumption in agriculture overall has tumbled by more than 40 percent since the 1970s, due in large part to advancements in efficiency, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Farmers could also reap substantial benefits from the fossil-fuel crunch, as more Americans are turned on to renewable forms of energy that the farm sector can produce. And farmers, in turn, are finding it economically viable and practical to power themselves with the same innovations.
Wisconsin dairy farmer Joel Greeno is getting creative about tackling high diesel prices. By using "grass-based" dairying practices, he saves energy by letting his cows graze on their own pastures, rather than harvesting crops and feeding the animals in confinement.
Meanwhile, he and other farmers in his community are working to create their own energy supply. With the help of the advocacy group Family Farm Defenders, farmers have been coordinating workshops to learn how to "homebrew" biodiesel, an alternative fuel derived from natural oils.
Using cheap technology and a variety of possible sources, including household grease, a barn-based refining process can turn someone elseâ€™s garbage into homegrown power. Greeno said he knows farmers who collect used fryer oil from restaurants to convert into fuel for their tractors and trucks.
Greeno estimated that by switching to biodiesel or a biodiesel blend to run his farm, he could cut his fuel costs by a few thousand dollars this year â€“ about what the government typically provides his household through federal milk-subsidy payments.
Both progressive as well as more mainstream farmersâ€™ groups say that promoting alternative, self-generated energy production on a local level could help wean agriculture off of conventional, fossil fuel-intensive farming practices.
But John Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders, stressed that the full potential of alternative energy can only be realized through community-centered forms of production, such as farm cooperatives. A model to be wary of, he said, is the corn-based ethanol industry, which has fallen under the shadow of agribusinesses pushing mass-produced, low-grade "energy crops." By contrast, Peck said that because it is "much more decentralized and on a small scale," biodiesel holds more promise as a sustainable resource for family farms.
Paradoxically, as Congress considers doling out cash to buffer farms against rising fuel costs, the White House budget proposal aims to slash programs that promote farm-based renewable energy sources like biodiesel.
Peck noted that while the current energy crisis amplifies flaws in domestic farm policy, it also offers lessons in self-sufficiency. "One answer," he said, "would be rather than perpetuating a corrupt subsidy systemâ€¦ letâ€™s actually create energy self-reliance in rural America."