Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Farm improvements

Dave discovered two federal grant programs for farmers – one to help pay to improve the energy efficiency of your operation and the other to help pay for installation of solar, wind or geothermal systems on the farm. We were especially interested in the energy efficiency grant because we want to shift from raising alfalfa hay to raising prairie grasses hay. The alfalfa needs to be fertilized yearly or at least biennially, and needs to be replanted about every five years. To replant alfalfa, we either have to spray the fields with herbicides and no till drill the seed into the ground, or we have to plow, drag, fertilize, plant a grain, harvest, plow, fertilize, plant alfalfa. The prairie grasses, once established, should grow well indefinitely with only mowing and occasional weed control. It doesn’t need fertilizing or spraying for weeds once the crop is established.

The prairie grass seems like an environmentally good option for our farm. It will require no ongoing applications of herbicide, use less diesel fuel and cause less soil compaction. With the ground continuously covered by grasses and forbs, there will be little or no wind or water erosion and then the black top soil will improve year after year. Instead of releasing tons of carbon into the atmosphere by making fertilizer and herbicides and burning diesel the prairie will sequester several tons per acre each year

The second program is also interesting. We already have a wind generator that produces as much electricity as we consume. We also have solar hot water. We’ve been considering setting up a ground source system for heating and cooling our house. Right now we heat with wood and cool with natural breezes. Some day, Dave and I may not be able to cut and split six cords of wood a year, which makes ground source energy a possible alternative.

Ground source heating and cooling is not without problems. I worry about the long term heating of the ground and the pump and dump systems that remove water from a lake or from a deep underground aquifer and then just dump the warmed or cooled water . Dave worries about the necessity of using electrical back up heating, a really inefficient way to heat a house.

But our hopes and concerns are irrelevant for these two grants. The first qualification a farmer must have for either grant is that you must receive 50% of your gross income from your farm. We know a lot of farmers, and only two are the sole wage earner of their family and work as full time farmers. These grants are not meant for folks like us.

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