May 2, 2006 – Energy

I’ve been thinking about energy lately. This picture shows a way to think about energy that is not quite as obvious as the price of gas at the corner station.

This picture shows a grassy waterway – a good agricultural practice that puts a permanent crop in an erodable part of a field.

This picture is taken in early May. The grass is approaching knee-high already. The crop field is still bare and devoid of photosynthesis. The waterway has turned the last two months of solar energy into a crop – in this case hay. Again, starting in September, the grass will continue to convert sunlight into food, long after the annual crops have died and stopped converting light into food energy. All in all, the pasture is “working” from April through October, while the annual crop field is “working” from mid-May to late August. That’s about 3-4 months “extra” production, not to mention the benefits to soil and wind erosion the permanent crops bring.

The other unseen part of the energy equation is the fuel needed to produce the annual crops – natural gas to make the fertilizer, fossil fuels to drive the tractors, make the herbicides and pesticides, and transfer to remote feedlots. Some farmers are seeing the benefit of letting the animals do all the mowing, transport, and fertilizing. But because corn is so cheap (so cheap that many farmers get out of it each year and that government subsidies keep the prices artificially low), it makes economic sense to practice these energy-intensive farming methods. But as fuel prices rise, I predict that we will see more farmers discovering that there are more ways to farm than just producing commodity crops for sale to distant markets.