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Fall 2007 - Vol. 8/No. 1

SAFS field day grower panel: On-farm energy-saving practices

by Lyra Halprin

The SAFS project sponsors an annual field day to showcase sustainable research and management practices. One of the most popular features of the June 2007 field day at Muller and Sons farm in Woodland was a panel of five farmers from Yolo, Solano and Colusa counties. They talked about energy and water conservation on their farms, including drip irrigation, reduced tillage and the use of cover crops.

Jim Durst, who farms at Hungry Hollow near Esparto, talked about his family’s goal of using 10 percent less fuel this year. Durst produces fresh market produce, rotated with alfalfa.

Farm advisor Gene Miyao (third from right) moderated grower panel, which included (l-r) Frank Muller, Scott Park, Tony Turkovich, Jim Durst, [Miyao], Ben Carter, and Richard Cushman.

“We’re trying to do that by questioning every trip we make anywhere with any vehicle—cars, trucks or tractors. We ask ourselves, do we really need to make a second pass over the field, do I need to pump to irrigate this field or can I use gravity flow? Do I need to go to town right now, or can I wait until tomorrow and consolidate trips?” he said. “I try to look at it as if I only had 10 gallons of fuel left, so I’ll wait until something is really important before using it.”

Durst said his farm uses approximately 20,000 gallons of off-road diesel each year at $2.50/gal. At the end of the year he will compare records to see if they have saved fuel.

“If we save 10 percent, that’s $5,000,” he said. “If everyone used 10 percent less fuel, it would make a big impact. If we can do it on a small farm, the hope is that others can replicate it.”

Durst said he has retired a few of the farm pickups in favor of energy-efficient Kabota all-terrain vehicles (ATV) that get 40-50 mpg.

“ATVs work for us because all our fields are contiguous,” he said. If people are farming throughout the county, across roads, that might not work.

Ben Carter of Colusa, who farms diversified field crops, row crops, orchards, and livestock, noted that he looks to the university for solutions to problems farmers have identified in their fields.

Carter said other growers are his best resource, especially for organic farming practices.

“That’s why this kind of field day is so valuable—it gives us growers a chance to network,” he said. “On the organic side, the university is a little bit behind the curve on research, but is responsive about picking up ideas growers suggest and testing the veracity of these ideas that we’re all using empirically. Unfortunately, the university doesn’t have the answers yet in organic like they do in conventional agriculture.

“So the growers are trying a lot of things—weed control, pest control,” he said. “And I find that the growers are on the leading edge. And that’s ok.”

Carter said he investigated the idea of using solar energy to power a 50 hp well, but the capital cost was too high.

“It was going to be about a million dollars for 150 acres,” he said. “It didn’t pencil at all. Instead, to save energy for ag well applications, we are doing pump tests to make sure they’re efficient, and converting some of the diesel pumps to electric because the cost of diesel is so high. We also save money by using ‘time of use’ irrigation – off-peak electricity for irrigation.”

Carter said he has three water recirculation systems that are very energy efficient.

“We can get the same yield of water with much lower energy use with the recirculation systems,” he said. “It’s not for everyone, but given the layout of our land, it makes a lot of sense for us. I’m looking at developing one more. The USDA can help people set up a recirculation system through the NRCS.”

Tony Turkovich, partner in Button and Turkovich Ranch in Winters, said that his farming operation is using more drip irrigation.

“Overall, it’s more water-efficient, but we do use a little more energy to pressurize the drip system compared to an open discharger or a gravity flow system in furrows,” he said. “In general, we’ve conserved a lot of energy by going to minimum tillage on most of our land, where we retain the same beds all the time. By using the GPS system, and maintaining the same furrows, we’ve really minimized our trips across the field compared to what we used to do conventionally.”

First-generation farmer Scott Park of Meridian said improved soil structure is the most important factor in reducing energy use on his land.

“I’m cutting fuel consumption by improving the soil,” he said. “Cover crops are responsible for our greatly improved soil structure. I need less horsepower to loosen the soil because it has become more friable—crumbly—over time.”

Park said he has been using cover crops for more than 16 years.

“Cover crops diminish water use because we’re holding a lot more water on the fields in the winter,” he said. “The soil has improved and I don’t have to irrigate as often. Friable soil holds more water, and for sure we have less water runoff.”

Grower Frank Muller, who hosted the field day with his brothers Louie and Tom, noted that farmers must be flexible in the way they approach their farming operations.

“It’s a moving target, what we’re doing out here,” he said. “What people expect from farms is not the same as 20 years ago. Water and energy use are bottom-line related, but are also environmentally related now, too. And what we do today is not going to be the same in 20 years.”

Richard Cushman, a Dixon farmer, calls himself an anomaly in a heavily irrigated region.

“No one farms the way I do, but I guess I’m an example of what can be done for rain-fed production,” he said. Cushman farms 143 acres in Dixon, using only a no-till drill and a sprayer to raise cereals.

“My farm is entirely rainfed,” he said. “I don’t irrigate, till or export water.” In the last year, when only nine inches of rain fell, he harvested 45 sacks/acre of triticale.

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