Avant-garde Ag: Idaho farmers embrace technology
The recently released Census of Agriculture shows Idaho farmers are embracing modern technology, from renewable energy systems to the internet.
The Census of Agriculture, produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, collects data every five years from farms and ranches that produce at least $1,000 worth of products in a year.
The most recent census, released last month, shows changes in agriculture from 2012 to 2017.
A substantial change during that half decade was the number of farmers installing renewable energy systems — wind, solar, geothermal/geoexchange systems and other natural sources of energy that are constantly replenished.
In 2012, Idaho farms with renewable energy producing systems numbered 561. By 2017, that number more than doubled, to 1,232 farms, a 120 percent increase.
Idaho was slightly behind the national trend toward agricultural renewable energy, which increased 132 percent, from 57,299 to 133,176 farms.
Why would farmers install renewable energy systems? For one, there are significant federal incentives, ranging from a couple thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
According to a blog post by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group, renewable energy and agriculture is a natural fit.
“Wind, solar and biomass energy can be harvested forever, providing farmers with a long-term source of income,” the blog post said. “Renewable energy can be used on the farm to replace other fuels or (can be) sold as a ‘cash crop.’”
Solar, wind and geothermal
Of the 24,996 farms in Idaho, about 5 percent have renewable energy producing systems, according to the census. In 2012, it was about 2 percent of farms.
The majority, 70 percent, of farms producing renewable energy are below average in size, ranging from 1 to 259 acres.
The average Idaho farm size is 468 acres.
And many of those renewable energy producing farms are very small; more than 50 percent are between 1 and 49 acres.
Idaho farms producing solar energy saw the largest growth among renewable energy systems in the five year period. In 2012, 335 farms had solar energy systems. By 2017, it climbed to 944 farms, a 182 percent increase.
Solar energy systems harness light from the sun and convert it into electricity, typically through commercially available solar panels, which can be installed on a roof, the ground or anywhere that can absorb sunlight.
Solar Farms, a Twin Falls-based branch of Agri-Stor Companies, sells solar panels to farmers across the Pacific Northwest.
Jesse Vierstra, a solar panel specialist for Solar Farms, said his company is one of the pioneers of agricultural solar in Idaho.
“We saw there was an opportunity to put solar on potato storages,” he said. “A few years ago this wasn’t even much of a concept in the state of Idaho.”
Renewable energy systems help farmers cut down energy costs and increase the value of their property, Viestra said.
“It’s renewable energy so it’s environmentally friendly, and it just helps to hedge against future costs,” he said.
Viestra said agricultural solar production has grown exponentially in recent years, but that’s because it’s new.
“Exponential growth isn’t really accurate when you start at zero,” he said.
Idaho farms with geothermal/geoexchange systems saw the second largest increase, according to the census. Farms producing geothermal/geoexchange systems — renewable energy systems that harness heat from the earth, often through naturally heated underground water — grew 156 percent, from 72 to 184 farms.
Wind turbines had slow growth, compared to other renewable energy systems. Turbines grew 13 percent, from 122 to 139 farms with turbines.
Farms that lease out their wind rights, such as the farms east of Idaho Falls that allow Invenergy and other companies to operate wind turbines on their property, grew 39 percent, from 61 to 85 farms.
When the electricity stays on the farm, because the farmer owns the production system, the energy can be used in a few different ways.
Geothermal systems, for example, can be hooked up directly to a storehouse for heating. Solar panels can be used to power a water pump or lights. These are examples of self-contained uses, disconnected from the power grid.
When farmers are producing serious electricity, they’re likely to send excess energy to the power grid, and that’s when the power utilities get involved.
Self-produced energy is monitored through net metering, a power utility mechanism that allows consumers to sell the energy they produce back to the power company.
Energy producers can take money off their power bill as they send electricity back to the grid, or if they produce more energy than they consume, they can be entitled to reimbursement by the power company.
“There’s give and take with the power companies,” Viestra said.
Net metering policies vary depending on the power company and the state in which they operate. Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power, for example, give customers who generate more energy than they consume a credit on their power bills.
Despite the fact that rural residents have always had trouble with internet access and despite the fact that Idaho has the fourth slowest broadband in the country, Idaho farmers and ranchers responded to the Census of Agriculture using the internet.
Idaho ranked first in the U.S. for the percentage of respondents who turned in their census online. Idaho ranked 12th among U.S. states for internet access.
According to the National Agricultural Statistics Survey, more than one-third of Idaho farmers responded to the census survey online, rather than by mail. The national average was 24 percent of farmers responding online.
“Idaho farmers are technologically savvy,” said Randy Welk, Idaho statistician for the National Agricultural Statistics Service, in a news release. “They are modern.”
Farmers use internet tools to farm more effectively. For example, Global Positioning System (GPS) tools allow farmers to more effectively fertilize and control pests.
Before GPS, it was more difficult for farmers to “correlate production techniques and crop yields with land variability,” according to a blog post on GPS.gov, a website maintained by the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing.
“Today, more precise application of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and better control of the dispersion of those chemicals are possible through precision agriculture, thus reducing expenses, producing a higher yield, and creating a more environmentally friendly farm,” the blog post says.
Ben Eborn, agricultural economist at the University of Idaho, said he was surprised by the top online survey submission rate for Idaho farmers.
“I didn’t think our state was as connected as most other states,” Ebron said. “I guess we figured out ways to do that even though we are pretty rural.”