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Fuel-Guzzling Crops

08:56AM Nov 08, 2014

Survey finds which crops require the most energy input

It’s the great give-and-take of farming—food is fuel once it’s grown, but food requires fuel to grow. Not just sunlight and water, either—it takes a tremendous amount of fuels, lubricants, electricity and fertilizer to raise a crop.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently reported the U.S. agriculture industry used nearly 800 trillion Btu of energy in 2012. That’s nearly as much primary energy as the entire state of Utah.

“Energy makes up a significant part of operating expenditures for most crops, especially when considering 
indirect energy expenditures on fertilizer, because the production of fertilizer is extremely energy-intensive, 
requiring large amounts of natural gas,” explains Susan Hicks, EIA analyst. “For some crops like oats, corn, wheat and barley, energy and fertilizer expenditures combined make up more than half of total operating expenses.”

According to the 2013 Agricultural Resource Management Survey, rice is the most energy-intensive row crop to produce, followed by peanuts, cotton and corn. Crops that require the least amount of fuel and fertilizer to grow include oats, wheat and sorghum.

Farmers aren’t only energy consumers, Hicks adds. Many are producing their own energy on the farm.

“Wind turbines, methane digesters and photovoltaics are the most common on-farm renewables,” she says. “Renewable energy can help to offset the need for purchased energy. In some cases, renewable energy produced on farms is sold to electric power suppliers, providing income for farmers.”

High output crop production requires the use of many types of fuel. In the 2013 Agricultural Resource Management Survey, rice was shown to be the most energy intensive crop, followed by peanuts, cotton and corn.