Sustainable Strategy

April 27, 2013 02:16 PM

Farmers ramp up energy efforts for 2025

Debates about food and fuel are often framed in absolutes: Corn is either for ethanol or for livestock feed. Fuel should be obtained from drilling overseas or from alternative U.S. resources.

pC6 Sustainable Strategy

Ohio farmer Fred Yoder has embraced no-tilling and precision ag on land his father operated.

The either–or approach overlooks an important fact, says Fred Yoder, an Ohio grain farmer. In reality, it is possible to use corn for feed while also improving yields with biotechnology, creating new opportunities for bio­fuels. It is possible to drill where appropriate while investing more heavily in renewable energy.

"We think solutions from the land are going to be a big part of getting that done," says Yoder, who chairs the 25x’25 Alliance’s Adaptation Work Group. In April, the collaboration of leaders from the agriculture, forestry, business, academic, conservation and government sectors released a report with strategies to ensure that the 25x’25 goal—25% of the energy consumed in the U.S. from renewable sources by the year 2025—is achieved.

Water concerns. Sustainable prac­tices, based in part on changing cli-mactic conditions, help frame the report. Among those profiled is Steve Irsik, who grows wheat, grain sorghum and corn with several partners near Garden City, Kan. It used to be that dark clouds formed in the west and brought rain as they moved east. "That doesn’t happen anymore," Irsik says.

He began no-tilling about 20 years ago in response to increasingly scarce water from the Ogallala Aquifer. He later diversified the farm to include a 6,000-head open-lot dairy, with the
resulting manure fertilizing his crops.

Another member of his operation manages a commercial cattle feeding business, where a focus on improved genetics has yielded healthier black baldy cattle that produce the same amount of meat with less corn and bring a $14 per cwt. premium.

Like Irsik, Yoder started no-tilling in the past two decades. Yoder, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat, began conducting intensive grid sampling to improve soil fertility and embraced precision ag, resulting in some of the best yields of his career.

A big, bold goal. The 25x’25 Alliance was formed in 2004 after months of discussions initiated by the Energy Future Coalition about sustainable energy policy in the U.S. with farmers and other energy producers. The 25x’25 Alliance includes approximately 1,000 organizations comprising mainline agricultural groups and businesses, car companies, the Nature Conservancy and others.

Those groups, along with 35 governors and 15 state legislatures, have adopted the goal of 25% renewable energy by 2025, says Ernie Shea, 25x’25 project coordinator. That’s despite past pushback from energy stakeholders claiming that there aren’t enough resources for the renewable fuel standard or needed feedstocks.

"We’re getting out ahead of that by saying we recognize there are challenges that have to be met, there always will be, and here’s how we’re being proactive to manage around these adaptation challenges," Shea says.

The report offers recommendations for sustainable adaptations in five categories: research; risk management; communications, outreach and education; production systems and prac-tices; and decision tools.

The paper is intended to spur national dialogue, not serve as a definitive list, says Tim Fink, project associate. The goal is to achieve profitability, productivity, stewardship and self-determination simultaneously.

The pace of change won’t let up. Water scarcity requires Irsik to continue adapting. He reflects on his 96-year-old mother’s wisdom about the Dust Bowl: "You have to remember, it was dry for five years in the ‘30s," he said, quoting his mother.

As Kansas enters its third year of drought, Irsik hopes the cycle breaks. But he realizes there are no guarantees. One way or another, adapting to uncertainty is a necessity.

To learn more about the new 25x’25 Alliance report and on-farm sustainability efforts, visit

You can e-mail Nate Birt at


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