Rice Farming

Energy Issues

Survey gauges producers’ current and future needs

By Tasha Wells

The National Environmentally Sound Production Agriculture Laboratory (NESPAL) in Tifton, Ga., recently conducted a survey of growers from around the country to gauge their attitudes to on-farm energy production and conservation. A total of more than 15,000 surveys was mailed to growers representing 32 states.

In an applied area of research, such as agriculture, it is important to continually evaluate the direction of our research program, asking ourselves if we are addressing issues relevant to growers. Farmer focus groups and surveys help us stay in touch with the end-user, who will ultimately have a large influence on the success or failure of many new developments.

The survey included three sections: 1) information systems, 2) monitoring/control, 3) energy production and farm house design.

Information systems wish list
Producers rely on and assimilate information from a variety of sources. The three most popular sources of information, all of which received a similar rating in this survey, were trade magazines and printed mail, Internet and email and personal communication. In terms of content, growers rated weather as the highest priority followed by financial and market reports, consultant reports, field visits, farm programs, Extension service and dealer and sales reps. Improved weather monitoring and local forecasting, as well as real-time market information delivered to a mobile device were considered highly desirable.

In response to being asked what information they would like to receive that they don’t already have, one survey respondent stated, “You never know. I never dreamed of what I would be getting today. Tomorrow, I would like real-time energy budgets for the farm and home that could be accessed from my office computer or cell phone. My operation would also benefit from an automated inventory monitoring and security system.”

It was hardly surprising that the mobile phone rated highly as a device for receiving information – the wireless device has given farmers the mobility to conduct business from anywhere, anytime, and they are relatively cheap, simple to use and have a clear benefit. Many growers suggested the mobile phone as a platform for extending future wireless applications, with its intuitive interface and ability to accommodate different data formats (text, graphical and voice).

In a recent farmer focus group held by NESPAL to discuss technology in agriculture, the group expressed a desire to see more voice tools – for example, voice recognition software – that would allow growers to better utilize their time on the road or in the field. One of the participants used Jott.com, a tool that converts a “to do” list and reminders recorded using your cell phone to text messages or emails.

Monitoring and control
As growers’ acreage becomes spread over a wider geographic area, remote monitoring and control of various operations offers efficiencies in time, labor and fuel. More than 40 percent of respondents were interested in monitoring/controlling irrigation systems, or some component of them, remotely.

Using sensors to monitor environmental conditions, such as soil and weather, as well as monitoring the status of vehicles and machinery – temperature, pressure, service information and operations – was considered highly desirable.

Survey respondents were split between doing this from the office computer and the mobile phone.

Production/conservation of energy
Advances in the production of biofuels has created new market opportunities for growers that will promote a greater portion of America’s energy supplies being derived from renewable sources. Farmers also expressed an interest in other forms of green energy, such as solar, wind, geothermal, water, animal and plant waste. Almost 60 percent of respondents suggested solar power as a potential source of energy on their farms.

Growers expressed a strong interest in the conservation of energy as well. One grower said, “The price of fuel is influencing the number of times we can cross the field and the way we farm. We need to become more efficient on the farm, saving time, fuel and labor whenever possible. I look to technology to help me achieve this in the future.”

Technologies that were most frequently suggested as having an impact on future energy conservation on the farm were remote monitoring and control of operations that did not require a physical presence, more fuel-efficient vehicles and advances in harvesting and planting methods and equipment.

Farm house design
In addressing energy issues on the farm, it is also important to factor the farm house into the equation. The main disadvantage to rural living put forward by growers in this survey was the restricted availability of resources and services – medical, educational and cultural – and the great distances associated with accessing them. With rising fuel prices, growers were more concerned by the increasing financial burden than the amount of time eaten up in transit to receive these services.

House design features that were most frequently expressed by respondents as important to a farm home included energy independence and energy efficient, passive heating and cooling and efficient lighting. Other features expressed as important to the home were comfort, wireless broadband, a large mud room and lots of storage space.

Although the survey results are somewhat, if not completely, subjective and by no means statistically significant, producers expressed an eagerness for solutions to today’s energy crunch both on the farm and within the home. Farmers look to technologies to play an important role in remote monitoring and control, enhancing production practices, and developing more efficient farm machinery.

Tasha Wells is the research coordinator for NESPAL in Tifton, Ga. Contact Wells at nwells@tifton.uga.edu.