Posted June 3, 2016
The noble image of the farmer guiding his draft horse-led steel plow through the rich earth is weaved into the fabric of Americana. But that simplistic and iconic vision is far removed from the modern farming techniques that fill our tables every day. For as those old iron plows have been recycled or become decorative lawn items, our appetites are instead sated by modern technology and the energy that powers it to efficiently harvest crops and raise livestock on our nation’s 2 million farms, collectively adding up to more than 900 million acres.
Since the days of our hunter and gatherer ancestors, farmers have fed society. But in the last 150 years, energy-based technology has revolutionized how they do it. With the introduction of tractors, harvesters, automated feeders and milking systems, the ability to produce food has exploded. This has allowed our land to yield more, a vital necessity as our country’s population more than tripled in the last century. And as we grow our farmers and their technology grow with us. Crops like barley grew in production from 20.9 bushels per acre in 1916 to 68.9 bushels today. Corn has increased from 24 bushels to an incredible 168 in that same time period. But this wealth of harvest has only been possible because of farmers’ access to plentiful and affordable energy.
Fueling the Farmland
Farming consumes around 2 percent of the nation’s energy, which equals around 800 trillion BBtus a year for direct use and another 600 trillion BBtus for indirect uses. Together, these 1,400 trillion BBtus are the equivalent of more than 12 million gallons of gas.
The direct uses of that energy are those we most often think of when we think of farming: , tilling, planting, harvesting; drying crops; maintaining livestock; and transporting food to a store near you. And these fall into the two major segments of agriculture - crops and livestock. The growing and harvesting of crops is significantly more energy dependent than livestock. In 2012, crop production consumed nearly 500 trillion BBtus - more than half of it for fuel to run equipment - while livestock used less than 300 trillion BBtus. However, like in crop production, more than half was in the form of fuels like gasoline and diesel.
In addition to equipment fuels like gasoline and diesel, these farms also depend on electricity (around 150 trillion Btus) for lighting, irrigation systems, milking systems, refrigeration and ventilation systems; propane (60 trillion Btus) for climate control, water heating and crop drying; natural gas (40 trillion Btus) for climate control, water heating, crop drying and low-emissions equipment; and the remaining 125 trillion Btus of energy coming from a mix of smaller sources that include coal and heating oil.
Indirect energy used in farming is tied to the production of farming support products like fertilizer and herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, products that make the high efficiency and yield possible. These are important because they keep the land fertile and hold back insects and other invaders that in the past could be devastating to planted foodstuffs. And like the equipment that plants and harvests crops and maintains and transports livestock, it takes energy to produce, transport and apply these vital products, around 600 trillion Btus worth.
Affordable Fuel Equals Affordable Food
For prominent crops like corn, sorghum and rice, energy costs can total more than 30 percent of total production expenditures. In fact, in 2013 rice farmers spent around $250 an acre on energy and fertilizer out of a total of around $600 in operating costs, while corn farmers spent around $190 of $350 and sorghum farmers around $70 of $140. This shows the importance of keeping energy affordable.
And while direct energy costs related to fuel, electricity and natural gas for livestock production are not typically as high as they are for crops, since livestock feed is typically the largest consumer of the segment’s operating costs, the price of and availability of energy still plays an important role in providing affordable meat, dairy and eggs to our tables. That’s because in addition to those direct energy costs, corn and other crops provide the feed that livestock eat. In fact, corn makes up more than half of the feed given to livestock, transferring the energy costs from growing, harvesting and processing it into feed to that agricultural segment. That means that everything from milk and steak to eggs and bacon are dependent on a healthy domestic energy market.
So whether your idea of a farmer is the earthy man behind a plow or the technology savvy woman in the seat of a GPS-guided tractor, it is important to remember the role that energy plays in keeping your dinner plate full. And for our farmers to thrive and be able to provide us with affordable food, we need to ensure our energy market is able to provide enough affordable oil and natural gas to meet their needs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.