Sustainable Renewable Energy Training for Agriculture and Natural Resource Professionals

Final Report for ENC07-097

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2007: $50,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Karen Quiroz
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Co-Coordinators:
Jim Kleinschmit
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
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Project Information

Abstract:

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) held a series of six sustainability and renewable energy training sessions for natural resource and agriculture educators. Sessions held were: Sustainable Biomass and Oilseed Crop Production; Bioenergy Crops and Water Quality; A Whole-Systems Approach to Bioenergy; Biomass Crops for Renewable Energy: Opportunities and Challenges; Getting Juiced, Sustainably and On-Farm Oilseed Production. While many participants had prior awareness of the topics, their knowledge and understanding of sustainable renewable energy, sustainable crop production and biofuels has increased and these lessons are being transferred on to their clients.

Project Objectives:

The overall long-term goal of our project was that farmers will produce renewable energy crops using sustainable methods as instructed by their educators. To reach this goal, we developed and presenting a series of six training sessions. These sessions helped us achieve strategic short-term and intermediate-term outcomes, including increased awareness, knowledge and skills related to sustainable bioenergy production practices among natural resource and agricultural educators.

The short-term performance targets established in our proposal include:

  • A total of 150 educators will participate in the various sessions.
    Of the target 150 participants, 100 will increase their knowledge of sustainable renewable energy; at least 50 will increase their awareness of sustainable and diversified crop production methods; and 40 will increase their knowledge and understanding of biofuel production.
    Educators will gain an understanding of biodiesel processing and awareness of the difference between small-scale and industrial-scale processing facilities and the benefits to farmers. Educators will also develop an open-minded attitude about renewable energy opportunities, benefits and challenges for farmers.

We also predicted that our program participants would change their behavior and practices as noted by the following intermediate outcomes:

  • Eighty percent of participants will transfer the knowledge they have gained to their clients.
    Seventy percent of the participants will add sustainability elements to their publications, materials or documents.
    Ten participants will add sustainable research components to their work to close the research gaps on sustainable renewable energy production and processing.
Introduction:

Several years ago, rapid expansion of interest, investment and policy support indicated that bioenergy was poised to become a significant part of American agriculture. As with any major shift in the sector, farmers would need to become informed quickly if they were to have appropriate influence on how bioenergy became part of their livelihoods. Done right and at the appropriate scale, bioenergy production can significantly improve the overall sustainability of our agriculture, forestry, energy and manufacturing sectors; reduce global warming emissions; increase biodiversity, water quality, soil health and overall environmental health; provide long-term jobs and markets for communities, workers and farmers; and reduce environmental and industrial health impacts. But in the rush to develop this sector, these positive results are by no means guaranteed.

Without consideration of environmental impacts, increased biomass production could actually decrease biodiversity, soil health, water quality and wildlife habitat, with minimal or negative greenhouse gas reduction benefits. If social and community economic considerations are not met, the expanding biomass sector could increase pressure on alternate land use, extract resources needed by local communities, jeopardize food security, and do little to improve the economic situation of rural regions. And if increased biomass production and use is not matched with greater strides in conservation, efficiency and reduced overall consumption, then the sector is unlikely to have more than a very limited impact on the overall sustainability of our energy, materials and transportation sectors.

The multiple benefits that a sustainable bioenergy system can provide underscore the need for its development in a manner that assures the expansion of this sector provides not just new energy but broader environmental and community benefits as well (Kleinschmit, 2007; Jordan et al, 2007; Kleinschmit and Muller, 2005). Yet to do that will requires that farmers understand these sustainability issues, which in turn requires educators to become more familiar with the various aspects of sustainable bioenergy production.

This project aimed to fill the gap in understanding and to give educators the information and tools needed for outreach to farmers and other clients on sustainable bioenergy production and processing.

References:

  • Jordan, N., G. Boody, W. Broussard, J. D. Glover, D. Keeney, B. H. McCown, G. McIsaac, M. Muller, H. Murray, J. Neal, C. Pansing, R. E. Turner, K. Warner, and D. Wyse, “Sustainable Development of the Agricultural Bio-Economy,” Science 316 (2007): 1570-1571.
    Kleinschmit, J., “Biofueling Rural Development: Making the Case for Linking Biofuel Production to Rural Revitalization,” Carsey Institute (Winter 2007) <www.carseyinstitute.unh.edu/documents/Biofuels_final.pdf>, <www.carseyinstitute.unh.edu/documents/Biofuels_final.pdf>.
    Kleinschmit, J. and M. Muller, “Cultivating a New Rural Economy: Assessing the Potential of Minnesota’s Bioindustrial Sector,” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (August 11, 2005) <www.healthobservatory.org/index.cfm?refid=76223>.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Andrew Dane
  • Linda Meschke
  • Katie Ross
  • Paula Westmoreland

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

Our project targeted natural resource and agriculture professionals. Specifically, we sought to educate University Extension professionals, Soil and Water Conservation District supervisors and staff, USDA professionals, SARE staff, college professors, nonprofit staff, rural government and economic development professionals and others who work directly with farmers and rural communities. While we did not target farmers, we welcomed their attendance, as we recognized the value of farmer-to-farmer education. Members of our target audience agreed to serve on the planning committee and direct the training sessions to best meet their own, and their colleagues’, needs for sustainable renewable energy education. In addition, during a time of limited budgets, IATP offered these sessions for free or at a low cost to increase their accessibility.

Outreach and Publications

This project was entirely comprised of education and outreach events, as described in the preceding sections.

Outreach to attract participants for the events was done through flyers developed by IATP and event announcements on IATP’s Web site. In addition, planning team members and a contractor disseminated the flyer on listservs and in newsletters and posted it on bulletin boards.

Results of participant evaluations are described above.

Outcomes and impacts:

As stated above, the overall long-term goal of our project is that farmers will produce renewable energy crops using sustainable methods as instructed by their educators. Because this project is focused on educating the educators, our short-term, direct outcomes have to do with positive changes in attitude and increased awareness, knowledge and skills among agriculture and natural resource educators, including farmers.

Our training sessions were attended by a combined total of more than 340 people, which far exceeded our goal of 150 people! We succeeded in offering programming that has informed educators about a wide range of topics related to sustainable production of bioenergy. Educators have learned from experts with hands-on experience growing, harvesting, and utilizing biomass and oilseed energy crops. Topics such as farm economics, community impacts, business models, climate change, water quality, natural resources management, and technologies such as gasification, oilseed pressing, and pelletizing were addressed by researchers and practitioners.

By working with our project partners, we have been able to offer exceptional demonstrations and tours which have given educators practical knowledge to pass on to farmers. And because our training sessions were also attended by a number of farmers and businesspeople, extension educators and natural resource professionals had many opportunities to receive valuable practical feedback.

To assess the impact of our activities, evaluation surveys developed by the planning team were distributed to training participants at the events. Follow-up surveys were conducted via email, phone and Web-based survey tools to see if participants had transferred knowledge gained to clients, added sustainability components to their publications or materials, and/or engaged in work to close the research gaps on sustainable renewable energy production and processing since they attended a training session.

Although response rates for both the initial and follow-up evaluations were lower than anticipated, the responses were overwhelmingly positive, as nearly all respondents indicated that their knowledge increased as a result of attending the particular field day. A larger portion of respondents than expected indicated that they already had some knowledge of sustainable renewable energy production. Thus, while fewer participants than hoped indicated that they added sustainability components to their work or outreach materials, we were encouraged to find that a larger number than expected included such components prior to their participation. We were especially pleased to find that many of those participants who came to the trainings with a substantial knowledge base reported an increase in their knowledge levels after the trainings, and that a vast majority of participants reported that their participation in a workshop increased their opinion of the importance of sustainability in renewable energy.

We’ve heard anecdotal evidence that the lessons of our events are starting to be transferred into practice. For example, the Biomass Crops for Renewable Energy workshop in Spooner, Wisconsin, resulted in a regional power provider approaching the University of Wisconsin’s Extension service about the possibility of arranging for more dedicated crop demonstration plots. Xcel Energy’s Bayfront Plant also announced it was converting to run on 100 percent biomass. This fact, along with recent announcements of several wood pellet plants going up in the area, has stimulated a lot of interest in locally sourced biomass. The workshop also brought together a diverse mix of UW-Extension faculty with expertise in both biomass production and community development that has continued to work together as a result of relationships made during this workshop.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

In early 2008, IATP convened a planning team composed of farmers, extension educators, and nonprofit partners. The planning team worked throughout the spring and summer to build training session content and define specific educational objectives and evaluation criteria.

The first workshop, Sustainable Biomass and Oilseed Crop Production, was held at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) Energy Fair in Custer, WI on June 21, 2008. Christopher Mosel (IATP) presented on sustainable biomass energy crop production and Zach Biermann (Organic Valley) presented on sustainable oilseed production with an emphasis on his work growing and crushing camelina for biodiesel. The workshop was attended by about 70 people.

A southern Minnesota farm field day was held August 15, 2008 at Willow Lake Farm near Windom. This session, Bioenergy Crops and Water Quality, focused on teaching participants about ways to reduce negative impacts on water quality from bioenergy crop production by adopting more sustainable practices such as planting perennial crops, reducing tillage, putting environmentally sensitive land in conservation programs, and utilizing innovative drainage control techniques to manage water flow and reduce soil and nutrient runoff. Participants were encouraged to consider ways to adapt crop production practices to a changing climate, by, for example, preparing for dryer overall conditions and also for more extreme storms when rains do come. Highlights included an on-farm oilseed processing and biodiesel production demonstration and tours of water control installations and native prairie plantings. The Willow Lake Farm Field Day was attended by about 90 people.

A west central Minnesota farm field day was held August 22, 2008 at Prairie Horizons Farm, near Benson. This program, A Whole-Systems Approach to Bioenergy, emphasized the importance of considering the big picture. Participants learned about the multiple requirements and objectives underlying sustainable bioenergy production systems. For example, participants learned not only about growing native perennial grasses for bioenergy, but also about farm economics, integration with food production and grazing systems, landscape management, and regional biomass markets. Morning activities covered using biomass harvests to manage conservation lands, sustainably establishing perennial native grasses that are useful for both biomass production and grazing, and growing alternative crops such as hazelnuts for bioenergy production. The learning process was hands-on as attendees toured a perennial grass biomass field study planting and a third crop demonstration plot. In the afternoon, participants learned about local gasification projects that are creating a market for biomass. Representatives from the Central Valley Ethanol Cooperative and the University of Minnesota-Morris spoke about the goals, status, successes and challenges of their gasification projects and discussed the potential for gasifying native grasses in addition to woodchips, corn stover, and corn cobs. Jim Kleinschmit (IATP) gave the closing remarks at this field day, highlighting the multiple benefits that sustainable biomass production can provide and the real opportunities for sustainable biomass production that the bioenergy sector represents. This field day was attended by 53 people.

A northwest Wisconsin workshop, Biomass Crops for Renewable Energy, was held October 8, 2008 at the Spooner Agricultural Research Station in Spooner, Wisconsin. In the morning, participants learned about sustainable production and marketing of biomass crops for bioenergy; in the afternoon session the focus was on the conservation benefits of growing biomass crops. Presentations included information on growing and pelleting switchgrass, establishing hybrid poplars, the benefits of perennial polycultures, and the opportunities and challenges associated with bioenergy crops and conservation. Participants also enjoyed tours of the miscanthus and switchgrass test plots and the hybrid poplar planting which had been grazed by sheep during establishment and was nearly ready for harvest. The workshop was attended by 45 people.

The fifth workshop, titled Getting Juiced, Sustainably, was held Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at the IATP offices in Minneapolis. There were more than 50 participants. The day began with a presentation on the story of ethanol in Minnesota. Dr. Steven Taff discussed the “hows and whys” of ethanol, including the shift from a focus on local, value-added opportunities for corn farmers to a large, industrial sector that has environmental, climate and economic impacts associated with it. In addition, Dr. Taff also discussed some of the critical quality and performance concerns, including the need to have a uniform product to process into fuel. The participants then split into two groups. One group learned about small-scale biodiesel economics from Seth Fore (University of Minnesota). The other group was outside with Jeff Jensen (Rural Advantage) to tour IATP’s Garden Shed Biodiesel Processor and learn the process of making biodiesel. The groups switched and then took a break for lunch. Upon returning from a lunch break, participants viewed IATP’s Renewable Energy Garden and heard from plant experts including Maggie Mangan (University of Minnesota); Dr. Paul Porter (University of Minnesota); Linda Meschke (Rural Advantage); and Jill Sackett (University of Minnesota Extension). The day ended with a panel discussion on “Where are we going? All Juiced Up, Sustainably.” Presenters represented community renewable and sustainable energy “emerging successes” and included Linda Meschke; Julia Olmstead (IATP and Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance); and Joel Tallaksen, Biomass Gasification Project Coordinator at University of Minnesota-Morris.

The final workshop, On-Farm Oilseed Production, was held Saturday, July 25, 2009 at the Kickapoo Country Fair in LaFarge, Wisconsin. Jake Wedeberg and Zach Biermann, both Organic Valley staff, presented the training session for over 30 participants. The first half of the workshop was a presentation in a training tent where Mr. Biermann and Mr. Wedeberg discussed Organic Valley’s history of biodiesel, economics and work with cooperative farmers. Organic Valley began using vegetable oil in 2002 and then began using biodiesel not long after. Since then, they created a demonstration trailer to show co-op member farmers how to create their own on-farm fuel. Following the presentation, participants split into two groups; one toured the mobile oilseed crushing/biodiesel processing demonstration trailer and the other went into the sunflower and camelina field to learn about the crop production.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

Preliminary evidence from follow up surveys indicates that lessons from our workshops are beginning to be transferred to participants’ clients. Multiple respondents also reported that while they planned to add new components to their educational curricula and materials, they had not yet done so, perhaps due to the short time between the events and follow up surveys. Based on the results of our surveys as well as more information evaluation done through conversations with partners and participants, we are confident that the lessons from this project will be transferred to farmers, and that a substantial number of farmers will, in time, include sustainability considerations in their renewable energy projects.

Future Recommendations

Although the workshops were popular and well designed, they were one-time experiences, and thus additional follow-up activities could have the potential to further deepen the understanding of educators and increase the likelihood that they would change their teaching content and practice. Additional education and the development of new materials and/or curricula should be considered in future professional development efforts in this area.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.