Energy Training for Agricultural Professionals in the Southern SARE Region

Final Report for ES08-092

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2008: $97,684.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Mike Morris
National Center for Appropriate Technology
Co-Investigators:
Steve Moore
Center for Environmental Farming Systems
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Project Information

Abstract:

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) trained agriculture professionals from twelve states in the Southern SARE Region and certified them as Energy Educators. After completing an intensive three-day course, participants returned to their own communities and began leading their own energy-related educational efforts. They also organized a network that continues to stay in touch for mutual support and collaboration.

Project Objectives:
  1. At least 25 agricultural educators will complete an intensive three-day course of training and will be certified as Agricultural Energy Educators. Extension Agents and Specialists, as well as field staff members from any USDA agency, are eligible to apply. Training topics will include energy efficient farming systems, biofuels, biopower, solar, and wind energy.
    Course graduates will be able to refer producers to appropriate avenues of funding and technical assistance for their energy-related projects.
    Course graduates will be able to conduct a basic farm energy audit.
    Course graduates will understand and be able to implement strategies for sustainable biofuel crop production, including reducing soil and water-related impacts.
    Course graduates will stay in touch with each other and will provide mentoring and mutual support, as members of a continuing network of Agricultural Energy Educators.
    Course graduates will be supported by their supervisors and offices, enabling them to deliver energy training and technical assistance to agricultural producers and other state and local professional colleagues.
    By the end of this two-year project, course graduates will be involved in organizing at least 15 local or regional energy training events.
    By the end of this two-year project, course graduates will assist at least 75 farms within the Southern SARE region in incorporating renewable energy into their operations, improving their energy efficiency, and developing energy-related economic enterprises.
Introduction:

Two factors are combining to create a great need for energy-related education and training for agricultural producers in the Southern SARE Region: high energy costs and an explosion of interest in producing renewable energy on agricultural lands. Some farms are looking into generating their own electric energy, using wind turbines, solar panels, or anaerobic digesters. Others are experimenting with on-farm biodiesel production.

Energy efficiency, renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture are intimately connected. Over time, a farm that uses energy efficiently and integrates renewable energy into its operations will:

  • enhance soil, air, and water quality;
    sustain its economic viability in the face of high and fluctuating energy costs;
    improve the quality of life for agricultural producers and society as a whole; and
    make more efficient use of nonrenewable fuels, including reduced usage of synthetic fertilizers derived from natural gas—the single largest energy input into U.S. agriculture.

“Renewable” does not necessarily mean “sustainable,” however. In some parts of the country, the rapid growth of biofuels is threatening to undermine sustainable farming practices. Increasing corn production, driven by expansion of the ethanol industry, could harm water quality in groundwater and streams, change irrigation practices, and cause water shortages in some parts of the country. Emerging markets for corn stover and other sources of cellulose could also cause excessive removal of crop residues, resulting in soil erosion.

In order to make energy projects a reality, producers need site-specific information, such as local growing conditions, wind speeds, tax incentives, sources of equipment, and utility policies and attitudes. With their educational mission and their strong network of local offices throughout rural America, the Extension system and the USDA agencies are well situated to provide locally sensitive and realistic energy training.

Extension already offers limited energy-related assistance within the region, although this help tends to be focused more on homeowners than farmers. Among the USDA agencies, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) probably offers the greatest amount of energy-related technical and financial assistance within the region. Two examples are the NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant Program and the new Agricultural Energy Management Plan opportunity within the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program. A new national NRCS Energy Office has also released several web-based energy awareness tools, helping producers estimate cost savings available through more efficient irrigation, animal housing, tillage, and fertilizer application. (See www.nrcs.usda.gov/Technical/energy/)

While Extension and NRCS are well-situated to expand their energy training efforts, the sustainable agriculture community also brings a vital perspective. For example, sustainable agriculture researchers and practitioners:

  • Are experts at reducing the use of nitrogen fertilizer.
    Take a “systems approach” that offers unique insights. For example, converting a conventional dairy to a grass-based system can reduce or eliminate most or all of the energy costs associated with grain and/or forage production.
    Are keenly attuned to economic and social impacts, as well as environmental ones.

Our project drew on the strengths of Extension, NRCS, and the sustainable agriculture community to address urgent educational needs that none of these groups can tackle alone. We created a network of agricultural energy specialists who are sharing resources and experiences, who are keenly aware of sustainability issues, and who are taking responsibility for launching local training efforts in their own communities.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Rachel Burton
  • Leif Kindberg
  • Al Kurki
  • Steve Moore
  • Paul Mueller
  • John O'Sullivan

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

A steering committee of 29 people began meeting in September 2008, a full year before the training took place. This committee consisted of educators and agricultural producers from throughout the Southern SARE region, including SARE coordinators from many states. We met seven times by teleconference and also shared articles and meeting notes through a web-based collaborative workspace. The members of the steering committee completed a questionnaire identifying highest-priority energy training needs in their states. They also helped recruit strong applicants. The farmers who served on the steering committee were deeply involved in curriculum design and all other aspects of the project.

Eligible applicants were Cooperative Extension Service agents, field personnel from any USDA agency, and other agricultural professionals and educators. We received 69 applications from all 13 states in the Southern SARE region, as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. From these we chose 29 who made a compelling case that they could serve and train a large number of agricultural producers, and who included a supervisor’s letter of commitment. Two of these 29 people declined our offer, one canceled at the last minute, and we ended up training 26 people from 12 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Tuition, materials, lodging, and meal expenses were fully paid for successful applicants, along with almost all travel expenses. Participants were housed together in Goldsboro, North Carolina, near the training location. After completing the course and demonstrating their competence to deliver energy training, participants were certified as Energy Educators. As a condition of participation, trainees agreed to organize at least one energy-related training event for other agricultural professionals within their home community within a year after completing the course.

We made a special effort to create a diverse community of learners, including participants who work with small, beginning, and limited-resource farmers. We received applications from ten 1890 Land Grant Schools. We trained participants from four of these schools (Alcorn State, Fort Valley State, Langston, and Virginia State), and also trained a representative from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. We also accepted an applicant from Tuskegee University, but he was unable to attend. Four participants were women.

When we wrote our proposal we expected that many participants would come from outside of the Extension system. However, we focused our promotional efforts mainly on Cooperative Extension and did not receive any applications from NRCS or other USDA agency agencies.

Training was intensive and rigorous, including 16 hours of instruction spread over three days. There were 15 guest speakers, along with three speakers from NCAT and CEFS. Participants gained familiarity with renewable energy technologies as well as energy efficiency opportunities available to farms in the region. They learned how to plan, evaluate, and fund a farm energy project, as well as how to conduct a basic farm energy audit. Participants also learned about financial and technical resources, enabling them to make helpful referrals and know where to go for help. Each participant received a flash drive that included all of the training presentations and many other educational materials, publications, and tools, covering topics in far more detail than was possible during the three days of the course.

Located in Goldsboro, North Carolina, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) was an ideal location for this training, with classroom facilities and abundant opportunities for on-farm experiential learning. Energy demonstrations at CEFS include a biodiesel reactor, a solar water-heated greenhouse, and energy efficiency measures at the dairy. Most participants took advantage of an optional field trip to a nearby wood-burning biomass power plant. In choosing speakers we had the luxury of drawing from the many excellent teachers and researchers at nearby universities and renewable energy organizations.

The theme of sustainability ran through the entire training. Although most of the talks were highly practical, some speakers touched on larger issues. For example, keynote speaker Simon Rich gave a presentation called “Energy and Food: Linkages for a Sustainable Future.”

The training included a strong hands-on component. For example, all participants made a small batch of biodiesel on the first afternoon of the training. All participants got a chance to see and handle many kinds of energy-related equipment, including solar electric (photovoltaic) panels, solar thermal collectors, small wind turbines, and new lighting technologies such as cold cathode and LED.

Since the training took place we have facilitated collaboration among participants, through a listserve, collaborative workspace (Basecamp), and two webinars that featured the research of participants.

An evaluator from outside the region interviewed 24 of the 26 participants six to eight months after the course. Feedback from these interviews is helping us adjust training materials and approaches as we plan subsequent courses.

(Photo releases are available upon request.)

Outreach and Publications

See attached list of educational workshops and other events organized by ENTAP Energy Educators through October 2010.

Outcomes and impacts:

The final assessment report from our project evaluator is attached. Highlights:

  • The 26 course graduates raised their competency and knowledge level in 18 out of 19 energy efficiency and renewable energy topics. Before and after the training, participants were asked to rate their own knowledge of various energy-related topics on a scale of 0 to 5. Average scores jumped from an average of 2.1 (pre-training survey) to an average of 3.9 (post-training survey).

    Within 12 months of the October 2009 training, 24 of the 26 participants completed all graduation requirements and were certified as Energy Educators.These 24 graduates reported conducting 44 local educational events in their own home states, attended by 2591 people.

    In addition, course graduates reported that they directly assisted at least 81 farmers in incorporating renewable energy into their operations, improving their energy efficiency, or developing energy-related economic enterprises.

    A large majority of course graduates reported staying in touch with one another after the training to share information and collaborate in projects. They also extensively used the ENTAP project resources after the training event to increase their knowledge levels and to extend what they had learned.

    Most extension educators said they were supported by their supervisors and institutions in conducting their energy education and technical assistance with clients.

    Course graduates were very satisfied with the training design and content. Overall, participants scored the training an average of 4.7 out of 5. They offered extensive suggestions for future training events if ENTAP project were replicated, or if more advanced workshops and webinars are offered in the future.

Sample comments from trainees:

  • This is one of the best trainings I have ever attended. Thank you so very much for organizing, seeking funding, and presenting the training.

    Before the program, [I] often felt isolated and constantly searching and starting from square one. ENTAP packaged a network of opportunity.

    The workshop was most useful for me as an eye-opener to the ways through which I can work with cooperative extension on sustainable energy.

    This was an outstanding training! You have given us plenty of motivation, ideas, and resources to make a good program back home.

    It was…obvious that the coordinators are passionate about this topic and about transferring energy conservation and production issues into the hands and minds of agricultural professionals who will share it with others.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This project trained the first graduating class of Energy Educators in the Southern SARE region: a network that is committed to providing technical assistance to farmers and rural landowners.

This network has already accomplished a lot. To mention just a few examples: One of our trainees has conducted five workshops, attended by 270 people, on accessing the USDA Rural Energy for America Program in the Texas–a state with historically low participation in this program. Nine trainees reported delivering energy-related training to youth. Three trainees from Florida organized both an energy track at the 2010 Florida Small Farm Conference (attended by 800 people) and an energy workshop at a statewide Extension in-service training.

A new ENTAP website was created (www.entap.org), offering both a password-protected “Participants Only” area and publicly available materials and resources. The website includes:

  • Announcements and application materials for future trainings.

    Many fact sheets, tools, articles, photographs, and other resource materials that were chosen with the needs of agricultural energy educators in mind.

    Almost all of the PowerPoint presentations from the training. (Most speakers gave permission to trainees to use slides from these presentations in their own trainings, with proper acknowledgment.)

    Upload capability, allowing participants to share their own educational materials with others.

A curriculum was created that can be used or adapted for subsequent trainings. This curriculum is available for free downloading from the ENTAP website, and is also available from NCAT’s National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) website, www.attra.ncat.org.

The entire training was videotaped, and some of the presentations have been edited and posted to YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZ-JAGKcup8.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

We expect trainees to continue offering workshops, training, and technical assistance on energy topics.

Many of our younger participants are serious about building energy-related careers.

Around half of our trainees have joined the new Farm Energy working group within eXtension.

There has been a great deal of collaboration since the training, and this will undoubtedly continue. Two likely topics for future collaboration: alternative heating methods for greenhouses and agricultural uses of solar water-heating.

There has been excellent collaboration between participants from 1862 and 1890 Land Grant Universities. One trainee commented that the course had “enabled instate networking opportunities between the faculty of both land grants.”

We envision a growing network of energy educators that could eventually link and support agriculture professionals in other parts of the country.

Future Recommendations

We strongly recommend that further trainings take place for agriculture professionals from Extension and the USDA agencies. We are seeking funding to conduct more trainings and expand this network, and we hope that others will replicate these efforts too.

Some recommendations for others who may conduct similar trainings in the future:

  • Start planning 8-12 months ahead of time, allowing adequate time for publicity and advance planning. Most agriculture professionals need many months of lead time to fit this kind of training into their schedule.

    Given the demands on their time, three days is probably the realistic maximum length for a training for extension staff or people from USDA agencies.

    Don’t try to cram an engineer’s education into a training lasting a few days. Accept the fact that most participants are not going to become energy experts. Focus instead on giving them the tools and confidence they need to be excellent resource persons.

    Two especially important topics are: (1) How to work with renewable energy dealers and installers; and (2) How to work with utilities. Many referrals will be made to utilities and equipment dealers.

    Emphasize renewable energy more than energy conservation, without minimizing the importance of the latter. There is a particular need to educate agriculture professionals about sustainable bioenergy development.

    Emphasize networking and professional development at least as much as technical learning. Isolation is a real problem for many agriculture professionals who would like to build a career in the energy field. Facilitate communication of all kinds: before, during, and after the training. Provide good publicity for participants. (For example, we did a press release to each participant’s hometown newspaper.)

    Consciously select a group that is highly diverse. Make sure to include young men and women near the beginning of their careers.

    De-emphasize the use of quizzes and exams to motivate people. Exams are problematic in a diverse group that includes complete novices alongside of university bioenergy researchers.

    Instead, use a highly competitive selection process to ensure that participants are highly motivated and supported by their supervisors.

    Insist that participants conduct their own training when they return home. This should be a requirement to complete the training and receive a certificate.

    Walk the talk. We included a Kill-a-Watt meter in each participant’s gift bag, allowing them to monitor their own energy consumption. We also used recycled paper goods and biodegradable flatware, served an all-local-food dinner, and encouraged carpooling and purchasing carbon offsets for travel to and from the training. Get creative and think of ways to make the training more fun and thought-provoking.

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.