TOPSHAM, Maine — In most ways, farming is about cycles, such as planting, growing and harvesting year after year. For Topsham beef and dairy farmer Bob Bisson, whose family has operated the farm for four generations, there is another kind of cycle that’s less predictable — spikes in energy costs.
As the L&P Bisson and Sons Meat Market and Farm prepares for another planting season — mostly hay and corn silage that is used to feed more than 300 head of cattle and about 75 hogs — Bisson’s eye is fixed on the rising price of fuel for the tractors and trucks that till the fields and later, bring in the crops. Earlier this week, he purchased about 850 gallons of on- and off-road diesel fuel at a cost of about $3,700. If he’s lucky, that fuel will last about two-and-a-half weeks and once summer hits, even less.
“We’ve been here for 85 years and we’ve seen costs progress, but not as fast as this,” said Bisson, who hopes younger members of his family carry on with the business started by his grandfather. “We’re trying to keep prices down, but in the end everybody ends up paying for rising fuel costs. A lot of our customers are older people who are struggling to get by. We feel for them, but what can you do?”
Rising fuel prices is a factor in virtually every industry there is and of course, for consumers. According to agricultural experts, the rising cost of energy is causing havoc now, but has the potential to transform Maine’s farming industry in the long term — and not necessarily in a bad way.
With his fuel costs up about 50 or 60 cents per gallon over last year, Bisson said it’s becoming more difficult than ever to keep his meat and dairy products affordable for customers.
Bisson’s price for hormone-free hamburger, for example, has gone from $2.98 a pound last year to about $3.49 a pound now. To curb fuel usage, Bisson said he and his brothers bought a $100,000 harvester last year. It burns the same amount of fuel as his tractor and tow-behind equipment used to, but can collect three times the crops.
Capital investments designed to save fuel and energy are becoming commonplace among Maine farms and according to Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, it’s a trend that will continue.
“Farmers don’t have any choice. They have to run their tractors if their businesses are going to remain viable,” said Libby, who used to be a petroleum economist for the state’s energy office. “From all of the long-term fuel price projections we see, this is not a short-term problem. There are several continuing worldwide pressures [on energy prices] and the big factors at play right now are not going to go away.”
Libby and others said that although many farmers are taking steps to conserve fuel — such as the Bisson farm’s new harvester or farmers who transition to no-till planting methods — long-term solutions will likely involve farmers growing crops such as corn, potatoes and soybeans for the sole purpose of producing ethanol and other fuels, and possibly harvesting gases like ethanol from animal waste.
Andrew Plant, an educator with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension office in Houlton, said some Maine farmers are following the lead of their European counterparts and starting to explore these methods, but the obstacles are considerable. Chief among those is a dearth of money being spent on researching new technologies. The good news is that whenever the research catches up and fuel prices reach a point that demands new fuel sources, Maine and all its open farmland is in a fantastic position, said Plant.
“As far as heating, we’ve got a lot of forest capacity, and we also have a lot of unused agricultural land which could be producing anything from grasses for heating to biogas to anaerobic digesters [for methane recovery],” he said. “The big thing is that there’s no silver bullet. Everything’s got to be on the table as far as what we can use.”
Plant said various estimates indicate that there are up to 200,000 acres of ready-to-use farmland in Maine that isn’t being used. John Piotti, director of the Maine Farmland Trust, said when grown-over farm plots that were producing crops a century ago are taken into account, that number may be in the several millions of acres.
“Maine is incredibly well positioned to have more agriculture in the future than it does now,” said Piotti. “We have abundant water, which is crucial for farming. We have a lot of undeveloped land, and we have better growing conditions than people give us credit for. It’s really sunlight that is more important on a farm than temperature.”
Piotti said rising energy costs, in the long term, could actually be good for agriculture in Maine. In addition to whatever energy-producing crop operations that spring up, he said Maine’s proximity to large population centers to the south and north will put Maine farmland at a premium as the demand for food grows with the world’s population.
“As energy costs go up there will increasingly be opportunities for farms that are located closer to population centers to do better,” said Piotti. “Farms that principally serve local markets have some advantages over those that ship produce in from 3,000 miles away. However, it doesn’t really matter too much if things might be better situated in 10 or 20 years if our farms go out of business now.”
Piotti said there are about 8,200 farms in Maine, about three-quarters of which sell their goods nearby. However, those farms are the smaller ones and the vast majority of Maine agricultural products, such as potatoes and milk, are shipped to large-scale processors.
Meanwhile, there are farmers everywhere making slow progress, such as Ralph Turner of Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport. As a former mechanical engineer in the petrochemical sector, Turner is now using his knowledge about energy in farming. For the past 10 years, he has been using biodiesel fuel — which comes mostly from used deep-frying machines at restaurants — to heat his greenhouses through the winter. But biodiesel isn’t the long-term answer to farmers’ energy problems, he said.
“It’s not something we can count on long term as fuel,” he said. “I believe it’s going to take a lot of different answers. The biomass that we have in the state of Maine can play a role at some level, but it’s going to take lots of solutions.”
Plant, of the cooperative extension’s Houlton office, said he is involved in a visioning group that includes agricultural and energy experts from across the northeastern United States. In 2010, the group produced a study called “Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass: A vision for 2025.” The study envisions at least one-fourth of the northeastern states’ energy needs being met by plant-based sources, including about 40 percent from forest products and a whopping 60 percent from agriculture. But it’s a lofty goal, he said.
“Right now the challenge is that in agriculture, we don’t even make up 1 percent [of energy production] right now,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done. On top of that, there’s going to be a tremendous need by 2050, when we will be asked to double our production to meet food demands. There’s an ongoing battle between using agriculture for energy or food. If I was a farmer or if I was a landowner, I’d be pretty bullish right now about investing in agriculture.”