Tapping into on-farm energy
By Sarah Johnson
Energy and food production can go hand in hand according to Victorian farmer Steven Hobbs, who is appealing to Australian farmers to harness the potential of on-farm energy.
Farmers have an abundant source of underutilised energy at their disposal according to Victorian farmer and Nuffield scholar Steven Hobbs. “We’ve concentrated on the smallest part of the crop and that’s the seed head or the grain, which is around 30% of what the plant produces,” he said. “There’s so much more in the plant that we can tap into. Some of that is in the biomass, which we can use to build the soil, but we can also use it for energy.
“Energy is one of the greatest demands in agriculture and I’d love to see farmers start growing energy as part of their cropping rotations. Farmers have a huge untapped potential just by growing one little oilseed crop.”
The fourth-generation farmer from Kaniva in the West Wimmera region began experimenting with alternative fuel sources nearly 15 years ago. Steven was inspired when flicking through his Grandfather’s farming photographs, which showed how his predecessors sourced energy: by growing oaten hay to feed the horses that powered the implements.
“Grandpa was growing and storing carbohydrate energy as hay to run his organic tractors – his horses,” said Steven.
“It was that concept that really struck me, and I thought we can apply it in a new way.”
“We’d grow the oats to feed the horses to grow the oats!”
In early 2000, Steven purchased an oil expeller to produce vegetable oil and the results of these trials prompted him to build a small biodiesel plant to start producing biodiesel and pure vegetable oil from mustard seeds grown on his property.
In 2004, his research went global, when a Nuffield scholarship allowed him to study decentralised energy production in Germany, Finland, Wales, England and the USA. “In Europe they’re growing oil seeds to feed the iron horses,” said Steven. “For Europeans, it’s nothing different. It’s happening over there because they’ve been forced to innovate. In Australia, we’ve been too lazy and no one is innovating in this area.
Steven believes that farmers can grow a biofuel crop without affecting production. “From my own personal experience, I would argue that you can actually enhance and increase food production using a biofuel crop on your farm,” he said.
Steven has found many uses for his fuel crops, from producing vegetable oil and biodiesel to using press cakes to supplement his sheep feed and even creating press cake briquettes to warm his home during winter.
It’s not only the sheep that benefit from the press cake, as Steven has recently experimented with using it as fuel to heat his home and hot water system, by creating high-density press cake briquettes for his combustion heater. He installed a flue heat exchanger that connects to the hot water cylinder in the roof space, which captures the heat that normally escapes through the flue. “You capture about 3 kilowatts of heat that would otherwise be lost to the atmosphere,” said Steven, adding that the briquettes produce two times more energy and burn up to three times longer that the equivalent weight in wood.
Steven’s passion is to harness the natural resources that all farmers have available to them: the soil, plants and the sun and challenges other farmers to recognise their own on-farm energy. “We don’t realise what we’ve got. As someone once said, if you know better you do better. There’s an opportunity for all of us to start tapping into the energy reserves on our farms,” he said.
“Whether you believe in climate change or not, the point is that agriculture needs to dramatically reduce its dependence on fossil energy…we’re only producing cheap food because we’ve got cheap energy.
“And if we’ve got declining rainfall, how can we continue to grow more with less? Agriculture has a huge challenge to produce enough food to feed the world’s growing population.
“We need to respond to changing climatic conditions, by using our water, nutrients and resources better.”