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Keeping the land picturesque while increasing food production

September 24, 2012

In agriculture, we are always hearing issues related to global warming, green energy, environmental sustainability and feeding the world.

All of these issues can be hot-button issues and I am not here to debate them.

I would, however, like to look at the inconsistency that I find quite common.

I have found one common thread that cuts across all these issues, and that is, the more passionate a person is about the issue, the less it actually affects them.

When I say affects them, I mean in the first-person sense. I realize everyone is affected by energy costs, but when I say in the first-person sense, I mean the cost is both monetary and physical, such as time and work.

Today, I will deal with two situations that are related to green energy — environmental sustainability and feeding the world.

As many of you may know, there is a solar farm going in here in the county and I am sure it is not as green as it should be.

First. the site is taking active farmland out of production. The farmland that is being removed from production had previously increased carbon storage through enhanced soil sequestration and might even had an affect on emissions of methane and nitrous oxide.

This is what modern agricultural practices have been focusing on for years with no-till, cover crops and more.

So how could we make this system better? Mount the solar panels on 4-foot posts and plant grass under them. Next, design a grazing system where sheep would be used to manage the plant material growing under the panels. This reduces the fossil fuel expended to control vegetation, sequester carbon and will yield both food and fiber.

All that while collecting solar energy by both panels and plants.

Managing vegetation with livestock, while not new, has fallen out of favor but might need to be rethought as demand for food grows.

Grazing animals do not burn any fossil fuel and turn plants into protein, fiber and milk. Just think of all the common areas, right of ways and stormwater areas that are mowed, burning thousands of gallons of petroleum while belching fumes and greenhouse gases.

One example of change can be found in Charlotte, Vt., a forward thinking town that is planning to use sheep to maintain grass in its cemeteries. What could be more scenic than sheep grazing around monuments? This particular town estimates in addition to greatly reducing the amount of carbon monoxide from mowing, it will also save $2,000.

With a little creative thinking, we can attack many of the problems facing our communities with green solutions.

It will definitely take thinking outside-of-the-box along will people willing to try unfamiliar practices.

I don’t know, but I think together we can increase food production while adding to the picturesque nature of our communities.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at jsemler@umd.edu.

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