The benefits alternative energy sources offer in residential and commercial applications are already widely known. However, as this country moves decisively — even if it’s a bit slowly — toward clean energy, a variety of additional applications are coming to light.

One of these is the agricultural market, which has struggled in recent years, almost across the board, to make ends meet. In an unlikely pairing of technology and tradition, though alternative energies are helping farmers in some exciting and unexpected ways.

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Huge, Untapped Potential

Here’s a remarkable benchmark figure: All of the energy stored in the earth’s vast stockpiles of natural gas, oil and coal, added up, are equal to roughly 20 full days of sunshine. That’s absolutely amazing — and it proves how vitally important it is for us to tap into the sun’s unrivaled source of clean power.

Certain parts of the country do receive even more uninterrupted sunlight than the rest of the US — particularly in the mid-west and the west. That’s why states like Arizona and Nevada are home to much of the country’s farmland and are already a “hot spot” for surging alternative energy use.

Solar use in particular has seen a years-long boost in this region. In Ohio, for example, EcoJiva Solar says the majority of the solar systems they’ve installed have been agriculture-related.

Here’s just a small sample of the ways green energy is benefiting farmers:

  • Lighting: The first and most obvious way that farmers are making use of breakthroughs in solar technology is to provide light and heat for their barns and other buildings. Farmers typically rely on “long day” production schedules, and as the days grow shorter in the cooler months, this type of schedule can produce great strain on their budgets in the form of higher electricity bills.
  • Heating: Livestock buildings are another key culprit here — and another beneficiary of solar technology. Cows, chickens and other farm animals rely on both fresh air and regulated temperatures to remain in peak condition. Both “passive” and “active” solar heating systems can be used to maintain favorable climates in the buildings they call home.
  • Crop Drying: Previously, farmers would leave their crops in the field after harvesting them, in an attempt to dry them out and ready them for collection. Unfortunately, this often impacted their bottom line, on account of potential damage by birds, pests and inclement weather.

Thanks to something called a “solar shed,” farmers are still able to harness the useful rays of the sun to help them dry crops, with the added bonus of storing them away from potential sources of harm. These shed-based solar collectors can be somewhat pricey, but they can also be leveraged to heat other nearby buildings — particularly in the colder months.

A Long-Term Investment

This all sounds pretty excellent, and it paints a rosy picture for the agriculture industry, which has been suffering badly in recent years. In addition to slipping grain prices, which have in some cases rendered farming literally unprofitable, the barrier to entry has also impacted young people who want to get into agriculture and become the next generation of American farmers.

Solar power is, admittedly, a long-term investment, and it’s one that does little to remedy the already high buy-in for new farmers. Thankfully, thanks to government subsidies on green energy sources, the upfront costs can frequently be reduced — sometimes substantially.

Moreover, solar and other green technologies are better able than ever to pay for themselves after just a few years of use. Utility bills for farmers are incredibly high, but investing in solar technology can reduce that burden substantially. Additionally, because farms occupy so much physical space, it’s possible to get away with less expensive and less efficient solar equipment, while still fulfilling their needs. Simply put, the smaller your property is, the more efficient your equipment needs to be.

Regrettably, keeping these subsidies alive can sometimes be an uphill battle. In North Carolina, for instance, hog farmers have fought the good fight in petitioning their state legislature to keep green energy subsidies off the chopping block.

In other parts of the country, petitioners have met with defeat, as in Nevada, where solar subsidies met with a string of recent disappointments.

Fighting the Good Fight

There’s little wonder why there’s been so much pushback. Incumbent utility companies — most of which still cling slavishly to coal and other dirty fossil fuels — have seen the writing on the wall for some time, and have worked actively to undermine efforts to move towards renewable energy sources.

Their favorite tools for waging this war are, of course, venal politicians who serve the energy industry first and real American citizens second. You can’t swing a dead cat in Congress without hitting a Republican (and more than a few Democrats) who are in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry.

It’s clear the status quo and its servants are fighting hard against this sort of positive change, but it’s also clear that America’s farmers — who have very good reasons for investing in green energy sources — aren’t taking it lying down. It’s extremely encouraging to see emerging green technologies used in exciting new ways, from keeping chickens warm at night to drying crops. Their example should serve as a wake-up call for the rest of the country.

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Holly Whitman

Holly Whitman is the author behind Only Slightly Biased, a freelance journalist and striving to be one of the best women political writers on the web. Her work has been featured on Yahoo Finance, Fortune, Politicus, Bust and Feministing. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman.

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