The Farmer's Stand

Climate Change solutions by farm communities

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“A crisis makes people much more open to new ideas”
Soren Hermensen, vegetable farmer from Island of Samsoe, Denmark

It isn't surprising to me that an island of farmers, half the size and less than half the population of Salt Spring, have found themselves to be the first industrialized place to qualify as being completely energy self-sufficient. Samsoe, an island that once produced 45,000 tonnes of CO2 per year – 11 tonnes per capita – now produces -15,000 tonnes and exports electricity to the mainland of Denmark. Yes, that is minus fifteen thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide, one of the gases involved in climate change. Delegates to the world summit on climate change in Copenhagen in December had the opportunity to see Samsoe Island, which was showcased as an example to communities everywhere.
It all started in 1997. At that time, the farmers of Samsoe were being squeezed out of the marketplace by the big farms as global trade brought in lower prices, and the main employer – a slaughterhouse that employed 100 people – shut down. That same year the energy ministry announced a competition for the best proposal to find out how much renewable energy could be produced in a single district – or island. An engineer from the mainland of Denmark thought the isle of Samsoe would be perfect for this concept. He studied and calculated annual wind speeds, sunshine hours and biomass potential, put a plan together, and won the contest. He persuaded the islanders to form an energy association and of the fifty people that attended the first meeting, one champion for the cause stood out. Soren Hermensen, a struggling small vegetable farmer and environmental educator, found his calling. He spoke with everyone – even renting a fruit press that he took from village to village for the opportunity to pitch the plan. Everyone had apple trees, and gradually more and more people came on board with the project. It was agreed that the community of mostly farmers would keep control – there was to be no funding or arrangements with major energy companies.
Samsoe had a target of ten years to become climate neutral and it took 8 years instead. Now, 12 years in the project, they produce 40% more energy than they use. There are 21 wind turbines – ten offshore, half owned by the local government. The other 11 are all over the islands, owned by 450 resident shareholders. There are solar panels on rooftops and in long rows in pastures, with the grass clipped by flocks of sheep. Farmers grow canola and use the oil for biofuel to run their tractors, and the pressed meal is fed to their livestock. Straw from the grain harvest is burned in one of three biomass-fired heat plants. Woodwaste is also burned in the heat plants. Even the cows that eat the solar collectors known as “grass” help out. Cows are milked twice a day, and as the milk is cooled from 38 C to 3 C, heat exchangers are used to provide heat for the farmhouses.
New skills and diversification resulted – plumbers and carpenters are now experts in energy saving home conversions. Some homes are over 150 years old and were converted with energy saving windows, insulation and solar collectors.
Perhaps the best part of all of this is that the farmers of Samsoe are no different from farmers any where else in the world. They are average farmers, very conservative, adamantly not hippies as one might suspect. As one of the conditions of the original contest, the technologies used had to be “off the shelf”, available and familiar to everyone. This was not a technological revolution, but instead a social revolution. The plan was not imposed on the community but was decided locally, to show what can be done to reduce the ecological footprint and still maintain a comfortable lifestyle. That is the only way such a pilot could be successful as a model for other communities.
Another key to success was the sizable investment by everyone involved – individuals, businesses, communities, government. The government assured the loans and guaranteed electricity rates above the cost of production. Banks had no problem loaning money under such supportive conditions.
The biggest key to success was the farmers themselves. Farmers as a group are used to being resourceful and doing things for the right reasons, and not necessarily to make a lot of money. It has been a bonus to them that the project has proven to be profitable. Even the weather has cooperated. Usually weather is an uncertainty that can make or break a farmer, but in this case it's all good. Whether its sun for the solar collectors, wind for the wind turbines, or rain for the grass, there isn't any bad weather on Samsoe anymore.

“It takes courage to bring about change. But as each of us finds the courage to change ourselves, we will begin to change the world.”
John Ikerd, Agricultural Economist in “Crisis and Opportunity-Sustainability in American Agriculture”