Spud growers get energy audits for crop donations
By John O’Connell
ST. ANTHONY, Idaho — An eastern Idaho organization that facilitates free energy audits for farmers expects its funding recipients will help stock local food banks with fresh potatoes in return.
During the past three years, farms served by participating rural Idaho electric companies have saved nearly 4 million kilowatt hours of power through upgrades recommended by High Country Resource, Conservation and Development audits.
However, the grant provider, Bonneville Power Administration, withdrew its $300,000 in annual funds for its Ag Energy Efficiency program in September, in response to federal budget cuts.
High Country will continue a scaled-down version of the program — which once covered customers throughout eastern Idaho and as far southwest as Magic Valley — next season for growers served by Fall River Electric Co. in Madison, Fremont and Teton counties. The program was saved by a $35,000 grant from Walmart.
High Country contracts with Rumsey Engineering in Rexburg to conduct the audits. Matching funding may be available through Fall River Electric and the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help farmers implement energy-savings improvements.
To meet a Walmart grant priority of addressing hunger and healthy eating, High Country Executive Coordinator Pam Herdrich said her organization pledged participating growers will help the Idaho Foodbank with fresh spud donations.
“That’s another of High Country’s missions is we’re here to help our communities improve the quality of life,” Herdrich said.
Herdrich hopes farmers will allow volunteer groups to glean many of the intact spuds missed in fields at harvest. Other arrangements might involve growers giving a small portion of their crops or simply making cash contributions, though Herdrich acknowledged they can’t legally be forced to help. The Idaho Foodbank will provide technical expertise on how to best collect donated potatoes.
“The Idaho Foodbank is increasingly working with Idaho agriculture across the state, and particularly with eastern Idaho and potato growers,” said Jennifer Johnson, the Idaho Foodbank’s vice president of development. “For us, this is an opportunity to really explore what are some other ways to receive potato donations.”
Johnson said the Foodbank has been emphasizing perishable foods, which now account for 65 percent of its volume.
Lori Ringel, High Country’s Ag Energy Efficiency program manager, hopes to cover 10-15 audits, leading to an energy savings of 135,000 kilowatt hours, with the Walmart funding. She said the previous version of the program helped farmers triple yields, in some cases. She said one pivot upgrade helped a grower save 352,000 kilowatt hours in power.
“We saw so much great work happening,” Ringel said.
Walmart spokesman Rachel Wall said the company’s foundation contributed $315,000 toward seven Idaho projects in 2013.
Wall said High Country “excels at pulling together diverse entities — from the local food bank to individual farmers — in an effort to enhance the lives of those in the community.”