Given the rising cost of operating a farm in today’s economy, many small farmers in Missouri feel the challenging economic times more than other residents. To help farmers in the state save resources and money, the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA), along with a number of partners, created a program known as MAESTRO, or Missouri Agricultural Energy Saving Team—A Revolutionary Opportunity. The goal of MAESTRO was to help small farming operations across Missouri implement solutions to reduce energy use, thereby increasing profitability.
Using $5 million in seed funding from the U.S. Department of Energy's Better Buildings Neighborhood Program, MAESTRO targeted small, underserved farms that are not considered confined animal feeding operations, as well as those farmers’ homes. Beyond decreasing small farms’ energy use and enhancing their financial stability, MAESTRO served as a model for other state agricultural sectors.
MDA partnered with various colleges within the University of Missouri, EnSave, and the Missouri Agricultural and Small Business Development Authority (MASBDA). The University of Missouri partners helped to coordinate and promote the program and assisted with evaluation of assessments and upgrade delivery. EnSave, an organization with experience in agricultural energy efficiency, also helped with marketing efforts but was especially important where the technical aspects of the agricultural energy assessments were concerned. MASBDA assisted with financing upgrades, because as an authority that promotes the development of agriculture and small business, it could provide financing at lower interest rates.
MAESTRO took advantage of pre-existing networks to promote the program, both through the University of Missouri’s local connections and EnSave’s partnerships, which were critical in spreading the word and getting farmers on board. Once farmers learned of the program, they could call EnSave to request an energy assessment of their farm or home. After completing the assessment, farmers could get financial assistance with upgrades in their homes or farm operations—including lighting, ventilation, insulation, and cooling—using the program’s significant grants and rebates. Read more in the MAESTRO final report.
MAESTRO utilized the agricultural community’s existing network to spread the word and offered substantial financial incentives to help small farming operations across Missouri participate.
- Agricultural Program Design: MAESTRO offered two types of energy assessments: a technical assistance report that analyzed one or two specific farm technologies; and an energy management plan that more comprehensively assessed farms’ energy usage. Once farmers underwent energy assessments, they could take advantage of financial incentives, including grants and rebates, to fund their upgrades. Throughout, MAESTRO staff assisted farmers through the process and helped them evaluate potential energy savings opportunities.
- Marketing and Outreach: MAESTRO directly engaged the managers of small farming operations by using existing networks to spread information about the program. University of Missouri Extension field staff visited farmers to inform them of the program, and program staff promoted the program at field days, fairs, and symposia. MAESTRO also worked with local equipment dealers, manufacturers, and other agricultural organizations to spread the message about return on investment, explaining how energy upgrades would save farms money.
- Financing: While MAESTRO initially created a revolving loan fund to make upgrades more affordable, the program found that greater financial incentives than loans were needed to get farmers to undertake upgrades. MAESTRO subsidized the full cost of $500 assessments for farmers; energy management plans, normally valued at $1,500, were available at the significantly reduced rate of $125. Farmers who reduced their farm’s energy use by at least 15% through the upgrades recommended in their assessment were eligible for a cost share grant, which provided 75% of the upgrade cost up to $12,000. Other financial incentives included an interest rate buy-down to 3% for loans up to $50,000, and 25 to 40% upfront funding for projects on an as-needed basis. MAESTRO also set up a loan loss reserve fund to encourage lenders to loan upgrade funds to farmers at lower interest rates.
- Workforce Development: The program trained approximately 20 energy professionals in assessment and data collection, which certified them to perform EnSave’s energy assessments. Approximately 20 energy professionals were trained in data collection so they could perform EnSave’s energy assessments, and a few became Building Professional Institute (BPI)-certified.
- Residential Program Design: Farmers could also have energy assessments of their homes completed for $125. Farmers that implemented recommended efficiency measures to achieve at least a 15% reduction in energy use in their homes were eligible for a cost share grant of up to $8,000, and the cost of the initial home energy assessment was rebated in full.
Through conducting assessments and promoting energy upgrades in small farms across the state, MAESTRO program staff learned important lessons about targeting the agricultural sector, including:
- Embrace local messengers. To promote the program, University of Missouri Extension personnel reached out to farmers directly at agricultural events and through personal visits. This proved an effective tactic in encouraging farmers to participate in the program, because Extension staff were seen as trusted messengers.
- Adjust financial incentives when necessary. At the beginning of the program, MAESTRO offered farmers low-interest loans to help them finance upgrades but found that farmers were not interested in taking on more debt, particularly in challenging economic times. To get more farmers to participate in the program, MAESTRO decided to reallocate funding from loans to grants and reduce the cost of energy assessments.
- Make programs flexible. MAESTRO program staff discovered that saving energy in farm buildings is very different than in residential or commercial buildings, where the whole-building concept tends to work. In agricultural buildings, significant energy savings can be achieved by employing more singular strategies. For example, improving lighting or installing more efficient heating systems alone can yield significant reductions in energy use, so some upgrades only focused on one or two technologies of the farming operation.
- Increase participant investment. Although farmers did not have to pay much for energy assessments through MAESTRO, even requiring farmers to pay a low percentage of the cost made them more invested in the energy efficiency process. Also, in order to access certain grants and rebates, farmers needed to achieve at least a 15% reduction in energy use for their farm or residence. This incentivized farmers to complete the upgrades recommended in their energy assessments.
- Ensure assessment consistency from the outset. For the farmers’ home energy assessments, the program employed a number of third-party contractors, and the assessment reports differed in precision level. Significant work was required to extract quantifiable data from all reports. To avoid this in the future, the program suggests defining a standard protocol that all home energy evaluators are required to follow.
Although MAESTRO has completed its work as a program, both its farm building and home energy efficiency efforts will carry on in Missouri:
- The agriculture-focused component of MAESTRO will continue through the Midwest Energy Efficiency Research Consortium (MEERC) through the University of Missouri. As a multidisciplinary organization, MEERC will share information with all sectors of the economy, work on the business development side of energy efficiency, and develop energy efficiency technologies through industry partnerships.
- The collaborative partnerships formed during the MAESTRO program period will lay the groundwork for MEERC to continue to work with technical colleges, national associations, government agencies, utilities, and the business and industry sectors. MEERC has already created an evaluation, monitoring, and verification system for assessing the energy use of agriculture facilities and developed a national energy efficiency training institute.
- A “Master Builder” program is being created based on lessons learned through MAESTRO in order to provide continuing education to Missouri’s builders.
- Data from a broiler facility in Versailles, Missouri, has prompted further research by the MAESTRO/MEERC team. In addition to the facility exceeding the 15% minimum energy efficiency level for inclusion in the program, the team observed that bird mortality dropped and production improved since the upgrades. Birds have often been ready market several days or a week ahead of schedule. The program hopes to replicate this trend in other producers without increasing the size scope of their infrastructure.