Southeastern Indiana Innovation Conference

The Greensburg & Decatur County Economic Development Corporation and Duke Energy proudly presented The Southeastern Indiana Innovation Conference, “Building Sustainability with Agriculture” on Friday, January 26, 2024.

The conference was well attended with several Greensburg Community Schools students in attendance. Bryan Robbins, Executive Director of Greensburg & Decatur County Economic Development Corporation welcomed everyone. During his opening, he stated that this conference is meant to be a showcase of forward thinkers on how agriculture and energy can together shape the future. Bryan then introduced Kylie Foster, Duke Energy. Kylie stated that the grant that Bryan applied for to have the funding available to have today’s event was very competitive and it was open to other EDC offices and Bryan’s submission was approved.

Ed Baptista, Director of Development, Agrivoltaics & Green Hydrogen Doral Renewables USA, was the first presenter and spoke about a holistic approach to a regionally adapted, efficient dual use of land for solar energy production and agriculture. Ed stated, “Some look at solar as a competition for the agricultural use of land. When in fact we are looking to combine forces to plan for the future.” At this time Dorel Renewable has 150,000 acres of control for the development of their company throughout the country. They currently are the largest team that is working on a 12,800 acre 1.3GW Solar Project in Polaski County. Ed spoke about the need for open conversations with farmers and those within the agriculture community. He said, “Without farmers, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything.” He stated that one of the major obstacles to solar is common misconceptions. Ed provided an example: Many individuals state that solar will affect farmland and even contaminate the soil. He explained that this is untrue as they do not use chemicals of any kind and utilize metal beams to mount the solar panels in the ground. They do not use concrete. He believes that working together and repurposing farmland will improve efficiency and soil recovery. When solar energy is in place, the energy created gets sold to a wholesale market and usually does not support the immediate area it is located in. An estimate of $700-$1200 per acre was presented as payment to the farmer to utilize the land depending on property value variations. He spoke at length about utilizing animals such as sheep to graze within the fence of a solar field and mentioned the continuation of the production of melons and hay between the panels.

Carl Ramsey, Digestor Operations Manager Fair Oaks Dairy, presented “Innovations in Ag: Technology’s role in coming full circle.” He spoke about manure management activities within the farm and the ability to sell manure. He stated that in 1900 40% of individuals lived on farms. Today less than 1% of individuals currently live on farms. However, 5% of farms produce 60+% of today’s needs. He stated that what is old is new again. Carl said that we as an industry are starting to go back to a time when we were becoming more aware of sustainable practices. Carl stated, “Manure nutrients are the original fertilizer, most compatible with soil health needs.” Carl ended his presentation by stating that Research and Development is key, and to do that Tax incentives must continue to allow farmers and researchers to find the best methods available to allow for sustainability in the future of agriculture.

Chris Fogle, the Moderator hosted a panel discussion titled “Progressive Practices in SE Indiana.” Panelists for this discussion were representatives from Hulscbosch Dairy Farm, Hoosier Solar Grazing, and Greenacres Foundation. The common discussion was the need to invest in technology and education. Some of the things that are being utilized now are solar fencing for fencing, utilizing rainwater, utilizing ear tags that can give a baseline and detail what each specific animal is doing including eating and health, and utilizing genetic testing to continue improving the flock. Greenacres Foundation stated that they are trying to leave the land better than what it was and educate the public. The Hoosier Solar Grazing representative stated that they want to continue to move forward with the industry. Hulscbosch Dairy Farm stated that they want to continue towards ROI, increase public relations, and increase safety. These are all components that are needed to be sustainable. Also, a large component is an investment into the community. Not only local neighbors but those that are in surrounding counties. The panelists also discussed the need to continue education and contact through social media and how to expand their footprint.

Bryan Robbins took the stage after a brief break for lunch. He spoke about REAP- Rural Energy for America Program which has grant and loan opportunities for Ag producers and small businesses located in Rural areas. To find out more information Bryan stated that reaching out to the USDA Development Energy Coordinator is the first step. Also, small businesses are welcome to reach out to our local Small Business Administration liaison Jenny Fowler.

Mitch Frazier, Chief Executive Officer of Agrinovus Indiana presented “What’s Ahead: 3 Trends Shaping The Future of Food and Ag.” Mitch spoke about how the agriculture industry plays a key role in shaping the state, national, and global economy. He stated that to ignite change and move forward we must bring the government and agriculture industry together. He stated that in 2018 Agriculture Bioscience brought 52 billion dollars into the economy, then in 2021 that grew to 58.1 billion dollars. Mitch stated that this accounts for every food/agriculture business “From the farmer’s gate to your plate.” He then went into the 3 trends which are 1. Tightening economy fuels innovation, 2. Artificial Intelligence from hype to help, and 3. Bioeconomy becomes a growth engine.

Professor Peter Schubert, Director of Richard G. Lugar Center for Renewable Energy, spoke about Spent Animal Bedding to Energy. Robert stated that Indiana is #1 in US duck production, however not many eat the duck so it is a major export. He states that in Indiana there are 15,000,000 ducks raised which equals 3 ducks per 1 Hoosier. He has developed a piece of machinery that would take the duck waste and turn that into an energy source. He has received five patents for this machine and process. He is working with design experts and investors to bring the machine to market. Many in the crowd asked questions and wanted more information on the machine and what it takes to take from a design to market to ensure that it runs without issues. He is focused on taking waste and turning that into cost savings for the farmer.

Bryan Robbins came back to the stage and thanked everyone. The Conference was adjourned. After the meeting, I had an opportunity to speak with Dawn Lowe, Executive Director of Greensburg Decatur County Chamber of Commerce. I asked her how she felt the chamber plays a part in the agriculture future of Decatur County. Dawn said, “The GDC Chamber exists to support the business community by providing resources, leadership, platform and networking opportunities, marketing, and more to its members. The agricultural industry is one of the largest industry sectors of our membership, along with our region in general so we take great pride in working closely with those members to learn about advancement opportunities both within their industry and at their specific locations. As they grow and learn, we will walk alongside them, educating ourselves and others to better support one another. These advancements also bring potential new companies to our area that we are excited to support as well!”

I also had the opportunity to speak with Deanna Burkart, Decatur County Council Member, and asked her what was the reason that she was attending this conference. She replied, “I’m attending the Ag Conference as a 5th-generation Decatur County farmland owner. This event highlights the strength of our community. Agriculture is not just a part of our past, but a big part of our future! Staying in the know about future opportunities in Science and Agriculture will help to better create a strong vision for the future of our community.”

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