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Energy conservation benefits state's farmers

Gary Hawkins stands next to a solar panel.

Gary Hawkins stands next to a solar panel.

TIFTON, Ga. -- Gary Hawkins' passion is conserving energy and natural resources

Whether he's working with solar energy or converting wastes into renewable energy, Hawkins' job at the University of Georgia revolves around conservation.

Conservation isn't only about helping farmers leave a smaller ecological footprint -- it's about helping farmers make the most of what they have to work with, said Hawkins, a public service associate with the UGA Cooperative Extension Service.

Waste management is one of three ways Hawkins helps farmers conserve their resources.

Hawkins works with anaerobic digestion, the process of converting organic products and wastes into methane gas. This involves taking a waste product (fruit and vegetable waste) and producing methane gas, which can be burned for heat or to generate electricity.

"We've shown specifically with onions that we can get enough energy out of waste onions to do what we need to do with it," Hawkins said.

Hawkins has been working with a packing house in Vidalia that produces upwards of 100,000 pounds of onions per week. Culls from the operation have to be disposed of in some form.

"We're trying to help them find good, economical, environmentally friendly ways of converting the waste to a usable byproduct," he said.

Hawkins said anything with a carbon backbone can be converted to methane gas.

Hawkins also helps farmers use energy from the sun to provide water for either their livestock or for irrigation. The process is only economical for farmers who have cattle in areas where electricity is not available. If there aren't power lines in close proximity, wells can be drilled and solar power can run pumps to supply water to the cattle.

Water management is also high on Hawkins' list of priorities. Unlike the previous two years when Tifton received 10.66 inches and 10.93 inches of rain from January-April, this year Tifton has benefited from 26.35 inches. However, understanding the abundance of rainfall is not likely to continue, Hawkins encourages farmers to conserve the water they have.

"It's really conserving how much water we have and using that to the best ability for the plant to grow, optimize itself and reduce runoff, which saves our soil," Hawkins said. "Trying to figure out ways to increase organic matter in the soil, which then holds more water, which then reduces the number of times we have to irrigate."

Much of Hawkins' work with water conservation revolves around educating farmers and extension agents on irrigation systems, soil systems and conservation tillage.

"It's really just looking at soil monitoring and how do we use numbers we get from soil monitoring to help us better understand how much water's in the soil," Hawkins said.

More water in the soil leads to less irrigation needed by farmers, which results in conserving a natural resource, Hawkins' plan all along.

"I don't like to waste anything," Hawkins said.