Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has unveiled a comprehensive energy strategy to help farmers and ranchers mitigate the impact of high energy costs and develop long-term solutions.

“As I've traveled the country conducting listening sessions, I've heard loud and clear that producers are struggling with high energy costs,” said Johanns. “USDA has put together an array of efforts to assist producers both in the short and long term.

“I've appointed a leadership team to oversee our comprehensive strategy and ensure specific goals are met relating to energy-saving assistance for producers and the advancement of renewable fuels.”

Johanns announced the formation of the USDA Energy Council to examine departmental programs and authorities, ensuring they fit into a comprehensive energy strategy. The council will also ensure agricultural producers have a place at the table for national energy discussions. The council will be chaired by Under Secretary for Rural Development Thomas Dorr and will be vice-chaired by Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Mark Rey and Chief Economist Keith Collins.

Johanns also announced that USDA is interested in creating risk management tools that would help producers to manage the adverse impacts of high energy and energy-related input costs. USDA's Risk Management Agency (RMA) will host a workshop by early spring to seek ideas and promote discussion about how best to create such risk management tools.

Recognizing that higher energy costs can impact producers' ability to borrow funds, Johanns directed the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to use all available budget authorities, and if necessary, seek approval to redirect resources within its guaranteed and direct loan programs to provide support to producers who need credit. FSA provides direct and guaranteed loan assistance to more than 26,000 family farmers totaling $3 billion annually.

Another part of USDA's effort to mitigate energy costs in the short term is the availability of a newly revised online energy calculator designed to help producers to reduce fuel usage. USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service developed the “Energy Estimator” to calculate the diesel fuel usage and costs associated with various tillage practices, helping producers to make practical, money-saving decisions.

Conservation practices such as nutrient management, crop residue management, irrigation management, windbreaks, and contour farming also help to reduce the nation's dependence on fossil fuels while saving farmers money and helping to protect soil and water resources.

USDA is also intensifying efforts to support the development, production and use of renewable fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, through an array of research, loan and grant programs. Johanns has directed Rural Development to maximize the use of approximately $1.4 billion available this year in various business and electric loan and loan guarantee authorities.

Specifically, Johanns directed the funds be used to help farmers, ranchers and rural communities efficiently create renewable energy systems and businesses.

Since 2001, USDA Rural Development has awarded nearly $290 million in renewable energy funding. The funds support renewable energy projects such as ethanol plants, wind and solar power units that create jobs and spur growth in rural communities.

The Forest Service and other USDA agencies will intensify their support of renewable fuels research, development and use.

The new Energy Council will coordinate implementation of USDA's energy strategy and partner with the U.S. Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency and others in an effort to achieve the Renewable Fuels Standard set by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 well before the statutory deadline. The standard requires an annual usage rate of 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2012.

More information about USDA's energy strategy is available at www.usda.gov/energy, including a USDA Energy Fact Sheet, the Energy Calculator, and details of USDA's energy-related loan and grant programs.