FallEdible BostonComment

Greener Pastures

FallEdible BostonComment

Greener Pastures:

Cider Hill Farm

by Margaret Bresnahan

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 As agriculture has become increasingly mechanized, the
growing cost of energy has come to have a huge influence on
farm production and income. This already risky business,
dependent on everything from unpredictable weather to the
shifting consumer, is now subject to the volatility of the energy
market. Green technology and sustainable agriculture
are gaining a new and necessary precedent in farming communities.

 

By producing their own energy, farmers can not
only reduce their dependence on foreign oil and strengthen
their local economy, but they also help combat climate
change by reducing carbon emissions. Renewable energy has
become more than a distant possibility, it is a basic practicality.
Driving into Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury, MA, this concept
is given a visual reality; against the classic pastoral background
of rolling hills, bountiful orchards, and scattered
chickens are three strikingly elegant wind turbines. Basking
in the sun, lying amongst the pristine rows of vegetables is
a system of solar panels. As stunning as this modern “Pastoral
Concert” is, the intent is more than cosmetic. At Cider
Hill, renewable energy was always a part of the picture. Firstgeneration
farmers Glenn and Karen Cook bought a 14-
acre poultry farm in 1981 with
the intent of creating a space
where quality and sustainability
went hand-in-hand. Glenn’s
parents purchased an adjoining
dairy farm in 1978, and the
families merged the properties
to form a joint farm of 145
acres. Glenn’s father, Ed Cook,
a Ph.D. and graduate of Yale
University, was an early supporter
and developer of solar
and micro technology. “Growing up, I already heard about
these great ideas and projects, so I was really aware that there
was a lot of things you could do to not be on the oil train.”
It was a natural progression to integrate such environmental
consciousness into the development of Cider Hill.
In January 2007, Glenn began integrating renewable energy
into the design of Cider Hill; a diverse farm with 12
greenhouses, a farm store, a bakery, beehives, vegetable fields
and pick-your-own orchards. He installed three 10 kW
wind turbines, a 10 kW of photovoltaic (PV) system comprised
of 56 solar panels, and is planning to install three outdoor
wood-boilers with the combined capacity to produce
2.5 million BTUs. Cider Hill spends around $25,000 on
electricity alone, using approximately 150 thousand kWh a
year. The electricity from the wind turbines helps power the
four residences at Cider Hill, and the solar panels generate
20% of the energy needed for the commercial part of the
business, such as the barn, bakery, and large apple coolers.
Although this output does not meet the full needs of the
farm, Glenn sees renewable energy as a way to find harmony
between business and beliefs. “It’s about the systems that
create our food—who grows it, where, and how—as much
as it is about the food itself. It’s about the way we treat the
land, the whole philosophy of really trying to take care of the
place. And this is part of that.”
For Glenn, living sustainably takes number one priority;
he works to preserve and enhance the land, approaching it
with an environmental sensibility that focuses both on the
process and the produce. This means that every little step
towards conservation makes a difference and sets a precedent
for other growers. “Every few months we’re thinking about
new things…we’re thinking already about electro-hydro,
just as a demonstration.” Over the last 25 years, the soil on
Cider Hill Farm has risen from 2 percent organic matter to
almost 10 percent due to a rigorous compost application
program. From experiments with geothermal to researching
more effective production techniques, Glenn is constantly
looking for ways to get maximum efficiency of the land.
The decision to integrate
wind and solar power was a
part of this experimentation—
investing in and pioneering
a sustainable
approach to modern farming.
When Glenn started
looking at renewable energy
in 2005, the market price for
a system—wind or solar—
was still quite expensive.
Glenn and Karen had to be
able to pay for the system on their own, receiving rebates
and grants for their project only after they had installed it.
When Glenn purchased his system, it cost $87,000 for the
PV system and wind turbines were starting at $45,000 a
piece. Today, installers are charging up to $60,000 for the
same wind turbine Glenn bought almost two years ago. Although
the demand for renewable energy continues to grow,
there are still not enough manufacturers to produce an affordable
product. As prices rise, Glenn’s hope is that “people
will realize the tremendous benefits of renewable energy, and
both the government and individuals will be willing to allocate
more money for the support of these systems.”
In order to make renewable energy a reality at Cider Hill
Farm, Glenn applied for a series of alternative-energy grants
and rebates from the Massachusetts Technology Cooperative
(MTC) and the Agricultural Environmental EnhancementProgram (AEEP). At the time, potential buyers had to fill
out grant applications on their own, a process that Glenn
generously describes as “cumbersome.” After a few weeks of
buckling down, Glenn submitted his grant applications and
was awarded two $37,500 grants, a $35,000 rebate from
MTC and a $30,000 grant from AEEP. Two months after
Glenn got his first rebate approval, it was decided that all
MTC grant or rebate applications had to be completed by
the system installers (with a fee) in order to make the process
more approachable. An event like this may be frustrating
for some, but Glenn laughs, dismissing it as just another
bump on the path of a trailblazer.
Overcoming the hurdles and complications of renewable
energy takes a renewable spirit for, as Glenn notes, “this
business has been all about learning and research.” Only
after Glenn decided to try wind turbines did he find that
they produced less energy than projected; he was hoping to
generate 700 to 800 kilowatt hours of electricity a month,
but because of his slightly inland location, Glenn’s turbines
churn out closer to 600 kWhs in the winter months and
200 during the summer. Through such research, Glenn
found that solar panels were a more efficient energy source
for Cider Hill, producing $2,400 worth of electricity a year
and generating an average of 1,200 kWhs a month. It’s an
ongoing process of experimentation and innovation.
As the President of the Farm Bureau in Essex County,
Glenn is able to direct such findings through the proper
channels. In 2006 he voiced the need for annual (versus
monthly) net metering, a proposal which was adopted by
the Mass Farm Bureau, lobbied for at the statehouse, and
ultimately addressed in the Green Communities Act. The
amount of energy used in farming varies from season to season,
with greenhouses and the like needing more energy
during the winter months. Net metering allows the system
owner to retain credit for any excess energy that is
generated through either solar or wind power. In
Massachusetts, this excess energy is assessed
monthly, meaning that the system owner can only
keep their accumulated credits for a month. To be
efficient for farmers, energy credits need to carry
forward instead of ending on a monthly basis.
“With annual net metering, you can create a system
to match the process. I can put in an installation
that will generate the correct amount of power
that I use in a certain amount of months, but be
generating that power all year. You can size the installations
according to what you need for the year,
instead of your greatest needs on any given
month.”
Kinks like this still need to be addressed to make
renewable energy more efficient and available. In
addition to the daily practicalities of running a system,
affordability is always an issue. There is a
pressing need for the support and increase in funding
resources, since grants seldom cover more than
50 percent of project costs. Renewable energy projects
featuring solar or wind power do receive a federal
tax credit once the projects are completed, but
this provision runs out at the end of 2008. As of
now, owners are credited 2.1 cents per kilowatthour
of power generated. However, on June 17th
2008, the last effort to renew this tax credit failed.
The Senate denied an extension of the provision,
the funding of which would have been allocated
from the repeal of an existing tax break to oil companies.
The tax credit has lapsed previously in
1999, 2001 and 2003, and each time was followedby a decrease in the number of new wind farms built. Funding
like this is essential to the stability and growth of the renewable
energy industry, and needs government
recognition. On July 2nd, Massachusetts Governor Deval
Patrick signed the Green Communities Act, an energy reform
bill that promotes the development of renewable energy.
Another challenge with renewable energy is that there is
an overwhelming need for this technology to be further integrated
into the private sector. As it is set up now, renewable
energy—specifically wind and biomass fuels—requires a
large land resource that is often only available on agricultural
or government land. Even if enough land is available to install
a renewable system, funding yet again becomes an issue.
According to Glenn, “the biggest problem is that it is really
hard to get the technologies that are out now to support
themselves on their own merit. Technology is so expensive
that without rebates and grants you can’t do it, and that creates
a false economy. As more people try to put them up,
that could create more competition for manufacturers.
Prices need to come down. As it’s set up now, it’s not a sustainable
practice—and everything we do needs to be sustainable.”
In order for renewable energy to become a viable
option for the masses, more systems need to come from the
private sector. Then, says Glenn, “these systems that compete
with old technologies will be universally used. But now,
they’re still kind of elitist in a way; if you don't have the ability
to get these rebates or can’t pay for the installation upfront,
it makes it very difficult.”
Although it is a challenge to become completely energy
self-sufficient, one can make an effort to live and work sustainably
by integrating whatever method of renewable energy
is most effective and affordable. The three wood-boilers
that Glenn is installing reflect this approach. Using the
deadwood from their 60 acres of forest, the pruning from
their farm, and local scrap-wood from wood processors,
these boilers will allow Glenn to efficiently heat his greenhouses,
making year-round production a more affordable
possibility. $3,000 worth of purchased wood will replace
$20,000 worth of oil and propane. With this kind of efficiency,
Glenn can expand the number of crop varieties that
are grown, lengthen the growing season, increase production,
and open the possibilities of experimentation. “Hopefully
the residences will be completely off fossil fuel and
electricity. To be able to live well and sustainably…I dig
that.”
There will be no assistance with putting in the $65,000
wood-boilers, but Glenn believes it will pay off in the longterm.
“The cost of our energy is not going down, and so
that investment makes sense. I think they’ll pay for themselves
in two to three years with real economics. Not the
fairy-tale economics with rebates and grants. This would be
on their own merit. And I really appreciate a system that actually
pays for itself on its own. This whole process of looking
to reduce our carbon footprint has inspired all of us at
the farm to look at all the ways we can conserve energy. This
is the most effective tool we have.”
As one of the first farmers in Massachusetts to implement
renewable energy as a piece of agricultural equipment,
Glenn is inspired by the prospect of pioneering new ideas
and new technology. “Gotta keep moving forward. If I stay
where I am now, I’ll quickly become sort of a dinosaur. Like,
you know, ‘he tried that back then.’ With my passion to
grow and supply good food to our community, I have a responsibility
to do so in the most efficient and safe way possible.
I know a lot of really good people who are really
progressive in the field and they’re always exploring new
ideas. I’m always listening to what they say because there’s
just so much more we can do at Cider Hill to become energy
independent.” Last I talked to Glenn, he was interested in
a new type of wind harvesting system involving horizontal
airfoils; no doubt Glenn Cook is already thinking about the
next way to propel sustainable farming into the future. 

Margaret Bresnahan is an English Literature major at Smith College,
to be receiving her B.A. in May 2009 (fingers crossed). She is eager to explore
the inner-workings of journalism—everything from magazine publishing
to broadcast journalism and documentary work. A major foodie
and devout podcaster of Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s “The Splendid Table,”
Margaret hopes to someday work for National Public Radio—what she
considers the Holy Grail for English Majors. You can reach her at margaret.
bresnahan@gmail.com.