Farmers Grow Their Own Juice
by Kim Motylewski
All summer, the sun beats down on Carlson Orchards in Harvard, Massachusetts, powering the productivity of 120 acres of fruit trees, including 14 kinds of apple trees, six types of peach and five kinds of nectarine trees as well as sizable blueberry and raspberry patches.
But once the mighty sun has done its job, enabling the trees to turn gas and water into sweet fruit, the farmers need lots of electricity to finish the job.
They chop and press countless apples into 500,000 gallons of cider. That juice is flash pasteurized, bottled and refrigerated. That takes power. Other apples are cut for pie makers or mechanically sorted and bagged for immediate sale. More power.
Still others are crated and carried down a tidy warehouse corridor and packed into four humble-looking storage rooms. The doors are bolted, barred with plywood and sealed with petroleum.
Up to 26,000 bushels of the finest apples grown each year, those judged too good for juicing, are held in these rooms through the winter in a kind of suspended animation. Their natural respiration and ripening are slowed to a minimum by atmospheric controls and refrigeration, requiring still more power to preserve their crunch until sold.
All this electricity was costing the Carlson brothers—Franklyn (Frank), Robert and Bruce—an awful lot of money. Typically, energy represents 10% to 20% of operating costs on Massachusetts farms. Carlson Orchards was no exception. Until last summer, the electric bill there was running $80,000 a year. But not any more.
With the help of a consultant, Symantha Gates, the farmers embarked on a two-part effort to reduce that bill and claim a measure of energy independence. Their main motivation was competitiveness.
Medium-sized orchards producing fruit for wholesale markets are a dying species in New England. Their costs of production are higher than those of much bigger growers in California, or even New York. “The bottom line is we’re trying to become more sustainable,” says Frank Carlson, a practical, bearded, busy fellow in his 60s who fields phone calls, supervises apple sorters and answers a manager’s question while he talks with a reporter.
First, the Carlson team mounted a farm-wide energy audit and improved the efficiency of many systems. They evaluated 129 motors and replaced the energy hogs. They retooled outdated refrigeration units and older lighting. They adopted timers on their refrigerated barns to circulate cold air at intervals, rather than constantly.
Second, they established themselves as energy producers. The growers installed a 220 kilowatt solar array on two acres of their land, making them the largest agricultural producer of solar energy in the Commonwealth.
Think of it as a photovoltaic orchard. Aging apple trees were replaced with trunks of steel beam, and a canopy of silicon panels. While the photosynthetic orchards transform sunlight into delicious fruit, this new orchard turns sunlight into electricity, helping to power the business. It is expected it to supply 60%–70% of the farm’s energy needs from now on, and repay the Carlson’s investment in five years.
With a price tag of $1.1 million, the farmers couldn’t have done the project on their own. It took a sustained and focused effort to successfully compete for funding, something the farmers say they couldn’t have done without Gates’ help. Ultimately, financial support came from a variety of sources and amounted to 75% of the project costs.
The first and biggest contributor was the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a branch of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. It provided a $565,000 rebate through the Commonwealth Solar program. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service stepped up with a $288,000 grant. Carlson Orchards invested $250,000. The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) contributed $30,000 for the panels themselves and provided guidance to the farmers. In keeping with state requirements, the electricity distributor National Grid buys the farm’s power and credits the orchard’s account accordingly.
Carlson Orchards’ project is one of over 100 statewide that have improved energy efficiency and developed renewable energy sources on farms over the last four years, according to MDAR. These efforts are part of the state’s overall commitment to establishing Massachusetts as a center for the alternative energy industry, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Agriculture is a significant source of those emissions, but the typical, small to medium-sized New England farm tends not to have the means to make big capital improvements.
Gerry Palano, renewable energy coordinator for MDAR, says, “Producing energy onsite can help farms become more sustainable, and put farmers more in control.”
There are several ways that farmers are taking control of their energy futures, many with Palano’s guidance. Several Massachusetts dairy farmers are installing anaerobic digesters to convert crop and animal waste into gaseous fuel, electricity and fertilizer. Five farms in the central and western counties have teamed up under the name A. Green to share the design, management and servicing costs of building and maintaining digesters on each of their independent farms.
Plant nurseries in Deerfield and Sudbury are upgrading the energy efficiency of their greenhouses and the systems that heat them. Laura Bartlett Abrams, president of J. P. Bartlett in Sudbury, says her new boilers are 20% more efficient than her old ones. She has recently installed energy curtains in the eaves of some greenhouses. Closing the curtains in summer will keep out excess heat and reduce ventilation costs. On cold winter nights the curtains will effectively lower the ceiling and retain heat. Abrams expects these curtains to save 57% of her overall heating and venting costs.
Three sets of cranberry growers in Wareham, Plymouth and Bourne are pursuing permission to build wind turbines to produce power for use and sale. Keith Mann, a fourth-generation grower in Plymouth who hopes to build four turbines on his land, anticipates that selling power back to the utility “will help offset the ups and downs of the cranberry industry.” The last few years have seen record low prices for cranberries.
If his turbines go up, Mann could benefit from both the sale of renewable energy credits and sale of the power itself at a fair price. In 2008, Governor Patrick signed the Green Communities Act that, among other things, requires utilities to include certain percentages of renewable energy in their total supply. For 2011, the required minimum is 6%.
The Act also establishes “net metering,” which allows small producers, specifically including agricultural facilities like Mann’s, to connect their renewable power systems to the grid of the state’s four electricity distributors. Those utilities are obliged to credit the farm suppliers for the power they feed the grid at near retail prices.
According to state calculations, these farm-based renewable energy projects together total over 2,200 kilowatts of installed capacity and will reduce carbon emissions by 620 tons annually.
RESULTS FOR THE FUTURE
Gerry Palano believes farmers’ enthusiasm for energy efficiency and do-it-yourself-generation is growing. The Carlson’s consultant, Symantha Gates, has the same impression: “In general, people have been very receptive to this work and see it as a wave of the future.”
Frank Carlson says it will take a year of operation before he really knows what his investment in that future might yield, but so far the indicators are good. At the five-month mark, the solar array has generated about 43% of what it is expected to produce in a year, and that number does not yet included the sunniest months of June, July and August. The energy efficiency measures also seem to be paying off. The orchard’s January electric bill showed that usage had dropped 26% compared to January last year.
Kim Motylewski is a Cambridge-based writer and organizer. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.