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Sustainable Agriculture

Farmers Turn on to Renewable Energy and Conservation

When Brookfield Farm in Amherst, MA, began building a new barn in 2003, its community members wanted to generate solar power. Two years later, Brookfield installed a solar electric system on the roof to power walk-in coolers and the office computer for their 520-member community-supported farm operation. They expect to save some $600 a year in electricity costs.

To reach that point, Brookfield Farm had to harness more than the sun's rays. They approached the Center for Ecological Technology (CET), which, with help from a SARE grant, connected them with engineering, electrical and solar energy consultants. To pay for it, Brookfield landed a Massachusetts energy grant and received $15,0000 in donations from its members—who pay a fee in exchange for weekly supplies of food.

“It's a good time to be talking about solar power, so people were very receptive,” said Jeff Tober, Brookfield assistant farm manager, who led the solar energy project. “Part of the purpose of the farm is to educate consumers about the issues of sustainability. Why not have locally grown energy as well as locally grown produce?”

Brookfield was one of 34 farms to work with CET, which helped Berkshire-area farmers improve their energy efficiency and install renewable energy systems. Gould Farm in Monterey, MA, mounted photovoltaic panels on a barn roof to power refrigerators that store value-added products. While a Massachusetts energy company owns the system, the non-profit farm pays below-market rates for electricity, saving $120 a year.

Much of CET's work involved identifying grant programs for interested farmers. “While the technology that turns sunlight into electricity is easily adaptable and works in many locations, the challenge with solar energy is that it's expensive,” said Ruth Dinerman, CET communications director. “There's an enormous amount of enthusiasm, but in many cases it's not matched with resources to make it happen.”

More farmers benefited from the project by improving their energy efficiency following recommendations identified with help from CET audits. Dairy farmer Randy Jordan invested in a variable frequency drive that reduces the power needed to operate the milking machine, saving as much as $4,750 a year. Fifteen farmers replaced their light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, saving up to $900 a year. Other farmers invested in air sealing, saving up to $150 a year, and still others improved insulation.

At Brookfield Farm, Tober and others are thrilled by the 3.8 kilowatt solar system, which supplies 20 to 50 percent of their electricity. “It's great to see the meter spinning fast on sunny days,” says Tober, who often shows the system to other farmers and business owners and will highlight it at a popular annual organic farming conference in the summer. “We want to use as little as possible from the grid.”

 

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