With a straw hat perched on her head on an early fall day, Glenon Friedmann bent down to carefully clip a white moonshine pumpkin growing at Bar Harbor Community Farm. The director of the farm, which supplies organic produce wholesale to various Mount Desert Island area restaurants, delights in the rows of smooth-skinned white fruit she has grown and cared for.
After hours of physical work in the fields, Friedmann appreciates the fresh vegetables she gets to cut into and cook with and the satisfaction of having played a part in their production within the community.
These days, though, what Friedmann takes the greatest pride in are the 33 solar panels on the red barn’s roof that power the heat pumps, coolers and the seedling greenhouse that make the farm self-sustainable.
“Our vision was that we would like the whole farm to be sustainable and to adopt a self-sustainable life out here,” she said. “We’re very concerned about the issues that are affecting all of us like climate change and what we can do to use fewer resources and make our lifestyles more sustainable.”
The community farm, perched on 15 acres of tillable soils, has leapt from six to 75 participating families over the past six years. It had nearly 45 different vegetables planted including arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kale.
The 8.42-kilowatt, solar photovoltaic system, whose panels each produce 255 watts of energy, was installed on the south-facing barn in May, just weeks before the farm won a federal grant worth $6,868 for the project.
As part of the Rural Energy for America Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted funds and loan guarantees to 13 businesses for energy projects in rural Maine to help them achieve long-term sustainability through lower energy costs.
“I think it just makes sense,” said Friedmann, adding that the farm’s power needs, which includes a well pump and high tunnel, is provided by the sun and they’re headed toward a net zero energy consumption. “If you can put something on the roof that’s going to supply all the energy, why would you burn fossil fuels?”
The farm’s solar photovoltaic system is designed to generate 10,000 kilowatts of energy per year. Since its installation, the farm has consumed 2,300 kilowatts, and banked 2,500. This spare energy will be used this winter when the seedling greenhouse will be turned off and the temperature dips to below zero.
“As long as it’s sunny out, they can still be banking hours,” Friedmann explained. “Right now, it’s producing more energy than we can use. So in the winter we’ll use some of those banked hours.”
Friedmann’s desire to reduce the farm’s dependence on fossil fuels is shared by several other farmers, according to USDA Rural Development State Director Virginia Manuel.
“A lot of agricultural producers care about the environment and reducing carbon emission and are attracted to reducing dependence on fossil fuels,” she noted.
Maine’s strong agricultural sector and its dependence on fossil fuels prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide $119,700 in grants for installation of renewable energy and energy efficiency systems.
These systems, which include both solar and geothermal, reduce long-term energy costs for these businesses.
F.W. Thurston Co. Inc., a wholesale lobster business in the Tremont village of Bernard, was another Hancock county business to land federal funding.
The seafood business was awarded $11,738 to install a roof-mounted 12.93-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system, which produces 16,173 kilowatts of energy annually, is expected to fulfill 18 percent of the business’s energy demands.
Manuel says benefits of installing alternative energy systems are twofold. It saves energy costs over a period of time, which businesses start to realize fairly early in the process. Payback from these systems, however, is over a lengthier period, which she says is expected due to a high initial cost of equipment. Thus, federal grants are provided to help cover the start-up costs.
Friedmann agrees with Manuel.
“Solar panels are going to reduce our expenses overall,” she said. The farm, she notes, will be able to eliminate the expense of propane which was being used to power the seedling greenhouse and the cost of electricity to run the fan and cooler.
“Farms operate on very close margins so everything needs to be done in order to make it sustainable,” she stressed.
Friedmann knows the return on this investment will be slow.
“This will be a 10-year pay off,” she said. “But it feels really great to know that we really have reduced our dependence on fossil fuels by quite a bit.”