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Farm features renewable energy options
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One Crawford County farm is producing all of the electricity it uses in a year from solar power and earlier this month the public was invited to take a look at how it’s done.

Harriet Behar and Aaron Brin’s Sweet Earth Farm is an organic vegetable operation located in rural Clayton Township. On Monday, June 11, the couple held an ‘On Farm Renewable Energy Tour’ featuring the large solar array and inverters that supply the farm’s annual electric power needs, as well as several other unique sustainable features of the farm.

The solar array is impressive. Contained on four large poles each individual array is made up of 16 solar panels, each 32-inches wide and 48-inches long.

Together the 64 panels generate 14.72 kilowatts, according Mike Joyce from Full Spectrum Solar, the Madison-based firm that designed the system. The solar electric system is tied to the grid. That means Sweet Earth Farm both uses power provided by the electric grid when necessary and supplies excess power to the grid at other times. The size of the system is designed to produce the same amount of power used on the farm annually.

Joyce says the system generates about twice the amount of electricity the average house in Wisconsin uses annually, as it powers both the farm and house.

Scenic Rivers Energy Cooperative, the local electric utility, credits Sweet Earth Farm with full price for all the power it produces and puts onto the grid. Joyce explains that the state’s net metering law requires utilities to pay back owners of systems under 20 kilowatts at the full rate, which the utilities charge. Larger systems must negotiate a rate to sell power and it can be considerably lower than what the utilities are charging.

The system is not designed to store power in batteries like some systems and is totally tied into the electrical grid. When there’s a power outage, the system is designed to shut down as well, Behar explained. That’s done in part to protect utility workers from electricity the farm might be putting into the lines.

A variety of grants helped to fund the installation of the large solar electric system at Sweet Earth Farm. Behar said that she and her husband made the decision to go ahead with the project because they knew some of the grant funding would be ending in the near future. The couple was greatly assisted by a sustainable energy department at Organic Valley, where they sell some of their organic vegetables. The cooperative is committed to bringing sustainable energy practices to their members’ farms, as well as using them in the co-op’s business. OV provided help in securing the grants and planning the project for Sweet Earth, as they have for sustainable ag projects on other members’ farms.

The funding for part of the farm’s solar electric project included grants from Wisconsin Focus on Energy, USDA Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP), and U.S. Treasury stimulus funds for the Renewable Energy Initiative. Dairyland Power also funded the siting and feasibility studies for the project. In all, 62 percent of the solar electric project was funded by grants and Sweet Earth Farm paid for the remaining 38 percent.

“I would say this is not for the faint of heart,” Behar chuckled as she recalled the voluminous paperwork required. “If you are allergic to paperwork this is not for you.”

All the way through the process, Behar and Brin needed to verify things like the site was an archaeological site and that they and the contractors were not discriminating in hiring among other things. Even now that the project has been completed, the paperwork will go on to report on the project for the next five years.

Behar explained the government was concerned that people didn’t get grants and then dismantle the system and sell it. That’s hardly a problem with this couple, who seem completely enamored with the system.

“I’m quite pleased to have them. Seeing them makes me very happy,” Behar said of the large solar arrays. “To me, they’re a thing of beauty. They’re not obtrusive. You get used to seeing them down there amongst the buildings in the farmstead area of the property. In fact, there’s a net gain from the reflection of the metal barn roof. And, they’re close to the electrical meters.”

Also featured as part of the renewable energy tour were the farm’s earth sheltered greenhouse, as well as the high tunnel hoop house for extended growing seasons.

Mike Mills Sr. and his three sons, Mike Jr., Eric and Trent, built the energy-efficient greenhouse for Sweet Earth Farm 13 years ago. The key to its success is being built eight feet into the hillside and having a northern roof that’s well insulated, according to Behar. When it was built, she asked an owner of a similarly sized conventional greenhouse how much he paid to heat it from January through May to grow bedding plants and he told her about $6,000. Behar heats the same space with a half of a pickup load of firewood burned in an aging Kickapoo woodstove. She explained that she doesn’t even make a fire until the temperatures approach 10 degrees below zero and then she just makes one good fire and waits until the next day.

The greenhouse has another unique feature. Because of its use of natural convection, it vents very well and will never exceed the outdoor temperature by more then 10 degrees.

Behar uses the greenhouse for commercial and personal purposes claiming she and Aaron eat tomatoes grown in the greenhouse until New Year’s.  They sell Swiss chard, lettuce and spinach through the winter months.

That’s where the third project comes in as well. Behar and Brin grow vegetables in a high tunnel hoop house for an extended season. The facility which includes small hoops three foot tall covered with plastic inside a larger hoop house covered in one layer of plastic. The totally unheated operation allowed Sweet Earth Farm to grow and sell spinach and lettuce every week from October to May.

Another major part of the farm’s operation is a drying room that measures 10-feet by 10-feet and contains racks and dehumidifiers. The large use of electricity in the drying room to create value-added products helped the farm to qualify the operation for some of the grants to build the solar panel arrays. Behar and Brin dry 35 to 40 different culinary and medicinal herbs in the room, which they sell to a variety of outlets as well as to some soap producers.

The event held at the farm on Monday, June 11 drew over 100 people including State Sen. Jennifer Shilling (D-LaCrosse) and  State Representative Lee Nerison (R-Westby). Representatives of U.S. Congressman Ron Kind (D-LaCrosse) and candidate for state assembly Tom Johnson were also on hand. There were also representatives from Organic Valley, MOSES, MOSA, NRCS, Crawford Stewardship Network and USDA Rural Development.

For her part, Shilling seemed impressed with the Sweet Earth Farm’s projects. She noted she had toured a grass-fed beef operation at the Galloway farm earlier as well as the organic vegetable producers, Driftless Organics, earlier in the day.

The state senator explained the new movement around becoming connected with where food comes from was benefiting producers like these in western Wisconsin and a part of the regions economic recovery.

“It’s about growers and producers becoming more connected with the consumer,” Shilling said.

Nerison said he was familiar with the work of Organic Valley having two brother-in-laws that are organic dairy farmers and a daughter, who had worked the human relations department of Organic Valley.  He credited Organic Valley for their efforts, which have resulted in “keeping nature the way it is.”

Nerison also said it was great to see what had been accomplished at the farm.