June 8, 2012

DENIS THOET: This year, farm's building projects include solar power, irrigation

Denis Thoet

We are a relatively new farm, even by the standards of Maine, where new farms seem to crop up every day. Every year is a "building year" and this one is no different.

Starting from scratch in 2004, our first year as a community-supported agriculture farm, we have bought hand tools, fencing and posts. We turned a former workshop into apprentice housing, built a 26-by-96-foot-high tunnel hoop house and sheep and cow sheds, built an 8-by-30-foot "sun space" off the west side of the house for spring seedlings, put in miles of drip irrigation, and built a 12-by-12-foot apartment off the apprentice house for year-round living.

Most of the things bought or built came out of our yearly budgets, with the exception of the hoop house, fencing and sheep shed, for which we got a $11,000 Farms for the Future grant in 2005 from the Maine Agriculture Department (a 3-to-1 match from us).

The rest was out of pocket, made possible mostly by our CSA members who paid for their vegetables before they even got their first share.

This financial schedule makes it possible to plan and budget for capital improvements in December and January, rather than waiting for the cash to accumulate over the growing season. It's a tremendous advantage.

This year is our most ambitious of all: We will add a second hoop house almost as big as the first, install a sprinkler irrigation system in the main garden, and put in a solar electric system that could handle between half and two-thirds of our electrical needs.

All of these projects are partially funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the USDA..

The hoop house project is by far the most important for the health of the farm. It will provide a controlled environment that will diminish the vagaries of an increasingly vagarious Maine climate. This year alone, we've had a super-warm March, a virtual drought in April, and a wet May and June, with the most recent storm dropping 5.75 inches of rain, making the garden unworkable until it dries out a bit.

The new hoop house will give us another 2,178 square feet of protected growing ground for tomatoes, spinach, greens and carrots. The carrots and spinach can overwinter and be ready for sale in March at the Gardiner Winter Market.

Even though a new irrigation project is almost unthinkable, given the recent monsoons, we know it will get dry as a bone at some point. It always does.

Instead of drip irrigation, which we used in both the hoop house and main garden, the new system will draw water from our farm pond and feed into an overhead sprinkler system that is easy to move around the garden to the places that need it most.

Designed by Mark Roskin of the NRCS Skowhegan office, it will push large amounts of water through 2-inch aluminum pipes to sprinklers that can water a circle 60 feet in diameter.

My favorite is the solar electric project that will provide about 4,600 kilowatts of power -- about two-thirds our yearly usage -- by feeding excess power back into the grid, primarily during the long daylight months of May through August.

Last year, I recorded 240 sunny days in Maine, about the same as Daytona Beach, Fla. Because of the northwest prevailing wind, which brings cool clear air from Canada, Maine is much sunnier than almost all of the northern states during all of the seasons of the year.

Solar power is as clean as it gets and doesn't require huge disturbances to our landscape as wind turbine farms do.

The project calls for installation of 15 solar panels on the steel roof of the apprentice house, feeding DC power into inverters inside the house, which convert it to AC power that is fed into the Central Maine Power Co. power grid. CMP will install a second electric meter to record the electricity being fed into the grid.

At the end of each month, if the power fed into the grid exceeds the power used on the farm, CMP will record a credit on the next bill.

The total cost is a little more than $15,400, of which nearly half will be covered by USDA and EfficiencyMaine grants. John Luft, of ReVision Energy of Liberty, designed the system, which will be installed by the end of the year.

So, when is the payback on this investment? To me, the payback begins on the next CMP bill after the system is installed.

By the way, when is the payback on your SUV?

Denis Thoet owns and manages Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner. www.longmeadowfarmmaine.com.

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