Most farms harvest crops. At Steve Heyer's Solar Harvest Farm, he harvests energy, too.
Heyer powers his Waterford, Wis., farm completely with renewable energy, mostly using solar power. And he's not alone. As energy costs go up and the costs of solar power come down, more and more farmers across the country are turning to solar power to provide some or all of the energy needs on the farm.
Dairy farmers and cheese makers find solar thermal is a good fit because they need lots of hot water. Other farmers and ranchers use solar for powering electric fences, heating barns, powering irrigation systems, and pumping water for their livestock.
For Heyer, it's just one more step in keeping things local.
"We sell local. We buy local materials. We produce energy locally," he says.
Once considered too expensive for all but the most dedicated, the cost of solar power is coming down, and a host of federal and state grants is making it more attainable for farmers, no matter how large or small. And after the upfront costs, farmers can see big payoffs in the long run.
"It gives you the freedom to work on the business and to work on the animals," Heyer says. "Utility costs are a ball and chain. If you can say it's paid up front, that ball and chain is no longer there."
Heyer's farm specializes in grass-fed beef, pastured chickens, and eggs, and what he likes to call "pig-happy pork." When he started Solar Harvest Farm in 1997, he created it to run off of renewable energy 100 percent. No electric lines connect it to the grid whatsoever. Heyer uses a combination of solar power and wind energy, not just for his farm but for his home. Everything from his teenagers' computers to the lights in the barn has gotten its power from renewable energy.
"As our farm has grown, our energy demands have grown along with it," he says. "This is a way of keeping it green, so to speak, and keeping it local. Our power is produced here in Waterford, Wis."
By building with solar in mind, Heyer has been able to build in efficiencies that make renewable energy more effective. Touches such as a geo-exchange heating system means he can heat his home with less power. By moving the brood chicks from the bottom of the barn to the top, where the heat is, plus using their own body heat in a well-insulated barn, Heyer says, he doesn't use a single heat lamp, eliminating that cost altogether.
"That's one example where you take something that used to be a rather large expense and eliminate it," he says. "Energy costs can kill a farm."
Not everybody builds with solar in mind, but that doesn't have to be a stumbling block. Farmers can start small, maybe with just a single photovoltaic panel. If they want, they can build up from there.
"Every year, tell yourself, 'I'm going to add a panel,'" Heyer says.
On his new barn, Heyer is connecting to the grid so he can use the utility's power when renewable isn't enough, and he can feed power to the grid, and get paid for it, when he doesn't need it.
That's where most farmers will probably start, and it's an idea that's catching on. For some, it's about conservation. For others, it's about dealing with rising energy prices.
"They're locking in their electric costs," says Lisa Noty, Minnesota rural energy coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
She's seen growing numbers of farmers look to solar power to run at least part of their operations. Some are taking advantage of federal Rural Energy for America Program grants that cover a quarter of the costs of solar installations. Other federal and state grants can also bring the costs down.
"A hurdle with any type of renewable energy is the upfront cost," she says.
Heyer agrees. "There's no way you can sugarcoat that," he says. "A person does have to come up with the money up front."
But just $500 can buy a solar panel, he says, and that's a step toward weaning a farm off the grid.
The payoff comes in the long run, he says. If farmers look at their electric bills month after month, they can see thousands — maybe even hundreds of thousands — of dollars going to utility companies over the lifetime of a farm.
Looking at it that way, he says, his $20,000 investment in photovoltaics seems like a bargain.
"And the nice thing is, you're no longer renting power. You own it," he says.
It's an idea that goes well with farming, Heyer says. Farmers who are used to raising their own food tend to have an independent spirit, he says, and being energy independent fits right in.
"Once you get into it, you feel all warm and fuzzy," he says, "because you're not dependent on a pipeline anymore."
David Frey writes in Glenwood Springs, Colo.