Farming For The Future
Categories: Food, Energy, Education, Perma, Sustainability
While the practice of planting seeds, cultivating them and harvesting the crops for consumption is a tale as old as time, farming is also a story of change and innovation.
From tractors to tracking crop health with drones, many farmers have embraced technological innovation in their work.
For local farmers, the next wave of technology uses the very elements that already make up a large part of their businesses — geothermal, solar and wind energy.
From the ground up
Using geothermal energy requires harnessing the natural heat generated and stored in the ground. At the Coveyou Scenic Farm Market in Petoskey, a geothermal field provides all of the heat necessary for a greenhouse full of produce.
“Geothermal is the transfer of heat energy from the ground to where you want to use it,” said David Coveyou, owner of the Coveyou Scenic Farm Market. “Where everything else burns something, oil or gas or wood, to create heat in this case it brings heat from the ground to where we want it. This greenhouse here is our vegetable propagation greenhouse.”
The greenhouse has been operating on geothermal energy through the last three winters.
“We’re taking some of that heat energy and putting it into the floor system here,” Coveyou said. “It just keeps running, running, running (and) transferring that heat energy.”
Coveyou added at seven or so feet below the surface, the ground temperature remains steady at around 50 degrees all year round. In a place like Iceland, which famously uses geothermal energy that is a much higher temperature due to volcanic activity, Coveyou said geothermal energy would produce much more power.
“Here, it’s still very practical because then the challenge is can you get the heat pump, which is the mechanism that transfers the heat energy out of the ground and into our greenhouse, to be efficient enough,” Coveyou said. “Now, technology has advanced so much that it is super, super efficient. We’ll heat this greenhouse during the dead of winter, January and February, for just dollars a day.”
Coveyou said geothermal’s “claim to fame” is it will transfer four to five times the amount of heat energy as it consumes in electricity to run the heat transfer pump.
“It would be impractical to grow produce in the winter or all the vegetable transplants that we grow now if it weren’t for this geothermal technology,” Coveyou said. “It would be so cost prohibitive that it wouldn’t make financial sense. That’s what got us here.”
Coveyou’s work in geothermal energy has spread far beyond his family’s 140-year-old farm overlooking Walloon Lake. He has spoken with legislators and at conferences about the technology he uses to grow organic vegetables. Coveyou Scenic Farm Market has also been been recognized by the Governor’s Energy Excellence Awards.
“For the last two years, our farm, this little farm in Northern Michigan, was recognized by the governor’s office to be one of the leading agricultural green energy farms in the state,” Coveyou said. “It’s just testament to the innovation that we’re really trying to put forth in the farm.”
One reason why the farm caught the attention of state officials is because Coveyou has expanded the geothermal energy field to include the farm’s walk-in coolers and reach-in coolers.
“We’re doing cooling with geothermal,” Coveyou said. “That’s one thing that very, very few people are doing, if anybody. A few years ago when we put these in I could not find anybody in the country who was doing geothermal cooling at the level we were doing it.”
Coveyou added he is using the knowledge he has gained about geothermal energy over the last few years and spreading the word to anyone who is interested in the technology. This summer, the geothermal-heated greenhouse will be open to the public so they can see where the produce is grown and find out more about the energy system.
“It’s not just our farm but it’s a lot of other farms with the potential in this region to be leaders in agriculture,” Coveyou said. “There’s a farm over in East Jordan that is looking at geothermal. I get calls from people all over the country saying, ‘How did you do your geothermal cooler system?’ It’s amazing how many different people get reached and then start asking questions and looking to replicate it on their farms or in their businesses. That is absolutely great to see that we can actually be truly leaders in technology from a small community.”
Harvesting the sun
Sunlight is already an undeniably important element in farming. As Brian Bates, owner of Bear Creek Organic Farm in Petoskey, puts it, farms take water, soil and sun to make plants. Installing solar panels is just another way of harvesting the energy of the sun.
Bates and his wife, Anne, had already been using solar energy for a few years through a community solar project run by Wolverine Power in Cadillac. The idea of the project is for people to purchase a panel or panels from the large installation and they then get the electricity generated by those panels. However, just this week Bear Creek Organic Farm has taken the next step in solar energy by installing panels of their own on the roof of one of their buildings.
“It’s what all the cool kids are doing,” Bates joked.
In all seriousness, Bates said their farm was built from the ground up with an ideology in mind of implementing the best business practices that are also environmentally friendly.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” he said. “Our whole business is about the environment. We’re the first certified organic farm in Petoskey. We really live and breathe that ethos so it was never a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ we would be able to adopt (solar energy). We thought it would be maybe 10 years down the line but business has been really busy and the price keeps going down. What’s really cool about it is, much like organic farming, solar power is one of those things that aligns with our ideology but also makes great business sense.”
Bates added there are tax incentives and grant programs that help offset the cost of installation and with solar energy, there is a quick turnaround in the investment.
“Everybody thinks it’s too cloudy here or winter is too long,” Bates said. “That is most certainly not the case.”
Solar energy also allows the farm to produce a surplus of energy using net metering, which means that any extra power that is collected but not used goes back onto the grid.
“We want to be putting back as much as we take out,” Bates said. “If we use more energy in the winter because it’s colder and the crops want to be warmer, then in the summer when it’s sunny we can produce a surplus of energy. I think we’re big believers in this net metering because I think it’s a really important concept. We have such long days of sunshine in the summer…one sunny day in June can offset so much of that in the winter.”
Bates said they hope to include an educational component with the new solar installation.
“We’re a young family and a young business and I think a lot of people perceive the investment in solar as something that is out of reach,” he said. “One of our main hopes is we host monthly farm tours and we do a lot of workshops. We have lots of activities and things so if you figure a thousand people come through the farm in a given summer, that’s a thousand people we can tell the solar story to. For us, there’s this huge educational component.”
Bear Creek Organic Farm is not the only local farm to use solar energy in its operations. In fact, Bates said he sees many more farms adopting the technology in a “modern gold rush.”
“The company that is installing our solar array is called Harvest Energy and they cover the entire Midwest. Their whole business model is renewable energy for farms,” Bates said. “Farms tend to have a lot of land or roof space and are heavy users of energy, so Harvest Energy installs wind and solar specifically catered to farms. I think when they were at our farm, they were up here visiting four other farms that were also planning on getting it.”
For example, over at the Coveyou Scenic Farm Market, a solar array was installed on a sunny hillside a few years ago and Coveyou said he wishes he could install even more panels now.
“Just with the economics of solar panels it’s absolutely a great time to be putting solar arrays in just because there’s such an overabundance of panels and prices are at their all time low,” he said. “Starting in March all the way through October it is just cranking out energy. Quite honestly, it produces more than the whole farm uses with all the lights and all the motors and all the furnaces running … and including all of the geothermal in the farm market.”
Bates added solar energy makes sense as the next in a long line of more efficient tools and technology for farming.
“I think the cool thing about solar is it pencils out,” he said. “We’re coming at it in a lot of ways from an ideological standpoint but you could not even believe in climate change and fully justify the investment in solar just like investing in a more efficient tractor or a more efficient pump. It’s a good long-term business decision if you use the energy. I think people will adopt it everywhere.”
Winds of change
Mary and Craig Rapin installed a wind turbine on their 45-acre farm, Bliss Gardens Farm and Community Kitchen, in Cross Village in 2012.
Mary Rapin said the idea for the turbine first developed as a way to offset the cost of running a community kitchen.
“We have a community kitchen and so that’s an incubator kitchen which allows or fosters small businesses,” she said. “The idea is that you keep the costs as low as possible so that people who want to try something won’t have that as a roadblock. We try to keep it really low, either low fees to use the kitchen or we’ll barter with people or we’ll keep a sliding scale.”
Rapin said the primary reason for installing the turbine was to decrease their expenses. The power generated by the turbine when it first started was enough to power the kitchen, a walk-in cooler and a well pump at the farm.
“The other thing was of course the environment, to have a lower impact on the environment and to also be supportive of the industry in Michigan,” Rapin said.
When the turbine is running, Rapin said it is “extremely effective.”
“It creates a lot of energy,” she said. “We actually are on the grid, so the excess energy we create goes back onto the grid to be available to other consumers in our community.”
However, the turbine has only been able to operate for about five months total since it was installed after the project encountered some local turbulence. Rapin said there were initially some issues getting permission to install the turbine and they are now having difficulties operating the turbine within the established conditions.
Rapin said they also use solar panels for their greenhouse, although they are not in effect right now. She added technologies for renewable energy are becoming more affordable for farms to implement.
“They’re becoming more affordable and because they’re a way to capture passive energy that can power production and decrease the cost,” she said. “Farms are pinching pennies. It’s a lot of labor and work and the payback is not always there for all the work that we do. It’s nice if you can capture energy, it’s a way to decrease your expense to produce food and food production.”
The idea of implementing new technologies came easily to Coveyou. He said his parents encouraged him to pursue something besides farming which eventually led him to a degree in engineering.
“I just really enjoy the challenges of really pushing the ability to use the best energy efficient technologies we can and lowest cost techniques we can to really grow some of the best produce that we can organically,” Coveyou said. “It’s sort of been a challenge and an opportunity to keep evolving and improving here year after year.”
Shifting to renewable energy sources, Coveyou said, takes both a conscious effort and a capital investment. However, he said farms can expect a better return on that investment than they would see from other farming tools.
“I think that this has a lot of applicability to many businesses,” Coveyou said. “When I think of what we’re doing here on our farm, granted I am a farm, but there is nothing that keeps any business owner who has a little bit of land from applying and installing geothermal and reaping the same benefits that we do here on our farm. Similarly with solar panels, anyone with a little bit of area can put in solar panels and reap the same benefits not just for themselves but then the overall community, I think, benefits as well.”
Bates added it is one thing to want to have renewable energy, but those looking to implement the technology also need to think about how to use the energy in the most efficient way. Before installing the solar panels, he said, they made sure their house was well-insulated, switched all of their lightbulbs to CFLs and LEDS and switched their grow lights to timers.
“A lot of this stuff is set up so it’s as efficient as possible so that you don’t have to generate more power than you need,” Bates said. “I think that’s something that often gets lost in the renewable energy conversation.”
Coveyou said he envisions big things in the future for the region’s farms.
“I think this region has huge potential to be a leader in the state,” he said. “Basically my vision for this Emmet/Charlevoix county region could easily be the organic produce production region for the state,” he said. “Nowhere else in the state is there any energy efficient/organic produce area. Traverse City has the fruit, why can’t we have this critical mass of organic production that is recognized throughout the region and the state for truly having something special?”