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Farmers growing electricity along with their crops

By Jeff Barnard - Associated Press Writer | ledger-enquirer.com

WIMER, Ore. -- WIMER, Ore. - Vern and Gianaclis Caldwell do a lot of the typical things that make a small farm self-sufficient.

Besides the 40-some dwarf Nigerian goats they milk to make artisanal cheeses, they also raise chickens for meat and eggs, a steer for beef, horses to ride and vegetables for the table.

Unlike most small farms, their heat and electricity is entirely home grown. They produce electricity from solar panels when the sun shines, and a micro-hydro turbine when winter rains put water in the creek. Oak and fir cut from the farm fire a boiler that heats the cement floors of the dairy and cheese making room, as well as the hot water to wash the goats and themselves.

"We thought we should be responsible for our own energy," said Vern Caldwell, a retired U.S. Marine Corps aircraft maintenance officer. "So that drove a lot of everything else that we did - where the buildings were placed, how they were placed, taking advantage of passive solar, how we were going to heat, how we were going to cool. All those issues then got driven by this one decision to be off the grid."

Pholia Farm is unusual in the degree to which it is energy self-sufficient.

But more farms are installing renewable energy, said Stephanie Page, renewable energy specialist for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The motivation was sparked by the 2008 spike in fuel prices, and is being fanned by a range of grants and tax credits handed out by state, federal and private agencies.

"As they exhaust energy efficiency projects on their farms, then they are starting to look more at renewable energy," she said.

Just how many remains unclear, but the motivation seems to still be a desire to be green more than the bottom line, despite an increasing array of financial incentives.

No one really knows how many U.S. farms use renewable energy, such as solar photovoltaic panels, hydroelectric generators, and methane digesters. The 2007 Farm Census found 23,451 out of more than 2 million farms - about 1 percent - generated some kind of electricity or energy, but just what that means is unclear. The agency is doing a more detailed count this year.

But indications are that the numbers are rising.

Overall renewable energy production rose 5 percent from 2007 to 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration.

And there were $9 million worth of applications for just $2.4 million in grants authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill for farm energy audits, a precondition to applying for alternative energy grants, said Bill Hagy, special assistant for alternative energy policy for the secretary of Agriculture.

In fiscal year 2008, USDA Rural Development funded 197 renewable energy projects, and projections are for 385 projects in fiscal 2009, said spokesman Jay Fletcher.

At Persephone Farm in Lebanon, Jeff Falen and his wife, Elanor O'Brien, raise organic vegetables. They have been building up their solar array since 2004, and the latest installation should bring them up to 100 percent of their annual electricity use, which includes a plug-in electric tractor. A boost in the Oregon state tax credit from 30 percent to 50 percent, spread over five years, made the latest addition easier. A 30 percent federal tax credit is also available.

Farm Scene Off The Grid

Sophie the Anatolian shepherd guard dog, watches over Nigerian dwarf goats on Pholia Farm Oct. 19, 2009 in Wimer, Ore. Vern and Gianaclis Caldwell produce their own electricity with solar panels and a small hydroelectric turbine as well as the goats to produce raw milk cheeses.

- Jeff Barnard /AP Photo

Farm Scene Off The Grid

Nigerian dwarf goats stand in their barn Oct. 19, 2009 on Pholia Farm in Wimer, Ore. The goats are milked with machinery powered by solar panels and a small hydroelectric turbine that runs off a creek. The farm is one of a growing number that operates on renewable energy.

- Jeff Barnard /AP Photo

Farm Scene Off The Grid

Vern Caldwell stands Oct. 19, 2009 with one of the solar panels on Pholia Farm in Wimer, Ore., where he and his family live off the grid while raising Nigerian dwarf goats that produce milk for their cheeses. An array of grants and tax incentives is convincing more farmers to install renewable energy.

- Jeff Barnard /AP Photo

Farm Scene Off The Grid

Gianaclis Caldwell shows off Pholia Farm's raw milk cheeses on Oct. 19, 2009 at the farm in Wimer, Ore. She and her husband, Vern Caldwell, decided to go off the grid when they started the farm. They are among an increasing number of farms that are growing their own electricity along with crops.

- Jeff Barnard /AP Photo

Farm Scene Off The Grid

Vern Caldwell walks back to the barn after checking on his small hydroelectric generator Oct. 19, 2009 on Pholia Farm in Wimer, Ore. When fall and winter clouds obscure the sun that provides most of their electricity, the Caldwells depend on rain filling the creek to provide power. The farm operates off the grid, using solar panels, low-head hydro and wood-fired boilers to take the place of the power available at the end of the driveway.

- Jeff Barnard /AP Photo

Farm Scene Off The Grid

Vern Caldwell walks past a cabin he is building on Pholia Farm in Wimer, Ore., on Oct. 19, 2009. The solar panels to the left of the cabin help provide the home-grown electricity that allows the farm to be energy independent. More farms are installing renewable electricity, though farms that are off the grid, like Pholia Farm, remain rare.

- Jeff Barnard /AP Photo

Farm Scene Off The Grid

Vern Caldwell poses Oct. 19, 2009 in the battery barn of Pholia Farm in Wimer, Ore. Besides raising goats for milk that goes into their cheeses, the Caldwell family lives off the grid, using electricity from solar panels and a small hydroelectric turbine and heat from a wood-fired boiler.

- Jeff Barnard /AP Photo

 

 

 

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