Bobby Chandler’s foray into mushroom production is growing so fast he’s exploring ways to cultivate his delectable fungi indoors.
But growing mushrooms inside will require lighting, ventilation and temperature control, all factors leading to one important business consideration: electricity.
“Now, we’re going to start needing energy,” said Chandler, who grew up working on his parents’ Mariaville Farms and is now branching out into the niche mushroom field.
The need for energy — and the cost of it — drew Chandler and about 20 others to Schoharie on Friday to learn how solar power is fueling business at Schoharie Valley Farms.
Friday’s event was this year’s fourth Farm Energy Field Day organized by Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Small Farms Program working with Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, or SARE, an initiative developed by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Tour coordinator Ryan Maher said these events bring experts on energy topics in one place for farmers who are considering their options while providing an example of successful efforts to lower costs by embracing renewable energy sources.
For Schoharie Valley Farms owner Richard Ball, operating a thousand-ton cold storage facility, a packing house and expanding number of greenhouses made research into solar power essential for the business, which now employs 50 people.
“After labor, our biggest cost, the biggest single cost, is energy,” he said.
The farm’s operation had already been tightened up as much as possible: Equipment was charged on a precise schedule to make sure energy use was maximized and energy efficiency was a key focus.
But Ball said the farm was spending more than $500 per month to paying utility companies a “demand charge” they require to promise a certain level of energy will be available.
“You can cut back to a point, and then you’ve got to look for something else,” he said.
Working with Troy-based Jordan Energy, Schoharie Valley Farms studied its options and installed a solar array with more than 500 panels capable of producing 97 kilowatts of energy.
Supported with a grant of about $152,000 from the USDA, the half-million dollar system was installed and went online two years ago. Now, Ball said, there are times in the summer when his meter goes backward — the array produces more power sometimes than the farm uses.
Despite the “free” nature of solar energy, Schoharie Valley Farms had to borrow money to get the array installed, and Ball said it’s his hope the system will yield payback in another five years.
The array produces power only when the sun is shining, and the farm’s highest demand is in the summer, when the sun is brightest. It’s not a system that stores power, which currently requires a room full of batteries like the ones used in automobiles.
Ball said he’s hoping advancing science will come up with a different way to store the energy from solar power. Technology and cost are key concerns.
There are other factors involved in choosing renewable sources. Wind, for example, is more viable on hilltops, Ball said — not on the Schoharie Valley floor, where his solar array takes up nearly an acre of land.
The tour included remarks from representatives working to help farmers take advantage of government incentives, many of which are as dynamic as the renewables industry itself.
At present, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is offering incentives for the development of geothermal and wind projects, but not solar, according to Mark Kaucher, a regional outreach coordinator for the Mohawk Valley EDGE, a Rome-based economic development organization.
NYSERDA is also conducting an agriculture energy efficiency program that links farmers to energy efficiency audit professionals who can identify areas where cost savings can be found on farms and provides funding to offset the costs.
The Farm Energy Field Days themselves don’t lead farmers to specific projects, and most guests are at the “curious” stage, said organizer Ryan Maher of the Cornell Small Farms Program.
But often, the events spark farmers to take the essential first step in improving energy efficiency: the audit.
Maher said energy efficiency audits provide critical information that can lead to savings that help keep farms viable.