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Getting Started With Sustainable Agriculture Via Agrivoltaics

Scott Phillips is a sustainable living expert, ongoingly perfecting these skills since the late 1990s. He is currently the CEO and Head Coach of Chief of Green which coaches individuals in living Free From Fossil Fuel as well as becoming Imperfect Action Takers.

 
Executive Contributor Scott Phillips

I first got really interested in sustainable and regenerative agriculture in early 2023 after moving across the USA. Our new-to-us 40-year-old half acre property came mostly covered in dead grass and neglected trees.


Rearview shot of a male farmer tending to his crops on the farm

However, my primary concern was the particularly troubled 40-by-20-foot section of old, dead, lifeless dirt. Since whatever helped here would apply everywhere, I studied ways to improve Deadland and used the lessons property-wide.


While this article focuses on my “small” property, all of these lessons and details can be scaled up for much larger properties.


A systemic problem: Overworking the land


Asking my new neighbors what had happened there, I learned the prior owner had done two things that were bad for the land:


First, he had mowed the entire property 3 times a week, every week. This created several land issues: 1. The grass never got to full maturity, 2. the roots became shallow, 3. sun could directly beat the dirt, 4. rainwater flowed away, and 5. the dirt became unable to support life.


Second, for twenty years he had grown the same variety of the same crop (tomatoes) in the same space - that 20x40 area. Tomatoes are widely known to be very soil damaging by taking nutrients without putting many back. To ensure sufficient amounts of nutrients are available for the next crop, heavy “pest” removal is performed with a lot of chemicals. I quickly updated my nickname for that part of the property to “Tomato Deadland”


Now, this is an extreme case of land abuse. However, if you are reading this article, you have probably come across something similar.


The question we all deal with is: “How do we fix it?”


Repairing old ground: Basic sustainable agriculture practices – rest & native plants


The first thing to do is give the ground a chance to recover itself. Mother Nature is a very powerful force, and can repair a lot if just given time. In my case, that simply meant reducing mowing frequency. Instead of 3-times a week, the land got mowed 4 times total in the first year I owned the property. Other strategies can include not walking on the ground as often, or adding shade to an overheated area.


The second thing I did was install Native Plants around the property with lots of high-quality compost and dirt. Using Native Plants is essential because they already have symbiotic relationships with the local environment, are most likely to survive the local weather, and have the highest number of other creatures (bees, butterflies, birds) that already know how to interact with them. I found mine through some online research and asking a lot of questions at the local plant nurseries.


High-Quality Compost is essential to give these plants a chance. The existing land probably does not have any of the required nutrients to sustain life. Unfortunately, there are lots of brands out there that take dead dirt, package it, and call it “compost.” High Quality Compost is generally made of leaves or manure, is dark in color, and not very dense. The quality of the compost you provide can be the determining factor in overall sustainable agriculture success.


This process started in March. By July, results were obvious with most of the half-acre showing signs of life. We started to see earthworms in the dirt, and butterflies, squirrels and birds arrived. The dirt went from a dead, dry, faded gray color to rich, moist black clearly full of nutrients.


Despite these victories, Tomato Deadland continued to struggle. The bunnies, birds, squirrels, and foxes now at least visited. There were worms and other ground-level improvements. However, the area remained distinctly noticeable from the property since it still had no grass after a year of new management.


Upping the game: Direct human intervention required


How do you take this to the next level, and breath life back into an area like Tomato Deadland, that has remained dead despite resting, native plantings, and high-quality dirt?


First, get a soil test to find out exactly what is happening in the area. Many state agriculture departments offer free or low-cost services, frequently by mail.


Second, rotate crops. Do not just replant the same thing. Assume the land has no more of that to give. Start with ground-enhancing crops like peas, potatoes, or corn. Do not plant the same crop in the same area in back-to-back years. Ideal second-year crops can include collard greens and onions. Third-year crop ideas are beans and mustards – or replanting the crops you used in year 1. Find the crops that are most likely to thrive in your area, and use those on a rotating basis. Build in time for the ground to rest by planning for a season without crops.


Third, do not put any chemicals in the land. Some can stay in the ground for hundreds of years. Others leave fast but damage the remaining earth, reducing the land’s ability to grow anything else. However, by planting the right post-chemical crops, adding the right soil inputs, and proper rotations, these chemicals can be pulled out of the ground over time. Use the soil sample results to pick chemical removing crops.


Getting abused dirt to heal is hard. Getting to stay that way is even harder. Using the above steps, though, gives you a fighting chance.


However, once my land is healed, we will be using it for crops and clean energy.


Agriculture vs. clean energy, a perceived land use conflict


As the globe realizes the impacts of Climate Change, it is transitioning away from fossil fuel-based energy sources. The most promising of these technologies is a 3-prong approach: solar power (for the sunny days), combined with wind power (for nights and during storms), with batteries backup (to provide energy insurance in case of excess demand.)


While solar on rooftops is widely adopted for individual homes, many power company customers either do not own their roof (apartments, renters, etc.), or have reasons they cannot put solar panels on them. Things like tree cover, neighboring building height, and local laws reduce solar potential for homes.


This leads to solar developers buying up other land, namely farms, for clean energy projects. By putting panels directly on the ground, this land is no longer farmable. It seems the globe will have to choose: clean energy or food.


Then I stumbled across an article in 2017 (which is no longer easily available) about Jack’s Solar Garden in Colorado. Byron and Jack’s Solar Garden are not affiliated with Chief of Green or Scott Phillips. However, Byron’s story solves a real problem.


A simple win-win solution: Agrivoltaics


Byron, a 3rd-generation farmer in Colorado, was looking for ways to keep the land in his family while facing an ever-decreasing wheat harvest. He partnered with the University of Colorado to put solar panels on his land and have the school study the results.


While people had realized in the 1980s there was no reason solar panels that are not on a roof have to be directly on the ground, no one had done any real-world studies on the idea. If the average roof is 10 or 15 feet off ground, why not create a structure of that height and farm under it?


That was what Jack’s Solar Garden did, they built a solar array 10-feet off the ground, growing wheat and other crops under it. Shortly, he started seeing expected and unexpected results. His wheat production went up, the panels provided a new revenue stream for the farm – but most importantly, the pollinator population increased. His ground started retaining nutrients more efficiently since it was no longer being blasted by the Colorado Sun all day. Additionally, the panels protected his crops from weather threats like heat, cold, and hail. Perhaps the most surprising result, though, was the solar panels produced more clean energy than expected – and University students proved it was due to the optimum temperatures below the panels provided by the crops.


Some European studies have indicated agrivoltaics are actually best for animal-based, rather than plant-based, farming. Think cows, chickens, pigs and (particularly) goats instead of wheat and corn. Others have shown wheat does not do as well under solar, but berries do better. Using berries and other flower-producing crops have also been shown to support bee population grown. The ideal crop for under the solar array seems to depend heavily on the soil quality, temperature, humidity, and rainfall in the area.


In other words, Agrivoltaics is a win-win-win. The solar company runs few feet of vertical pipe that ground-based arrays do not require and they get a much larger potential client base. The farmer gets to keep his land as a productive farm area, potentially sees higher yields, and gets solar money. The power company gets clean energy and environmental bragging rights.


The trend has really taken off in Europe, and several projects are planned in the USA. So far, the largest is 800,000 acres in Ohio which was just announced recently with construction pending. On the other end of the size scale, my local solar installers will do agrivoltaic setups as small as 3KW – meeting roughly half the needs of most homes. For small land projects, be sure to get size limitations from local solar providers.


How to start planting with agrivoltaics now


If you want to start with solar cover while repairing the ground, several steps are critical:

First, identify the area you want to plant on. Then, answer these questions:


How much land do you have to plant? How will you arrange the plants – in rows, circles, or randomly?


How much of that area do you plan to put panels over? (This may be limited by local power company rules or governmental laws.)


What existing structures can support the panels? Can they hold the weight? Are they the right size? Are they 10-15 feet off the ground?


If you have to add structure, be sure to check the local zoning laws. Do you have to be a set distance from the property line? Are certain colors or materials required or outlawed? What height restrictions, if any, is your land subject to?


The top reasons neighbors resist solar arrays are visual, i.e. “panels are ugly.” What can you do to make your project prettier? (Hint: this is a great reason to use native flowers near structural vertical supports.)


What tax incentives or other financial support could this project qualify for? The USA, for example, has recently released a lot of IRA money into the green space. Ask your tax expert if your project gets you any of it? Outside the USA, has your country and/or local government made solar energy a priority and which programs can you qualify for?


How to plant now for agrivoltaics later


The other option is to get the ground ready and productive using the restorative techniques discussed in this article, and add solar panels later. This can also have the added benefit of a lower initial investment. If you are doing it this way, be sure to consider the same questions as if you were doing panels now.


You also want to be sure you plant the plants so that they require minimized adjustments during panel installation. For example, do not put bushes at the corners of the property that will have to be removed to make room for the poles. Think about how water moves during and after storms. Will the panels or structures change that? How can that impact be minimized so the same planting area can be maximized?


Conclusion: Sustainable agriculture and agrivoltaics serve the land


While your land may be dead or beaten up now, using these regenerative techniques can get it back to life within a few years. Adding panels over the land can help it stay that way, and reduce our society’s dependence on fossil fuels at the same time. Like with any project, though, both processes require effective planning before, during, and after the project has been completed. Doing both land restoration and adding panels at the same time has advantages, and adding panels later has advantages. Which way your project goes is ultimately up to you.


Read more from Scott Phillips

 

Scott Phillips, CEO and Head Coach of Chief of Green

Scott Phillips is an expert and leader in living Free From Fossil Fuel. His interest was piqued in middle school while reading Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six. However, Scott's action list got a new importance when he became an uncle in 2016. Scott's list of environmentally friendly actions taken is long - over 50 - and the backbone of Chief of Green's methodology. His areas of expertise include electric vehicles, solar panels, sustainable farming, and general Fossil Fuel Free Living.

 

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