A state solar energy incentive program launched last November has a handful of Massachusetts cranberry farmers hoping for a new way to farm their fruit — and stay in the farming business.
The Solar Massachusetts Renewable Energy Target (SMART) program awards farmers a stipend for the solar energy they produce from solar panels built over their active farmland. Some cranberry farmers are skeptical and say building solar panels over their bogs is too risky; it could destroy their crop. Others say solar panels are their only option to keep afloat in a struggling industry.
Cranberries are the commonwealth’s largest agricultural food crop, but the industry has hit hard times. Last year, cranberry prices in Massachusetts cratered, falling to $22 for a barrel (or 100 pounds) of the fruit. It was a 29 percent tumble from prices the year before, and the lowest price per barrel in almost two decades.
Under the SMART program, the state incentivizes farmers to build solar panels on their productive farmland. But there is a catch: the state requires farmers to continue producing food on the same land as the solar panels. The project’s goal is to preserve the state’s farmland while encouraging solar development.
A handful of the state's more than 300 cranberry growers are interested in installing the panels on their land. They say the state’s incentive plan would help them remain in the cranberry business. Some growers told WGBH News that they have not been able to turn a profit — or break even — for the last five years or more.
“We lost our savings. We turned in our life insurance policy for money. We have to do something else,” said grower Roger Shores, who owns bogs in Carver.
Others, like Mark Weston of Weston Hill Cranberries, do not have the money to revamp their bogs with new hybrid varieties of cranberry that would bring in more cash.
“It would cost between $50,000 and $100,000 an acre to put them in. There’s no way a bank would loan money [for that],” he said. Weston owns more than 30 acres of land. “This project would help me out immensely, because you’d still be able to keep farming on these lands. … If you can get money for your crops, plus you’re getting money for the solar, you can keep the crops in production.”
Despite the enthusiasm for the project among some growers, there is little research on the long-term effects of building solar panels over commercial cranberry bogs. It is hard to tell if commercial cranberries would grow normally under the panels, according to Hilary Sandler, director of the University of Massachusetts Cranberry Station research center in Wareham.
“There’s a lot of questions we just don’t know the answer to,” she said. “Our gut feeling is that cranberries should be able to produce in shaded conditions. They don’t need a lot of sunlight to complete their life cycle.”
Sandler said the research center would need at least three years to get conclusive evidence on the panels' effects on cranberries. She added that she thinks growers building solar panels over their bogs before more data comes out is a dicey proposition.
“I don’t know that I could do it," she said. "It’s a big risk.”
Patrick Rhodes of Edgewood Bogs in Carver agrees. He said he doesn’t know if putting up solar panels is practical for his bog.
“I don't think anyone's sold on the idea, because we haven't seen it done," he said. "We don't know if you're still going to even be able to harvest the bogs.”
Most cranberries are harvested by flooding the bog with water. Growers drive a machine that looks like a lawnmower through the flooded bog, separating the berries and letting them float to the top, where they are gathered. Rhodes said he isn’t sure he could harvest normally with solar panels over his bog.
Rhodes said that for now his bog would need to pick either solar panels or cranberries — not both.
Other growers say they think it should be easy enough to navigate the harvesting equipment around the panels and say they are sure that their bogs will commercially succeed.
One of those growers is Michael Wainio, also a cranberry farmer in Carver. The UMass Cranberry Station and the Cranberry Research Foundation have set up a fake solar array on Wainio's land to see how the cranberries will be affected by the real panels. From the road, the set-up looks like several 20-foot plywood billboards have sprouted out of the middle of the bog, about ten feet above the cranberries. The model is built to mimic the most extreme shading of the day; 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m.
Wainio became convinced that dual use solar could work after seeing the amount of shading the plywood model produced.
“I watched it closely and realized there really wasn’t a lot of shading, and that was one of the biggest worries," he said. "After watching it for a month, I’ve come to the conclusion that the shading shouldn’t even be a problem.”
Wainio says the berries on the model experiment bog are doing well — they are plump and green, just where they should be for late July.
But time is running out for growers to get in on the SMART program.
“This is a very unique opportunity … but it's fleeting,” said Adam Schumaker, vice president of development at Nextsun Energy, the company handling the project's development on cranberry bogs in Carver. He said the utility companies that take the energy from SMART program solar projects have a limited capacity for the number of growers they will take on. Utility companies like Eversource and National Grid only agree to take a certain amount of solar energy from the program on their electrical systems, and they are almost full. National Grid had filled up by mid-July. Eversource is filling up quickly. Schumaker estimated that Eversource had about more eighteen months left before it, too, would be filled to capacity.
While some growers remain skeptical, Weston says there’s only one way to know for sure if solar panels can add much-needed profits for growers without harming the crop beneath them.
"You can't sit down and say, 'It's not gonna work, it's not gonna work, it's not gonna work,' unless you try it,” he said.
The state is still reviewing the project on Weston’s land, but he should hear back in the next few months. For now, he’ll need to wait, and hope a solar farm can save his cranberry bog.
Chaiel Schaffel is an intern with WGBH News.