When Fred Garber surveys the progress of the new solar installation on his family farm in Mount Jackson, he sees the future. And that gives the nearly 79-year-old a tiny bit of peace.
Agriculture has changed a lot since Mr. Garber grew up on a family farm in northern Augusta County. Fifty years ago he moved to the land that he is now gazing at from the driver’s seat of his utility vehicle, watching workers put the final touches on the electrical connections for the 4 megawatt community solar project located on a small knoll of his farm. Just over the hill is a Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative (SVEC) substation to which those panels will soon send power. He notes that his family has been working the land in the Valley since 1775, but times change and farmers must change as well.
Fred Garber standing under a row of panels in their flattest position.
“Now we are harvesting the sun,” he explained, pointing to the rows of panels and adding that the panels can also be worked into farming practices in other ways. “Some farmers are grazing sheep under their panels as well,” he noted.
An important thing for his project is that very little land was disturbed, and when the next generation considers decommissioning the project, it will take less effort to get the land back into agricultural production.
These days more than a few farmers are finding themselves besieged with offers to put large-scale solar projects on their property. Although he had been approached by a number of different companies about putting solar on his property, Mr. Garber went with this project specifically because it was community solar, meaning the electricity produced on his farm will be available to SVEC members as renewable energy credits.
“We are happy for Fred—and by extension, Shenandoah County and our members—that he’s found a creative way to make his farmland have a sustaining impact on the local community,” said Preston Knight, SVEC Manager of Communications, of the first community solar project in the electric co-op’s territory.
SOLAR ON FARMS,
NOT SOLAR FARMS!
Thinking about adding solar to an existing agricultural business? If so, you might be interested in the resources from the spring 2022 workshops the Alliance co-hosted with Virginia Cooperative Extension.
At the workshop, we brought in experts from throughout the solar industry to discuss options for projects that can fit and complement existing agricultural businesses.
SVEC FORESEES A SUNNY ENERGY FUTURE
Visit SVEC’s Sustainable Future Arboretum at its Rockingham headquarters building to learn more about how sunlight becomes solar power. The 3.5-acre space features a circular walk, solar arrays, and a variety of pollinator plants.
The space is designed to educate about renewable energy and the natural environment. Signage next to the solar arrays explains that every kilowatt of solar electricity installed at home can help individuals reduce their annual carbon footprints by 3,000 pounds, the equivalent of driving more than 3,300 miles less per year.
The 32 acres of panels on Mr. Garber’s farm are designed to tilt and follow the sun and feature the technology to absorb light on both sides of the panels. “I am hoping that this will be a prototype for others in Shenandoah County to follow,” Mr. Garber explained.
Around the panels, the agricultural operations continue as usual on the 162-acre farm. In addition to the panels, there are 12 acres set aside in a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), but normal farm operations such as growing crops and raising livestock continue unabated on the rest of the acreage. Sixty mama cows and their babies live on the premises.
The solar array and the CREP reserve are just two parts of the smart environmental practices that Mr. Garber oversees on the land. “No soil has been turned on this farm in decades,” he said.
In a short while, Mr. Garber will celebrate his 79th birthday and the hundreds of solar panels around him will come online harvesting the sun. Odds are that he won’t be around when the panels have finished their life and the land under them will be available to revert back to working farmland. But his grandchildren and great-grandchildren will, and therein lies the answer to the question of why he has agreed to allow such a large project on the family farm.
“We have grandkids that we love. We are concerned about the world that they might be living in. This is our way to help with that,” he explained.
Author Nancy Sorrells wears many hats in the community. In addition to Augusta County Coordinator for the Alliance, she is a former Augusta County Supervisor, founding member of Fields of Gold agritourism initiative, freelance writer and Valley historian.