CARVER, Mass. (AP) — Plummeting cranberry prices and the country’s ongoing trade wars have America’s cranberry industry eyeing a possible new savior: solar power.
Some cranberry farmers in Massachusetts, the nation’s second largest grower after Wisconsin, are proposing to build solar panels above the bogs they harvest each fall.
It’s a novel approach to blending renewable energy technology with traditional farming that has been researched across the world but not tried before on large-scale, commercial crop cultivation, according to solar power and agricultural industry experts. The basic idea is to build solar arrays high enough off the ground and in more spaced-out clusters to allow for crops to be safely grown and harvested underneath.
Cranberry farmers hope to shoulder lean times for their industry by gleaning extra revenue — in the form of long-term land leases with solar developers — while still producing the same quality berries they have for generations. An ongoing, nationwide study also suggests certain crops in particular climates can thrive under solar panels, though it’s unclear at this point how cranberries will fare.
Michael Wainio, a fourth-generation cranberry farmer, said he has sold off parts of his land, started a side business harvesting bogs for other growers, and launched a farm stand, deli and bakery operation in recent years to make ends meet.
Wainio is working with developer NextSun Energy on a project calling for roughly 27,000 solar panels over about 60 acres of active bogs across three farms in Carver, near Cape Cod. The project would produce about 10 megawatts of energy, or roughly enough to power more than 1,600 homes, according to NextSun.
The cranberry industry has been dealing for years with the combined effects of crop surplus and weakening demand for one of its primary products, cranberry juice, said Brian Wick, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association.
The price of cranberries has plummeted 57 percent over the last decade, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. However, Wick said the cost to produce the tart red berries in Massachusetts is nearly $35 a barrel.
The USDA permitted industry to dump millions of pounds of fruit in 2017 and 2018 to stabilize prices, but the country’s ongoing trade disputes with Europe and China are further compounding the struggles for an industry that previously exported about 30 percent of its product, Wick said.
“What we like about these new solar projects is that they have a farm-first mentality,” he said. “This is an opportunity to keep the industry going. This isn’t about replacing farms with solar.”
In Massachusetts, cranberry growers and their solar partners are hoping to take advantage of a new renewable energy incentive meant to encourage such “dual use” solar and agriculture projects, as the state refers to them.
To qualify, arrays must meet certain design requirements, such as being built at least 8 feet off the ground. The projects also must provide an annual report demonstrating the land under the panels remains agriculturally productive.
At least one proposal has received state approval, a handful of others are under review, and more are pending before local authorities or are in earlier stages of development, according to state and cranberry industry officials.
Dual use projects have proven successful on livestock farms in Europe and the U.S., and hundreds of projects have been built on crop farms in Japan, though all those are vastly smaller than what’s being proposed on Massachusetts cranberry bogs, said Jordan Macknick, an analyst at the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado who is coordinating a nationwide study on “agrivoltaics,” as the idea is sometimes referred.
The impact on crop cultivation in different environments is still being researched, he said.