Sun fuels Shoreham orchard’s operations, not just its apples

SHOREHAM — “A farmer is always trying to figure out how to be independent,” said Shoreham orchardist Bill Suhr.
For Suhr, co-owner with wife, Andrea Scott, of Champlain Orchards, the foundation of that independence rests on sustainable energy.
Prominent at Champlain Orchards’ flagship orchard and farm market are 14 solar trackers, nestled in a cove. Not too far away at a second orchard on Witherell Road, 14 trackers also sited on just one acre soak up the sun. (Along with the two orchards in Shoreham, Champlain Orchards has added a third in Bridport.)
“Someone might say ‘Well, you have degraded the landscape,’ but I find them beautiful, especially beautiful environmentally, which is number one, but the number two is financially,” Suhr said. “We will be able to control our energy costs moving forward and that’s a lovely thing because a farmer can’t control the weather, they can’t control the market, but if you can control these costs.”
Suhr describes his two acres of solar trackers as among “the most productive parcels of land” out of the 250 acres of apple and sundry fruit trees on its 500 acres of land.
Suhr knew for a long time he wanted to make his business more sustainable in terms of energy consumption.
“We’re burning diesel fuel, we were burning a lot of power we don’t know where the power was coming from, and we’re selling to food co-ops that care about how the fruit is grown,” he said.
Suhr installed the two 59-kilowatt arrays in 2011, after taking time to investigate whether solar or wind renewable energy was better suited for the farm.
“Before that for a year, Vermont Technical College had an anemometer up here measuring wind speeds. Our desire was to figure out whether solar or wind made the most sense,” said Suhr.
Dollars and sense helped make the decision.
Suhr found that a wind turbine would cost Champlain Orchards around $800,000, and they would have to foot the bill fully, whereas All Earth Renewables offered a better deal.
“They approached us and said, ‘Bill, we’ll foot the bill and you pay your normal monthly bill,’ which is $3,500, and they would receive the credits, the federal incentives and the state incentives, but they would cover the (installation) bill.”
When installing the two one-acre arrays, Suhr chose land that was less suitable for apple growing.
The 14 panels at the main orchard were installed in a plot of land that at the time was considered not well enough drained for fruit trees. The slope is such that it’s not particularly visible from the road, but is visible to those who come to visit the farm to pick fruit or buy cider or baked goods.
“The other site (Witherell Road) is definitely a place we would not plant an orchard because it’s down in a cold pocket where we would freeze out our fruit,” said Suhr.
But Suhr’s view of how renewable energy fits into the landscape goes beyond his own acreage. His questioning of how to farm sustainably went beyond deciding whether to use wind or solar. Suhr kept asking himself, How do you ethically meet the demand for local food, while balancing that with the need to save energy nationwide?
“Do you manage your greens in a greenhouse and heat it with propane all year because people want local?” Suhr asked. “That’s not cool.”
Equally uncool for Suhr was refrigerating “fruit year round when it actually energywise makes more sense to truck it by rail from the West Coast … That would be potentially more fuel and energy efficient.”
But the concept of trucking coast to coast depending on who was harvesting in high season was far from satisfying.
“Well damn it, we don’t want to do that,” he said. “So ethically we want to supply the community and to do that responsibly we needed to look at where our abuse factor would be.”
Suhr admits that he’s not quite figured out how to counter the “abuse factor” of the diesel fuel required to get its apples delivered to stores throughout New England.
But he’s proud of how his two-acre “solar orchard” has helped power his growing operation.
Up til a year or so ago, Champlain Orchards was truly carbon neutral, said Veronica Ciambra, who was hired last February to oversee the orchards’ energy usage and develop new energy conservation and new renewable energy generation measures.
Then Champlain Orchards tripled its controlled, refrigerated storage capacity from 30,000 to 90,000 bushels.
“As Bill looks forward, he knows that as he continues to expand he’s going to need more power,” said Ciambra.
With her eye on the monthly electricity bills and monthly statements of how many kilowatt hours the Champlain Orchards arrays generate, Ciambra says that month to month the consumption-to-generation ratio varies. In good months, electricity generation exceeds demand, but at times generation might meet only half to three-quarters of the power orchard operations consume.
Energy conservation is critical, said Ciambra, and she has been working with Efficiency Vermont to devise a plan to lower the orchards’ energy consumption by 15 percent overall through conservation measures.
“The biggest thing is replacing a lot of motors (especially those that power refrigeration) with energy efficient motors and systems that have shut offs,” Ciambra said.
She said she loves working with Efficiency Vermont.
“I think they’re great, honestly,” Ciambra said. “I don’t know why more businesses don’t talk to them about ways to make conserving energy pay for itself.”
Ciambra is also investigating putting solar panels on the rooftop of the large storage and packing facility vs. adding more trackers on the ground.
A large part of her work is also keeping up with and understanding the changing landscape of Vermont’s renewable energy rules and regulations. Right now, for example, Ciambra said, Champlain Orchards might want to add as much as 150 kilowatts in standing trackers, but would only be able to do so in 15 kilowatt increments, depending on the parcel and its location.
“A lot of the hang-up with us right now is the way that the Public Service Board is allowing you to expand to put in solar,” she said. “We can’t do anything until 2017 because the rules don’t allow us to. We can do 15 kilowatts in a couple of different places but that’s not as cost effective as doing 150 kilowatts all at once.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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