All posts by The Food Fix

Crops grown under solar panels and pollinator habitats could be wave of the future

Solar panels can provide insect habitats. Image: Rob Davis

By Sheldon Krause
Capital News Service 

A new report about combining solar power and farming practices has advocates saying the practice could take hold in Michigan, boosting productivity while providing much needed refuge for bees and other pollinators.

The report from The Counter, a news organization covering in-depth stories on food in America, discusses the rising prevalence of “agrivoltaics,” the practice of growing crops underneath solar panels.

The process appears to be a win-win for crops such as tomatoes and jalapenos that respond well to lower light levels, the report said.

That’s because the crop’s natural photosynthesis can provide a slight cooling effect for the solar panels, allowing them to run 1-3% more efficiently. 

Similarly, the reduced level of direct light on some crops is extremely beneficial, it said. For example, the productivity of tomatoes grown under solar panels doubled while conserving 65% more water.

Also encompassed in the term agrivoltaics is the use of solar arrays to aid in livestock farming, often using solar panels to provide shade for the animals. 

Charles Gould is a bioenergy educator with Michigan State University Extension in West Olive. He says he thinks agrivoltaics could be the future of renewable energy.

“I think that this is the future. Solar requires land, and oftentimes the best for a solar project happens to be land that’s growing crops,” Gould said. 

“If we’re going to take land out of production, we need to maximize its value, and the way we can do that is grow crops or raise livestock underneath those solar arrays,” Gould said.

Gould said that there’s a farm in Michigan that uses solar panels to give sheep shade as they graze. 

Sheep graze under the shade of solar panels in Lenawee County, an example of agrivoltaics. Image: Charles Gould

Sharlissa Moore, a professor at MSU specializing in social and policy issues relating to renewable energy, also sees future potential in making dual use of solar arrays.

“It’s not a question of it happening in the next couple of years, it’s how many years out are we before solar becomes even cheaper and it starts to actually become cost-feasible to do this,” she said.

With agrivoltaics, solar panels often have to be raised off the ground higher than they normally would be.

Moore said the added height of the solar panels sometimes can make the benefits of agrivoltaics economically unrealistic.

“We don’t have great numbers for this, but (raising the solar panels) is going to increase the overall cost by around 9 or 10%, which is a lot in renewable energy where the margins are slim,” she said. 

Moore added that the estimate can change a lot, based on scale.

Gould says that the costs may be worth it in the long run, and may be necessary for garnering public support.

“I think what we’re going to see is that there are people who are opposed to solar projects because they are being put in land that’s currently in crop production,” he said. 

“I think what we’re going to see is the compromise — the compromise here is that people, like zoning boards and the general public, are going to be more amenable to solar projects if that racking system is raised so that farm machinery and animals can graze comfortably underneath them,” he said.

An established pollinator habitat offers space to a butterfly. Image: Rob Davis

Gould said there would be a tradeoff because the general public will want the land to stay in agriculture, meaning increased costs to raise the solar arrays.

Both Gould and Moore said they see additional promise with pollinator habitats — the practice of turning solar arrays into sustainable habitats for pollinating insects.

Gould said pollinators are “really, really critical to agriculture because we’re losing pollinating insects.” 

And Moore said, “Pollinator habitat is much closer to being feasible than agrivoltaics. What I expect to start happening in the near term, particularly because some of it is being mandated by the Michigan government, is to build pollinator habitat on these solar sites.”

Waste reduction app diverts food from landfills

Flashfood app provides cheap food and keeps it out of landfills. Image: Flashfood

By Nina Felicidario

Despite setbacks from the pandemic, a food waste reduction company has diverted over 50 million pounds of food from landfills.

Flashfood is a mobile marketplace that connects surplus food in grocery stores with local shoppers to help sell food that will get disposed of in landfill if it isn’t sold within a day or two. Users open the app to order and buy groceries at a discounted rate then pick them up from participating stores.

The company that launched in Canada had successful rollouts this year in over a thousand stores. They are implemented in Meijer stores in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Kentucky; Giant Food Stores in Pennsylvania; Stop and Shop supermarkets in Massachusetts; Tops Friendly Markets in New York and Giant Eagle supermarkets in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“We’re making a lot of traction in the Midwest and Northeast,” said Eric Tribe, the company’s chief marketplace officer. “And we keep going.”

The idea stemmed from the sister of Flash Foods founder Josh Domingues. She is a caterer. After running an under attended event, she watched as they threw out thousands of dollars of food, Tribe said. Upset, she went to her brother, prompting him to research food waste.

As much as “30 to 40% of food produced ends up lost or in landfill,” Tribe said.

In the United States 81.4 billion pounds of food waste worth about $161 billion were generated in 2018, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that people waste a third of all food produced for human consumption globally.

“The story became, how can we have an impact as a small tech company,” Tribe said. “It’s a tough problem to solve.”

Although grocery stores do their best to order the correct amount and allocate their stores properly, buyer habit projects a stigma towards products that are less than ideal. So, buyers reach for the better-looking product behind it, Tribe said.

“Logistically, it’s actually really tough getting food to food banks and kitchens,” Tribe said.

Guaranteed food safety from the grocery store to the food banks is costly. The transportation process involves cold storage and proper handling. So they had to think a little differently, Tribe said.

The company started by testing a private program with four Loblaw grocery stores In Canada.

In 2019, it grew from four stores to 450. After the successful rollout, Flashfood started to carry out the program in the United States.

A blogger from Illinois, Cara Hanako, uses Flashfood about once a week, depending on what’s available. She loves how easy it is to use the app along with the quality of the products.

“I think that everyone should take advantage of discounted food that would be thrown out,” Hanako said. 

Discount shopper Kathleen Schmitt uses Flashfood constantly and likes the convenience of the app that gets discount pricing out early and offers promotions to participate, said Schmitt, who lives in New York.

“It helps reduce waste,” she said. ”A lot of people have issues with dates, but sell-by doesn’t mean instantly bad.”

Flashfood has been implemented in over a thousand stores, impacting food waste and food insecurity, Tribe said. “Our mission is to reduce food waste and feed people more affordably.”

Flashfood’s discounted rates have provided families affordable access to fresh food, even through the challenges that the pandemic has brought on them, he said.

With grocers responding to the health and safety needs of shoppers because of the pandemic, Flashfood had to change the way it operated overnight. Instead of Flashfood representatives flying out to possible grocery stores that will implement their program, they turned to virtual meetings and calls. Although it was a stressful time for both Flashfood and grocery stores, the sudden need to adapt to different circumstances strengthened its relationship with the stores, Tribe said. 

Flashfood hopes to expand its impact by increasing its network of stores.

“It’s such a big problem,” Tribe said. “We’re just a little company trying to do our part.”

Shoppers can download the free app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. Just open the app to find nearby Flashfood-supported grocery stores and to see deals for surplus food available that day. Next, checkout and pay in the app then pick your groceries up in stores.

Michigan farms working to combat climate change

A sign on Allen Family Farms in Owosso, Michigan, shows the farm has met environmentally friendly standards under a state program. Image: Shelly Allen

By Sophia Lada
Capital News Service

When Shelly Allen and her husband purchased their farm in 2005, there were a lot of environmental red flags. 

It was an old dairy farm. A nearby creek flowed into the woods. Cow manure ran off into the creek, which ran into a river, which eventually ran to the Great Lakes.

She said they had to completely change the farm set up into what is now Allen Family Farms of Owosso, Michigan.

“There were a lot of things here that they did, the previous owners, that was either really unsafe or we saw we could change to make better,” she said.

When the Allens bought their farm, they knew they would have children one day and wanted a farm that could be “prosperous and sustainable for them,” she said.

Agriculture accounts for 10.5% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and is affected by climate change.

Joe Kelpinski, the program manager of the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, said that within the last 20 years, there have been increasingly intense spring rains, specifically in the western Lake Erie basin. 

Farmers can’t get into their fields when record rainfall occurs, and the rains can erode the soil.

Marci Baranski worked for the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development until 2010 and later as a climate change specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2015 to 2019. Now, she’s a research and development associate at Tradewater, a Chicago-based organization that works to reduce the world’s carbon footprint.

As the air gets warmer because of climate change, it can hold more water, leading to heavier rains at unusual times, she said. 

A concrete manure containment barn on the Allen Family Farms keeps contaminants from reaching a creek on the property. Image: Shelly Allen

Baranski said there can often be a “false spring” in Michigan that can destroy crops because fruit trees can produce buds and then freeze over when the temperature drops.

Baranski said a common agricultural practice that causes greenhouse gas emissions is when farmers apply fertilizer in the winter.

The fertilizer can often wash off and cause water pollution. It can also vaporize and turn into nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. 

One solution to the problem is to inject fertilizer into the soil only where and when plants need it, she said. 

Michigan Agri-business Association president Chuck Lippstreu said, “To remain viable for the long term, farmers have to be stewards of the air and land and water.”

One way to do that, he said, is through precision agriculture, or using in-field imagery, GPS and other technology to ensure that crop inputs (seeds and fertilizers) are targeted and purposeful. 

Allen Family Farms uses a GPS fertilizer and sprayer system. 

The Allens got involved with the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, a program of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development that recognizes farmers who take care of their land. The program has verified 5,482 farms since it started in 1998.

Allen said they started attending educational events, and a county conservation technician came out and showed them what they needed to change. 

That was phase one and two of MAEAP verification, program manager Joe Kelpinski said.

Allen said she and her husband installed filter strips, which are strips of grass between the manure and the creek, to keep manure from getting into the creek.

They also built a manure facility barn made of entirely concrete. There’s one for the cows in the winter and one for the manure.

Having a concrete manure facility prevents manure from spilling and helped Allen Family Farms become livestock-verified through the state program.

Livestock verification focuses on animal production practices. 

Allen said they also rotate crops every year to keep the right nutrients and microbes in the soil. To check soil health, they submit samples to a lab and receive information about exactly what their soil needs. 

Some of the biggest challenges to becoming an environmentally verified farm are change and money, Allen said. 

It can be hard when farmers follow a method of operation for generations and then have to change, and it can sometimes be expensive.

Allen said they try to be resourceful with products they have by taking their uglier pumpkins in the fall and making dog treats or by donating leftover flowers to a nursing home.

Once farmers find out they can get assistance, she said, they have a more positive attitude about it.

Kelpinski, the program manager, said becoming environmentally verified is different for everyone.

“It’s not-a-one-size fits all,” he said.

Mentors to teach conservation farming to beginners, veterans, socially disadvantaged

Brooks Farms at night. Image: Ron Brooks

By Brianna M. Lane

Wisconsin dairy farmer Ron Brooks practices conservation farming by planting buffer strips and cover crops, practicing no-till planting and precision farming.

Conservation is part of his heritage, said the fifth-generation farmer from Waupaca, who also has restored sites on his farm for an endangered butterfly.

“My grandfather and my great uncles were conservationists and didn’t know it,” said Brooks, who is the chief executive officer at Brooks Farms, which is made up of 12 farms.

Zoey Brooks, the daughter of Ron Brooks, the owner of Brooks Farms. Image: Ron Brooks.

Now Brooks wants to pass that knowledge on to farmers who are beginners, have limited resources, come from socially disadvantaged groups or are veterans.

He will be a mentor for the Land Ethic Mentorship program run by the Wisconsin-based agriculture nonprofit organization, Sand County Foundation. The program will help poor, beginner or socially disadvantaged farmers across the nation practice conservation.

Farmers can apply on the Sand County Foundation’s website.

The idea for the program came from the past winners of the Leopold Conservation Award, said Sand County Foundation Vice President Heidi Peterson. They often expressed the need to share information about land ethics with the next generation of farmers.

The goal is to have 200 mentees, which is why there is no application closing date, she said.  The pilot program will run for two years. It is funded by a $250,000 grant from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services.

“Agricultural demographics are changing. Research shows there has been an increase of farmers younger than 35 and farmers of color,” Peterson said.

Many new farmers also don’t come from a farming background, she said.

Underserved farmers are more likely to operate on sensitive land, Peterson said. Beginner farmers are more likely to have farms closer to impaired bodies of water.

The Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award recognizes farmers committed to land ethics, she said. The award has acknowledged 150 farmers since 2003.

“The Leopold Award has been compared to the Noble Peace Prize for conservation,” said Brooks who received the honor in 2016.

A man tills the soil at Garcia’s Gardens. Image: Dan Garcia

Farmers will be connected to mentors through an interview to ensure their backgrounds and operations align, Peterson said. Individual and group mentoring will be available through an app. The program will also have field days and webinars.

Mentors and mentees will also attend a conservation symposium about resiliency in August, she said.

Brooks is excited to teach farmers about the importance of patience and to share his experiences, so they don’t make the same mistakes.

“I want to take the burden off of their shoulders and make it okay to be a conservationist,” Brooks said.

Though Brooks’ family practiced conservation farming, he wishes a program was around when he began farming.

The inside of the hoop house during the fall. Image: Dan Garcia

“When you’re beginning farming, conservation is the last thing on your mind,” he said.

You’re worried about making ends meet, fitting in or other things, he said.

Dan Garcia, the owner of the small Indianapolis vegetable farm, Garcia’s Gardens, and a Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition member agrees.

“Conservation is one of the last things you’re thinking about,” he said. “I was just trying to survive.”

It’s a practice farmers can implement once they’re stabilized, he said.

“The first two years I was like a fetus, I was feeling around and didn’t know what was out there,” he said.

Now Garcia’s Gardens is in its seventh season.

Tomatoes ripening at Garcia’s Gardens. Image: Dan Garcia

Garcia knew about conservation from Boy Scouts and college, but not conservation farming. His farming background came from his dad and working for a farm.

He is open to learning more about conservation farming but faces obstacles like finances and land.

For Brooks, conservation farming has been made easier by automated technology.

He uses precision farming, a practice where self-driving tractors use a combination of math, physics and a GPS to plant crops and adjust fertilizer to the needs of the land. It also allows planting between previous years’ rows.

“Precision farming has made conservation farming a slam dunk,” he said.

But sometimes conservation farming requires quick action.

Last year his cheese processor had to process 20% less milk than usual due to COVID-19, he said. They recommended that he dump the excess milk.

Brooks resisted that idea and instead, donated the excess milk to a local artisan cheesemaker.

Butler University students after pulling up carrots at Garcia’s Gardens. Image: Instagram @garciasgardens

“I didn’t want to dump the milk in the manure pit or on the land.”

Conservation farming looks different at Garcia’s Gardens.

The acre and a half farm use a hoop house funded by the National Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, EQIP, grant, Garcia said.

Other conservation practices are permaculture beds for bees, tending to retention ponds and wildlife habitats, he said.

Some tilling is also used on the farm, but not more than an inch deep. He hasn’t dug far enough to hit clay, he said.

For Garcia, the impact he’ll leave with his conservation efforts matter the most within his neighborhood. The farm is dedicated to food justice and wants to provide fresh produce to people with low income while growing it ethically.

“If I can help out all of our folks within a five-mile radius, then that’s great, he said. “I think I can have a better impact here, than trying to have an impact on people in like Detroit.”

Breweries repurposing waste to feed people and animals

Tony Sutorik, of Mi Element, which sells baked goods that incorporate leftover grain from the brewing process. Image: Suzanne Sutorik

By Sophia Lada
Capital News Service

For years, Tony and Suzanne Sutorik experimented in their home with brewing beer and using the leftover grains to create baked goods.

They did research online about other home breweries until last summer when they opened Mi Element, a microbrewery, bakery and coffee shop in Midland, Michigan.

Tony Sutorik, the owner and operator, said Mi Element has a one-barrel brewing system that brews beer and uses the leftover grain from the process to create flour that is later used in the cafe’s baked goods.

“Now the community has some kind of access to some pretty unique baked good offerings that you can’t really find anywhere else,” Sutorik said. They include the Porternickel sourdough and the Red Sky rye breads.

The process of repurposing spent grain, or leftover grain, after the mashing process removes the sugars and starches from the grain and costs Mi Element only labor, he said.

Sutorik said other breweries use spent grain to create granola, animal feed or compost.

Founders Brewing Co., located in Grand Rapids and Detroit, generated 2 ½ million pounds of spent grain from its facility in February, said sustainability coordinator Liz Wonder.

In its brewing process, Founders extracts all the sugar and protein from the grain, and then a truck picks up the leftover at least once daily, Wonder said.

The grain and leftover yeast are brought to a grain elevator, or holding place, and divided based on their different uses.

Silos at Short’s Brewing Co. hold spent grain for local farms to pick up. Image: Short’s Brewing Co.

Much of the grain is used for animal feed, Wonder said, “In Michigan, we’re very lucky that we have so many local farmers, so it’s really easy for us to find outlets for that byproduct.”

Short’s Brewing Co. in Bellaire and Elk Rapids, Michigan, repurposes nearly all of its spent grain with local farms it has partnerships with, CEO Scott Newman-Bale said.

Recently installed grain silos store the leftover grains for local farms to pick up.

“It’s really a mutually beneficial thing,” he said. “For the environment, for the farmers, but for us as well.”

Newman-Bale said the grains are used mostly for animal feed, but can also be used for fertilizer and to control erosion.

It would be otherwise difficult to dispose of the company’s millions of pounds of grain yearly as waste, he said.

Wonder said one alternative to selling spent grain is to compost it, but that is more expensive.

Also, the extra revenue from the grain can be used for other purposes.

“We might as well sell it and then use that money for other sustainability or environmental initiatives,” she said.

“Brewing, in general, is shockingly advanced in sustainability,” Newman-Bale said, “Even at small breweries, you find a lot of good innovation.”

Tony Sutorik, of Mi Element, said when he and his wife first started, throwing away the grain seemed like a lot to waste and they wanted to do something special with it.

Now, their baked goods are sold Tuesday to Saturday.

“It’s unique in the texture, it’s unique in the flavor,” he said, “and it also gives people a chance to know that some of what they’re doing is actually being recovered and reused.”