Category Archives: United States

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.

Rising fuel prices might cause Southern horses to vote ‘neigh’ on Michigan hay

Image: Jakob Creutz

By Kirsten Rintelmann  

Michigan-grown hay is traveling south to feed horses in Florida. 

“The horse hay markets in Florida and some other Southern states are very competitive and are highly sought after by farms across the Midwest,” said Jerry Lindquist, a Michigan State University Extension grazing specialist.  

According to Lindquist, some farmers sell their hay to buyers in Florida because of the price.

“Michigan hay, marketed out of state, yes, some is sold to the horse industry in Florida, but it is a very small percentage of the total sold,” he said.

Farmers receive “very good prices” for it, he said.

Although current prices for the hay are unavailable, Lindquist said it has varied between the two states. For example, “over five years ago it sold for over $525 per ton in Florida,” he said. “Whereas in Michigan, the same hay may have been selling for $360 per ton.”

The Midwest Forage Association, based in Shoreview, Minnesota, says forage is the third-largest cash crop in the United States.

Forage includes alfalfa, corn silage, grass hay, clover, small grain and grass pasture, the association said.

“Our Michigan hays are predominately alfalfa and cool-season grasses,” Lindquist said. “They don’t and can’t raise much of those forages in Florida because of heat and moisture.  The closest they can find it is in Tennessee.” 

Kim Cassida, a forage and cover crop MSU Extension specialist and the treasurer of the Michigan Forage Council, said hay is usually shipped to Florida by semitruck, with the buyer paying the freight costs.

According to Lindquist, transportation costs have significantly increased for trucking Michigan hay to Florida,

“This transport method has gotten very expensive with COVID-19 and other factors decreasing the availability of truckers,” he said. “Compound that with rising fuel costs, and distant locations like Florida now are not as attractive as they were two years ago.” 

In addition, Cassida said transportation costs may outweigh the value of the hay. 

“It would be very expensive to ship hay to Florida from Michigan but possibly feasible for the racehorse market,” she said. 

Despite the expense of trucking, Cassida said she believes Michigan farmers will still sell their hay to Florida buyers.

“Hay sales are mediated between growers and buyers. So, if someone contacts a Michigan grower and is willing to pay the freight to Florida, I’m sure we have people who would be happy to sell them hay,” she said. 

Red-fleshed apples could keep Michigan cider makers in the black

John Behrens, president of the Michigan Cider Association, says that without agriculture there is no cider. Image: Full Circle Marketing

By Kyle Davidson

The Michigan Craft Beverage Council recently awarded $34,644 to study how to produce new varieties of apples for cider making.

The council is funding the study led by Steve Van Nocker, a professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Horticulture, who started the project about 15 years ago. His long-term goal is to develop an apple that can be used for juice and extracts.

By targeting characteristics like red juice and flesh and resistance to disease and harsh climate, his research could diversify Michigan apples.

While some companies are interested in red-fleshed apples for fresh market sales, the real economic potential lies in beverage making, Van Nocker said.

The juice from these red-fleshed apples would be great for sports drinks, novelty juices or health food products, he said. The dark, bitter juice could also be sold for direct consumption.

The council saw potential for Michigan’s hard cider industry in Van Nocker’s proposal, said Jenelle Jagmin, director of the Michigan Craft Beverage Council. New ingredients and beverage varieties help set the Michigan craft beverage industry apart.

“Anytime we can get our hands on a new, weird apple, we try to go for it,” said Tony Hansen, chief information officer for Short’s Brewing Co.

Michigan State University professor Steve Van Nocker is producing a disease resistant, red-fleshed line of apple. Image: Steve Van Nocker

The red juice apples have been a hit among Michigan cider makers. In 2016, Starcut Ciders, a division of Short’s Brewing Co., developed a dark red cider using Otterson apples, one of Van Nocker’s parent varieties. To make  “Flamingo Juice,” Ottersons were used heavily to capture how future blends might taste, Hansen said. The red juice can also create rosé hard ciders, which have gained popularity in recent years.

“I feel like everyone is making a rosé now,” he said.

While Van Nocker’s research has opened positive horizons for researchers and beverage makers, it could also benefit apple growers.

Michigan’s cider industry holds stronger ties to agriculture than other craft beverage categories, said John Behrens, president of the Michigan Cider Association.

“There’s a lot of great breweries and a lot of great wineries here. Some of those breweries for example, are using some Michigan hops, but a lot of them aren’t. Same thing with wineries, a lot of them are using Michigan grown grapes, but some of them aren’t.

 “When it comes to cider it is really all Michigan-grown apples,” Behrens said.

One of the challenges with producing cider is the higher cost at early stages, Behrens said. 

“With beer you’re starting with water. With cider you’re starting with fruit,” he said.

The cost and availability of fruit varies year to year, Behrens said. The sugar levels in the fruit can also vary.

There are also concerns about diseases like fire blight and scab. While Van Nocker’s pre-breeding apples resist these diseases, there are still worries about losing crops to climate. 

Warm early springs promote floral development, Van Nocker said. Then late spring frosts can damage these flowers and decrease the apples yielded. Such damage can be avoided by introducing lines that are extremely late blooming.. 

Van Nocker’s pre-breeding line of apples has shown results in color, production and disease resistance. Size remains a limiting factor. The apples are too small for most modern cider making equipment. As a result, apples can bounce out or be crushed by rollers while being washed and processed.

Van Nocker will continue crossing different varieties of apples in pursuit of the desired traits. If he gets something he’s happy with, he will test grow it in at least three other Michigan locations. The process could take about five years before he recommends the fruit to growers. 

After that, more plants will be grown to meet demand.

Technology extends salad bowl to Midwest

Leafy greens grow with yellow and pink lights inside Pure Green Farms. Image: Pure Green Farms

By Brianna M. Lane

For lettuce that calls indoor farms home, the “sunlight” can be blue, pink, red or other colors. 

That’s because LED lights allow you to pick the spectrums of the sun that are most useful for plants, said Erik Runkle, a Michigan State University horticulture professor who specializes in indoor farm lighting. 

Modern farmer Elise Hanson at the 80 Acres farm in downtown Hamilton, Ohio. Image: 80 Acres Farms

Usually, lettuce is grown and exported from California’s sunny Salinas Valley, nicknamed the salad bowl. But, Midwest farmers, like farmers across the nation, are growing their own indoors with LED lights.

“Lettuce is a popular high-value indoor crop because it is one of the most consumed vegetables,” Runkle said.

 “The fundamentals for an indoor farm are LED lighting and controlled ventilation,” he said. “A delivery system of water and nutrients is also needed whether it be hydroponics, aeroponics or manual.”

LED lights tolerate growing conditions like getting wet, he said. 

“The intensity is between 10% and 20% of the full sun but 10 to 15 times more than you’d see in a home,” he said. 

“The three colors you usually seen in indoor farms are red, blue and sometimes green,” he said. 

But not every indoor farm uses those colors or solely LED lights.

At Revolution Farms in Caledonia, Michigan, a broad-spectrum light is used, said head grower Tam Serage. The light produces a white color because of the mixed wavelengths of blue, green, yellow, orange and red, he said.

Revolution Farms grows kale and lettuce like romaine and sweet crisp. 

The inside of Revolution Farms. Image: Revolution Farms

The 50,000 square foot greenhouse uses hydroponics to water lettuce and give them nutrients. In April, a newly added part of the farm will be fully automated and use a nutrient filter that supplies lettuce with water and nutrients, Serage said.

The color of lights can influence lettuce’s color, texture, size and nutritional quality, Runkle said. 

Another indoor farm operation, 80 Acres Farms, has five locations nationwide. Three are Ohio lettuce farms—one in Cincinnati and two in Hamilton.

One of the new Hamilton locations is a fully automated 70,000 square foot vertical farm. Red, blue and pink lights are used for farming to promotes photosynthesis, said Rebecca Haders vice president of creative marketing. 

LED light qualities have improved over the years, Haders said. They provide more lighting and are more efficient while using less energy.

The Cincinnati location grows microgreens, leafy greens, tomatoes, herbs and cucumbers. The Hamilton location grows leafy greens and microgreens.

The robot “Sam” at 80 Acres Farms’ first automated farm. Sam is named after the first farmer, Samantha Bergman. Image: 80 Acres Farms

Sensors at 80 Acres Farms read when plants are the happiest, Haders said. The sensors are linked to software systems that can be accessed from anywhere. 

The farms use a closed-loop system that recycles water. Plants grow in tables that are filled up with water and they can uptake it through their roots, Haders said. Excess water flows back into the system where it gets cleaned and flows back out to the plants.

Choosing the correct light spectrum requires discussion about the desired characteristics of a plant and energy efficiency, Runkle said. The light spectrum can be changed, however there’s usually tradeoffs.

Pure Green Farms in South Bend, Indiana, uses a mixture of sunlight, high pressure sodium lights and LED lights are used, said chief executive officer Joe McGuire. The LED lights include the full spectrum of colors.

Pure Green Farms grows spinach and romaine, baby red and green leaf lettuce. The farm finished its first harvest in February, McGuire said. 

The process from seed to harvest is fully automated. Packaging is also done with a machine, he said. But workers still work in the greenhouse to ensure everything is going correctly.

“The only time someone touches the product is when it’s already in the container. They’re just placing the container in the cart.”

Indoor farming is a small niche that Runkle believes will remain small. LED lights are a major expense and can be one-third of the total investment cost, he said. The cost to run an indoor farm is expensive especially when you factor in automated technology.