Category Archives: Farming

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.”

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.”

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.

Farmworkers need information on pesticides, federal report says

Farmworker Justice is a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for agricultural workers

By Brandon Chew
Capital News Service

Michigan and other states need to collect more information about the enforcement of worker protection standards to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigatory arm of Congress.

The GAO recommended that the Environmental Protection Agency coordinate with states to gather information on the use of a legal provision that lets farmworkers designate a representative to request information about pesticides used at the farms they worked on.

The EPA last updated the so-called “designated representative provision” in its Agricultural Worker Protection Standard in 2015. It doesn’t require states to collect information about how farmworkers use the provision.

The standard protects over 2 million farmworkers at over 600,000 farms, according to the EPA.

The GAO report was based in part on interviews with state officials from Michigan and 12 other states, as well as interviews with representatives of nine organizations representing farmers and growers, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, and 11 farmworker advocacy groups.

The GAO included Michigan because it’s among the 10 states with the most agricultural workers.

“The use of pesticides contributes to U.S. agricultural productivity by protecting crops against pests or weeds, but this may pose risks to human health,” the report said.

Advocates for farmworkers said more efforts are needed to inform farmworkers about the pesticides they may have been exposed to and learn how they can obtain that information.

“The employer is supposed to provide that information, but there might be some practical barriers,” said Iris Figueroa, the director of economic and environmental justice at Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit national advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

“There might be language barriers. The workers might not be physically present in the country or the state to be able to access that information,” she said. “The agency needs to focus on making sure that all of these revisions and all these improvements are actually being implemented.”

Figueroa said the GAO report didn’t mention any instances of the provision being misused but noted that farmworker advocacy groups raised concerns that pesticide information could be misused by “other farmers using the information obtained by a designated representative to gain a competitive advantage.”

The report also recommended that the EPA more clearly define what it considers to be appropriate use of pesticide information obtained by designated representatives.

While pesticides used in agricultural fields do pose a risk to workers’ health, farmworkers in Michigan are more likely to suffer acute injuries from handling cleaning supplies, according to an expert from Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine.

“Most of the acute injuries (from pesticides) don’t occur among agricultural workers, but occur in people using disinfectants,” said Kenneth Rosenman, the chief of MSU’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 

Rosenman said there were 47 confirmed acute pesticide injuries among farmworkers in the state in 2019, over half related to disinfectant use.

He said he considers the data collected on pesticide injuries to be an underestimate and said he expects disinfectant-related injuries to rise because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While data on pesticide misuse may be limited, state officials regularly inspect farms to ensure they comply with the EPA’s standards.

“Every time we get a misuse complaint in the state, we do a Worker Protection Standard inspection,” said Brian Verhougstraete, the pesticide section manager at the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“We’re looking at somewhere around 100 to 150 of those inspections a year,” he said. “We also conduct what we call ‘planned use inspections,’ which is when we visit a farm and we go through an in-depth Worker Protection Standard review.”

Verhougstraete said the standard requires farmers to provide an on-site notification board that lists the pesticides that have been applied.

“If there was a medical issue and the worker wants to know what’s been applied, they can request that (information),” he said. “The law requires that the farmer produces that information.”

While Agriculture and Rural Development investigates instances of workers reporting pesticide-related illnesses, Verhougstraete said most inspections relate to pesticides “drifting” onto another property when “it doesn’t stay where it was intended.”

“Maybe it’s a homeowner applying something to their yard and it drifts over to the neighbors across the fence and kills some of their plants,” he said.

Figueroa said pesticides drift presents some concern for migrant farmworkers and their families.

“Just anecdotally, from working with these communities, we know that pesticide exposure is a really big issue, not just for workers in the fields, but also for farmworker families because a lot of exposure happens through off-target drift,” she said.

Figueroa stressed the importance of enforcing the designated representative provision so migrant farmworkers can more easily report possible pesticide misuse.

“Ultimately what we want is for workers to be as informed as they can be to make it as easy as possible for them to get that information and to minimize their fear of retaliation,” she said.

She said that’s “a huge deterrent for them to get information that they need and to report when there are violations of the protections.”