Thanksgiving is quickly approaching. But the American cranberry industry isn’t thriving as it has in the past. Plummeting cranberry prices have farmers eyeing solar power as a new source of income.
Massachusetts is the nation’s second largest grower of the red, boggy berry. (Wisconsin takes first place.) Farmers there 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. It has been researched across the world but not yet tried on a large scale, say solar power and agricultural experts. The idea is to build solar arrays high off the ground and in spaced-out clusters. The arrangement allows crop growth and harvesting underneath.
Cranberry farmers hope to shoulder lean times by gleaning extra revenue from long-term land leases to solar developers. But they don’t have to give up their cropland to do it. They can still produce the same quality berries they have for generations. An ongoing, nationwide study suggests certain crops can thrive under solar panels. It’s unclear at this point how cranberries will fare, however.
Michael Wainio is a fourth-generation cranberry farmer. He has sold off some land, started a side business working for other growers, and launched a farm stand, deli, and bakery to make ends meet. He’s willing to try the solar approach too.
“We’re doing everything we can to diversify,” he says. “And it’s not enough.”
Wainio is working with developer NextSun Energy. The project calls for roughly 27,000 solar panels over about 60 acres of bogs near Cape Cod. It could produce about 10 megawatts of energy. That’s enough to power more than 1,600 homes, according to NextSun.
The price of cranberries has dropped 57% over the last decade. That is due mainly to a drop in sales of cranberry juice, says Brian Wick. He is the executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association. Trade disputes with Europe and China compound the problem. Wick says about 30% of the tart berries were previously exported to those markets.
Wick says the solar project has “a farm-first mentality. . . . 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 hope the “dual use” option will offer a sweet solution to a sour situation.
(Cranberry grower Mike Paduch examines cranberries growing in the same bog where solar arrays are installed in Carver, Massachusetts. AP Photo/Steven Senne)