Editorial: UMass finds fertile ground in South Deerfield

  • Stephen Herbert, professor of agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, left, gives farmer Pat Canonica of Boxford fresh vegetables grown in the land underneath raised solar panels during August at the UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Center in South Deerfield. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 9/28/2017 7:05:01 PM

The University of Massachusetts Amherst has found fertile ground in South Deerfield for two agricultural initiatives — a dual-use farm, combining solar panels and crops, and a student-run vegetable farm.

Two parallel rows of 72 solar panels roughly 9 feet in the air mark the farm at the UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Center on North River Road. During the last two years, a variety of crops — including kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, beans, broccoli and peppers — grew successfully beneath the panels.

Steven Herbert, professor of agronomy at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture who runs the research project, says it is the only farm of its kind in the country. “Our philosophy is that we can put solar panels out in a field to help support the economics of a farm, while still keeping productive land in agriculture.”

Whereas most large solar installations are close to the ground, and the site preparation may involve removing vegetation, the South Deerfield farm is different. The solar array is high enough so sunlight can reach the ground, allowing crops to grow and animals to graze.

Clusters of three panels are arranged on sliding bases so that the sections can be moved 2 to 5 feet apart. Researchers test the amount of sunlight that makes it through the different intervals and the effect on health and yield of various crops. “As long as we had a gap of 3½ to 4 feet between the panels, we had 90 to 95 percent of the yield that we had in full sun,” Herbert says.

The goal is to convince farmers to try the dual-use approach, allowing them to invest in solar while continuing the agricultural use of their land. A new agricultural grant program should provide an incentive.

The state Department of Agricultural Resources energy grants provide money to farmers who want to improve energy efficiency and adopt alternative energy sources. The Massachusets Department of Energy Resources is a partner in the special projects grant program.

“We shouldn’t be putting solar up on productive agricultural land. Here we show that the two can coexist,” Herbert says.

At 89 River Road, the 21-acre, student-run farm will yield nearly 100,000 pounds of produce this year. Thirty-six vegetable varieties are grown, including corn, pumpkins, gourds, peppers and squash. From planning to harvest, marketing to wholesale distribution, the entire operation is run by a dozen or so students.

The Student Farming Enterprise program run by the Stockbridge School of Agriculture began in the fall of 2007 with two students growing a quarter-acre of kale and broccoli through an independent study.

Today, the farm is a real-world experience that combines classroom education with hands-on learning, where students get dirt under their fingernails. In the fall, students come up with a crop plan, estimate how much yield they’ll get, then put it into action over the next year. The farm, while an educational program, is self-sufficient.

“All the revenue students generate from produce goes directly back into the program for next year,” says Amanda Brown, an educator at Stockbridge and the farm’s director.

“There is labor pressure because they have real-world commitments,” Brown says of students who are paid for their work. Those wages total about $46,000 each year. “Everybody divides and conquers,” she says. “But we’re all working toward the same goal. It’s a cooperatively run farm.”

Along with serving 115 people through its Community Supported Agriculture business, the farm sells produce at markets and stands, supplies UMass dining facilities, and delivers weekly to Big Y supermarkets in Amherst, Northampton and Greenfield.

“I can attest (that) the skills you learn in this program stay with you. I still use the same spreadsheets and dig out old notebooks,” says farm manager Jason Silverman, a graduate of the program. He also manages his own farming business in Conway.

“It’s been really refreshing to take a course so hands-on, because liberal arts colleges tend to be really theoretical,” said Julia Opel, a Mount Holyoke College student who is working on the farm this year through the Five College Consortium. “It’s grounded everything I’ve learned.”

Both farms are providing an impressive demonstration of successful, practical education for an occupation as old as the earth but in a modern world.

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