Growers who are dedicated to organic practices are often interested in bringing more sustainable applications into all aspects of their operation, with new technologies making it a reality. Some of these new options were examined by the “Clean and Renewable Technology” panel at the recent Organic Grower Summit.
Moderated by Hank Giclas of Western Growers, the panel brought together representatives from three companies working in the clean and renewable technology space: Aaron Enz of Alta Energy (a consulting firm that provides comprehensive analytics, strategic advice and procurement services for businesses adopting renewable energy); Robert McBride, Ph. D. of Boost Biomes (a scientific company that works with safe and effective naturally-occurring microbes and consortia to manage diseases in high-value crops); and Sean Lyle of PowerGrow (developers of high tech glass greenhouses powered by renewable energy).
As the panel made clear, the options for generating clean, renewable energy are expanding and the economics getting better. “If your operation is in a high energy cost state, it doesn’t make sense to wait for maturing technologies,” said Enz. With current federal tax credits, about one-third of the upfront investment is recoverable in the first year of operation and the equipment is getting more affordable. “But if you want to wait for big improvements in panel efficiencies and chemistry, you’re going to be waiting for a while,” he said.
Enz believes that soon the dominant energy paradigm in agriculture will be the farm producing more energy than it uses and storing the energy on site. “Effective renewable energy employment reduces costs up to 30-50 percent , offers a 7-12 percent internal rate of return, earns a 30 percent federal tax credit among other incentives, fixes energy costs to provide a hedge against rising markets, and enhances brand value especially for an organic producer,” said Enz.
PowerGrow develops, designs, finances, and builds the greenhouses then leases it back to the grower, allowing farmers to focus on growing their crops. The benefits of the PowerGrow high tech glass greenhouses include use of renewable and anaerobic digestion energy. Additionally, the benefits extend beyond to include risk mitigation because of the protected environment, zero waste, process automation, resource conservation, and lower capital investment for the grower
“Growers are seeing at 20 percent increase in revenue and a much great increase in EBIT,” said Lyle. PowerGrow works with growers to develop an economic model that suits their specific situation. “We want the grower to succeed. If they fail, we fail,” he said.
Outside of the energy sector, McBride and Boost Biomes are working on high tech solutions to increase beneficial microbial activity in soil – something that’s relevant for all growers, but especially for organic growers who don’t have the chemical tools to address issues like disease. Boost Biomes collect and analyze microbes from a specific farm location, then use those microbes — which are already adapted to that specific environment — to develop custom products that enhance the soil’s microbiome safely and effectively.
The Boost Biomes process provides an understanding of what microbes are doing with each other. “The process allows us to identify which microbes -- that are already growing in your field – we need to enhance and put back into the field to shift the microbiome to become protective,” McBride said.