CARVER, Mass. – Plummeting cranberry prices and the country’s ongoing trade wars have America’s cranberry industry eyeing a possible new savior – solar power.
Some cranberry farmers in Massachusetts, the nation’s second-largest grower after Wisconsin, are proposing to build solar panels above the bogs they harvest each fall. The novel approach blends renewable-energy technology with traditional farming. It’s been researched around the world but hasn’t yet been tried on large-scale commercial-crop cultivation, according to industry experts. The basic idea is to build solar arrays high enough off the ground and in more spaced-out clusters to allow for crops to be safely grown and harvested underneath.
Cranberry farmers hope to shoulder lean times for their industry by gleaning extra revenue in the form of long-term land leases with solar developers. At the same time they’ll still produce the same quality berries they have for generations. An ongoing nationwide study suggests certain crops in particular climates can thrive under solar panels, though it’s unclear at this point how cranberries will fare.
Michael Wainio, a fourth-generation cranberry farmer, said he sold parts of his land and started a side business harvesting bogs for other growers. He also launched a farm stand, deli and bakery operation in recent years to make ends meet.
“We’re doing everything we can to diversify and it’s not enough,” Wainio said. “If we don’t get this I’d be surprised if we made it five years.”
Wainio is working with developer NextSun Energy on a project calling for about 27,000 solar panels over about 60 acres of active bogs across three Massachusetts farms. The project would produce about 10 megawatts of energy, or about enough to power more than 1,600 homes, according to NextSun.
The cranberry industry has been dealing for years with the combined effects of crop surplus and weakening demand for one of its primary products, cranberry juice, said Brian Wick, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association.
The price of cranberries has plummeted 57 percent during the past decade, from about $58 per barrel in 2008 to $25 in 2018, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. But Wick said the cost to produce cranberries in Massachusetts is almost $35 a barrel.
The USDA permitted industry to dump millions of pounds of fruit in 2017 and 2018 in order to stabilize prices. But the country’s ongoing trade disputes with Europe and China are further compounding the struggles for an industry that previously exported about 30 percent of its product, Wick said.
“What we like about these new solar projects is that they have a farm-first mentality,” he said. “This is an opportunity to keep the industry going. This isn’t about replacing farms with solar.”
Cranberry growers in Massachusetts and their solar partners are hoping to take advantage of a unique new renewable-energy incentive meant to encourage such dual-use solar and agriculture projects. To qualify arrays must meet certain design requirements, such as being built at least 8 feet off the ground. The projects also must provide an annual report demonstrating the land under the panels remains agriculturally productive.
One proposal has already received state approval. Four others, including Wainio’s, are under review. More are pending before local authorities or are in earlier stages of development, say state and cranberry-industry officials.
Dual-use projects have proven successful on livestock farms in Europe and the United States. Hundreds of projects have been built on crop farms in Japan, though all those are significantly smaller than what’s being proposed on Massachusetts cranberry bogs, said Jordan Macknick, an analyst at the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Macknick is coordinating a nationwide study on “agrivoltaics,” as the idea is also sometimes called. He said the impact on crop cultivation in different environments is still being researched.
In a study published in September in the academic journal “Nature Sustainability,” researchers at the University of Arizona found that cherry tomatoes grown under solar panels in a hot desert landscape produced better yields and required less water.
But ongoing trials at a related site run by the University of Massachusetts have so far found that broccoli, kale and peppers are less productive growing under solar panels in the more-temperate New England climate. Other University of Massachusetts researchers are beginning to assess the potential impact on cranberries. They erected large wooden structures meant to mimic the shading of a solar-panel array on one of Wainio’s bogs this past summer.
On a recent visit countless berries could be seen growing under the structures. But researchers said they’ll need to assess their quality and yield when they’re harvested. Giverson Mupambi is a University of Massachusetts cranberry expert involved in the effort. He said one key factor they’ll examine is color. The fruits need to achieve a bright-red hue to be sellable; sunlight is generally needed to achieve that color.
Property owners living near one of the proposed projects, meanwhile, have formed an opposition group. They argue the state should proceed cautiously because the long-term environmental impacts of such large-scale projects are still unknown.
Those concerns and others have prompted the state to propose scaling back the size of projects allowed under its new incentive, among other new requirements. Solar developers say the proposed measures would make many projects financially infeasible.
And at least one major player in the cranberry industry remains lukewarm on the new approach to solar power. A.D. Makepeace, the world’s largest cranberry grower and one of Massachusetts’ largest landowners, isn’t currently looking to take advantage of the new state incentive, spokeswoman Linda Burke said. The company already has seven solar arrays across its 12,000 total acres though those systems were built years ago on land not used for cranberry growing.
“We think dual use might be a better fit for other types of agriculture,” Burke said. “If you think about a cranberry bog, it’s way out in the open and that’s for a reason. It needs sun.”
Visit www.cranberries.org for more information.