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Farms going green to save and survive

Solar and wind power are among strategies to grow eco-friendly

By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / October 15, 2009

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Grass clippings, fallen leaves, tree branches, and other yard waste are cultivated into compost at Clark Farm, creating a fertile bed for artichokes, Brussels sprouts, and kale to take root.

“See how nice and rich it is?’’ said Bill Clark, an eighth-generation farmer, his hands filled with the dark, crumbly matter. “It’s like black gold.’’

Compost has become the natural choice for growing vegetables on Clark’s 11.5-acre farm on Hobart Street in Danvers. It has reduced the use of chemical fertilizers, making for a healthier harvest. Sales of compost to other local farmers and landscapers, who use it as mulch, have also helped the 181-year-old farm to turn a tidy profit. “It sustains us,’’ Clark said. “It started out as something to grow better. Now we are able to make money with it.’’

As Essex County farms strive to survive, many have turned their land into “green’’ acres. And they don’t mean zucchini, lettuce, and cabbage. They mean wind turbines and solar panels that reduce energy costs. Compost, formed from scraps of nature, creates healthy growing conditions. Steel fences and drain pipes help to conserve and protect water supplies.

“We are naturally a ‘green’ industry,’ ’’ said state Agriculture Commissioner Scott Soares. “The changes farmers are making now are going to guide them into the future.’’

But green farming is a bit like going back to the future. Before fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides, farmers relied on the good earth for their harvest. “Basically, green farming is going back to nature,’’ said Clark, who sits on the board of the Essex Agricultural Society, which chose “Go Green With Us’’ as the theme of the Topsfield Fair, which closed Monday. “My father and grandfather farmed this way years ago.’’

The state has encouraged farmers to conserve water and energy for at least 10 years. Since 1999, the Agricultural Environmental Enhancement Program has given a combined total of $184,424 to 18 farms in Essex County for conservation projects, according to the state agriculture department.

Eco-friendly farming took a leap last year when Governor Deval Patrick signed the Green Communities Act, which encourages clean energy and other conservation measures at every level of society, including agriculture. “First and foremost, it’s looking at energy independence. Any way they can do that, and cut production costs, it gives them a leg up on their ability to remain sustainable,’’ Soares said.

On most local farms, most green initiatives focus on sun and wind, water and soil management. Arrowhead Farm in Newburyport, for example, practices rotational grazing, using livestock to clear crops and naturally fertilize the land.

A steel fence divides a pasture into seven sections. After each crop is picked, cattle, hogs, or chickens are let loose to eat up the scraps and leave behind their manure. The practice has helped to lower feed, fuel, and labor costs, said owner Dick Chase .

“We’re not having to bring feed to the animals,’’ said Chase, a 13th-generation farmer. “We don’t have to use machinery. . . . It eliminates the use of fuel. The cattle spread the fertilizer and consume the crop where it was grown.’’

But the cost to “go green’’ remains out of reach for many local farmers, who can’t afford to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars on solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable technologies.

“We’d love to do it, but even with grants it’s still very costly,’’ said Rob Bartlett, owner of Bartlett’s Farm in Salisbury. “It’s not always practical either. Solar panels take up quite a bit of space on buildings.’’

In Amesbury, Cider Hill Farm purchased three wind turbines and one solar electric system to generate power for the 150-acre site.

Cider Hill received five grants, a mix of state and federal dollars totaling about $165,000, to help pay for them.

The solar panels appear to be working, generating about 14,000 kilowatt hours of energy annually, or about 10 percent of total energy used on the farm, owner Ed Cook said. But the three wind turbines, the tallest of which stands 120 feet, each are only generating about one-third of the 10,000 kilowatt hours they were estimated to produce since the first was installed in 2007, Cook said.

“We’re still happy to have them, but they’re not producing what was predicted,’’ said Cook, 79, a retired physicist who started the farm in 1978. “It’s either because original wind maps we used weren’t accurate or the equipment doesn’t perform as represented.’’

A consultant is looking at the performance at 20 farms across the state that got wind turbine grants. “It comes down to the uncertainty of the wind,’’ said Soares. “We have found that with the earlier generators, the power curves weren’t exactly as they were supposed to be.’’

Clark Farm isn’t likely to use wind power anytime soon. “I’m doing low-tech,’’ said Clark, 64, who is also a Danvers selectman. “Maybe in two or three years I’ll look at solar panels, but for now, I’m going to hopefully grow my compost business.’’

Clark produces piles of compost each year, and one currently rises high in a back field. Much of it is sold to other farmers and landscapers. He uses the compost as fertilizer for 30 crops, such as lettuce, beets, and tomatillos, a key ingredient for salsa.

Kale, planted for the first time this year, flourished in the cold rain in June. A leafy bushel was honored with the ultimate honor for a vegetable grown in Essex County: A blue ribbon from the Topsfield Fair.

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com