BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. — Water shortages in the country are impacting how and what farmers can grow, but there’s a new way to farm that’s increasing crop yields and decreasing the amount of water farmers need to use.
It’s called agrivoltaics, which is the combination of solar panels and farming in one space.
“There's nothing else in the country like what we're doing here,” said Byron Kominek, the founder of Jack's Solar Garden in Boulder County.
Jack’s Solar Garden is the largest agrivoltaics plot in the country. It produces enough power for 300 homes. The food grown at the farm is managed by Sprout City Farms, a nonprofit that helps improve food access to communities in need.
“This year, we're going to be growing about 12 different crops,” said Meg Caley of Sprout City Farms. “The main point of an agrivoltaics project like this is to be able to co-locate sustainable renewable energy and sustainable food production and get that dual-use out of the land.”
Caley and her team are finding that crops grow better in the shade of the solar panels. It’s a cooler environment, but it gets sun throughout the day as the panels tilt.
“Things like greens — arugula, kale, stuff like that — they love it. They love this environment. The kale was waist-high last year,” Caley said.
Caley and her team are developing an instruction manual for how to best grow crops under the panels to share with other farmers. Researchers from universities and other groups across the country are working in the solar garden to help perfect recommendations for specific crops.
“They all get different amounts of sun and shade depending on the way that the panels tilt throughout the day. So we're going to have all three beds, have the same crop in them and each section so we can study how they do differently,” Caley said.
This farming not only helps more crops grow, but it saves thousands of gallons of water.
“We can pave the way for other farmers, and they won't have to reinvent the wheel,” Caley said.
On top of the environmental impact, the economic impact is helping Kominek keep his family’s land.
“Hay wasn't really paying the bills, if any bills at all, and figured out that solar might be a way to make some more money for the family,” Kominek said.
These panels collect more energy because the plants help keep the panels cool, too.
“Jack’s Solar Garden is something that our federal government is interested in seeing replicated in other places, so that's quite nice to see,” Kominek said.
“The panels are more productive, the land is more productive, everybody wins,” Caley said.
That win today could mean survival for our food supply and our family farms for years to come.
Jack's Solar Garden offers tours every weekend.