The Harris Farm and Revision Energy Collaborate to Build a Model of Sustainable Dairy Farming

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:03/06/2013

In the small town of Dayton, Maine, lies Harris Farm, a family farm that has been in operation since John Harris began tilling the land in 1944. Three generations later, they now own approximately 600 acres, of which 200 acres are used for farming and the rest is woodland. Their farm offers a variety of products, including milk - which comes in a wide variety of delicious flavors -, beef, seasonal vegetables and maple syrup, which they are proud to sell through Maine's Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Ensuring that these products are top of the line and made in a sustainable way are the family’s highest priorities. As they see it, the two go hand-in-hand; the most natural products are always the best.
For example, the Harris’ herd of dairy cattle produces natural – hormone and antibiotic free – milk, which they started bottling in reusable glass containers in 1996. The practice is more eco-friendly than using the common plastic containers, and, as everyone knows; milk just tastes better out of a glass bottle.
In addition: “We produce our own compost, which has reduced our fertilizer purchases tremendously. We do a lot of cover cropping, crop rotation, and rotational grazing; you know, anything we can do for good, sustainable farming practices,” says Clint Harris.
The other two thirds of the family’s property is managed woodland. How do they manage it? “In a sustainable way of course!” Harris exclaims. “We do selective cutting…you can see where we cut out different areas; some areas are currently being cut, and some are small to medium sized regrowth that we cut a few years ago.”
You can see some of these cuts if you go cross-country skiing on the 40 kilometers of trails - most of which are groomed and track set - the Harris’ open during the winter. He explains that the trails also “provide extra income from what normally is an off-season…it really works for us, particularly this year because we’ve gotten a lot of southern coastal storms that other areas missed.”
Additionally, in the Harris’ continued effort to improve the sustainability of their farm they partnered with ReVision Energy, Northern New England’s leading installer of solar hot water and solar electricity systems, to install a four-collector solar hot water system on their barn in 2008, ReVision’s first on a dairy farm. Haines explains that solar hot water systems make sense for them because “dairy farms use a lot of hot water because all of the milking equipment, all of the stainless steel, has to be washed…both before and after milking. Our farm goes through about 100 gallons of hot water a day.” The solar hot water array has drastically lowered the amount of propane they use to heat water. “Based on 2011’s performance, their propane use was cut by 75%, using 107 gallons [of propane] annually, rather than 461 gallons annually. In the interim propane increased in price by 9%; they are saving a little over $1,000 per year in fuel costs,” explains Fred Greenhalgh, ReVision Energy’s Online Marketing Manager.
However, even with those savings the up-front costs for installing solar arrays can be very expensive. Greenhalgh describes the Harris’ solar hot water array as costing “just shy of $15,000 and it also included the installation of a propane on-demand water heater, for a total budget of $17,400,” and that is for a relatively modest system.
For the future, ReVision is looking at installing larger solar arrays for farms, as well as finding better ways to pay for them. “We're looking at systems more ambitious than that at Harris - 8-12 flat plate collectors with large storage tanks of 160, 300, or even 500 gallons,” says Greenhalgh. “With volatile fossil fuel energy cost, a system that will provide a reliable reduction in liquid fuel use each year is a boon for farms where increases in fixed expenses eat into the farm's income.   One prospect we're looking at has the ability to eliminate about 400 gallons of heating oil each year ($3.83/gal * 400 = $1,532/yr savings) for a system with an installed cost of $12,750 (under 9 year payback period).”
Financially, one of the challenges for many dairy farmers is that they cannot file for the 30% federal tax credit for their solar systems, making solar less attractive because of the high up-front costs, even though the long-term energy savings are well worth it. To help farmers get over this hurdle, ReVision is working on “something called a solar ‘power purchase agreement’ [PPA] whereby the farm is able to finance a solar hot water system at no upfront cost, and instead a private entity that does have tax liability, purchases, owns and maintains the system, and then resells the solar energy to the farmer for a monthly rate that works out to be slightly less than the current cost of heating that water without solar,” says Greenhalgh. That way, instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars up front, farmers are actually saving money from day one, and under the PPA structure “they then have the option to purchase the leased system at a depreciated cost after a period of years, and thereafter own all of their own energy production and have much greater cost savings.” Matt Wagner, a Project Manager at ReVision, adds that hopefully some benevolent private investors, who can claim the tax credit, will simply donate their solar operations to the farmers once they make their money back. After all, environmental sustainability can only be achieved through economically sustainable means.