Solar fits well with Lavalier’s produce operation | News | –

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GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — There’s always something new happening at Lavalier’s Berry Patch and Orchard located in Grand Rapids, Minn. Cut flowers are a recent addition to their offerings, and this year, Stuart Lavalier plans to introduce some chickens and a few sheep to the property. He’s also enjoying the benefits from last year’s project of installing a 27.3 kilowatt solar array.

Lavalier explained that the electricity generated from the solar panels covers the electricity used on the farm and any excess goes back in the grid. Besides the federal tax credit received, Lavalier added he also gets a rebate for the additional electricity produced each month.

Interested in horticulture ever since his days attending the University of Minnesota, Lavalier’s farm business has been in operation for a little over 40 years. Throughout those years, he has benefited from participating in various agricultural programs. The berry patch portion of the business first began after Lavalier participated in a feasibility study for strawberries. Not long after, and following a feasibility study for blueberries with the University of Minnesota, Lavalier added some varieties of that crop as well.

When deer posed an issue for the strawberries, Lavalier worked with the Department of Natural Resources to help finance putting up a fence. During that process, a DNR officer happened to mention that with a fence, they could now grow apples. Lavalier started with 10 apple trees, and now they have about 1,200.

Lavalier shared that he does a lot of reading, and looks into what programs the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has available. He is a member of the Minnesota Apple Growers Association, the Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, and the Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers Association.

“Just being a part of those organizations, I think I hear different things that are available,” Lavalier stated. “Oftentimes I’ll hear other growers trying different things and I think to myself ‘Oh, maybe this is something that will work on our farm.’ We’re a very small farm, but I don’t think a small farmer has to scrimp on quality.”

Along with berries and apples, additional produce that Lavalier grows and sells include tart cherries, pumpkins, squash, and Brussels sprouts. U-pick options are available to customers, and Lavalier stated they also keep some of the produce in a cooler for those who prefer a pre-selected alternative.

Lavalier said he first considered solar energy possibilities a number of years ago when growers he respects, Bill and Nancy Bauer, had shared with the Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association their experience of putting in two solar panels on their farm.

The opportunity to reduce their footprint appealed to Lavalier, and is a similar approach to his take on business. Lavalier prefers to grow only as much as he expects to sell. “If we use electricity, but we can generate that same amount of electricity with the solar panel, that’s really like you’re saying, ‘Hey, I’m here, but I’m not using more than what we need,'” he explained.

To assist agricultural producers and rural small business in securing renewable energy systems or make energy efficiency improvements, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program provides guaranteed loan financing and grant funding.

Solar United Neighbors is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help people go solar, and they offer assistance with the REAP application process. Lavalier explained SUN came to the Grand Rapids community with a goal to gather people with a common interest. He also shared they provided information on options that could make a solar project feasible. He stated, “They know the funding and the procedure, and what has to be done.”

Lavalier said he began putting real thought into REAP and the potential project in the fall of 2021. With additional income received from having sold a co-owned parcel of land, he determined solar panels would be a good investment for his farm. 

Lavalier applied for the grant through a grant writer who had been recommended to him. He found the writer’s experience, knowledge of the criteria, and suggestions provided along the way to be valuable. In early spring of 2022, he was given approval for the funding.

Based on another recommendation received, Real Solar was selected for the installation. They came out to Lavalier’s farm prior to make sure things would be feasible in the area and took photos. Construction began in the fall of 2022, and was completed a few months later in January. Other than it being a very snowy winter, the process went well.

“They did a wonderful job,” Lavalier stated of Real Solar. “I have no complaints at all. They were very good at always letting us know what was going on.”

Now, a little more than a year after project completion, Lavalier reported the electricity generated from the solar panels has been enough to cover their charge. Plus, he has received payment from Lake Country Power for the excess generation of electricity every month with the exception of January 2024.

Due to cloudier weather combined with the company’s standard monthly charge, January’s electric bill was about $26. “There just wasn’t a whole lot of sunlight,” Lavalier commented.

So far, there has hasn’t been any maintenance required of Lavalier. And while he mentioned that he could have possibly opted for a 35 kilowatt array over his selected 27.3 kilowatt array, he remarked, “It’s been a really good project.”   

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