A farm that’s its own utility

| 09 Mar 2012 | 11:00

“Oh look,” says a delighted Dani Baker. Dark is falling fast as Dani walks me to the campsite on her 100-acre farm where I’ll be pitching my tent. “It’s spinning! That’s the thing about windmills. When the sun goes down they keep making electricity.”

Cross Island Farms’ 10-kilowatt windmill went online a month ago, and Dani is still in the honeymoon phase with the svelte turbine. She just got her first electric bill since the installation. It had been cut by more than half from the year before.

Cross Island Farms sits on Lawrentian shale on Wellesley Island, in the St. Lawrence River, which separates New York from Ontario. Folks up here call this the North Country. The toll on the bridge that leads to the island is cash only; it isn’t wired for EZ-Pass. An extended outage here isn’t so hard to imagine.

That’s why the Bakers are determined not only to renewably generate enough electricity on-site to run their farm, they also want it to run if the grid goes down.

Tomorrow morning, they will unveil the other two legs of the stool that will make their organic farm energy independent: a 5.5-kilowatt solar array and a 17-kilowatt propane generator that could keep the farm going for 13 dark days.

The morning of the open house, it’s drizzling. Hot cups of coffee on the screen porch punctuate a flurry of outdoor work. David Baker takes a break from “mud mitigation” (laying down hay where the solar panels’ wiring was buried) to give me a sneak preview of what’s at the other end of all this wiring. Out past the tomato field, 24 sleek panels are mounted at a 45-degree angle on metal legs atop concrete pedestals.

There’s still caution tape in front of the solar array because the shipment of parts was delayed by Hurricane Irene. Solar installers from Alternative Energy Systems have been here, in raincoats, since first light.

David fishes out his iPhone. He looks through the screen and steps back, back, past the rough timber fencepost that marks the corner of the crop field, and snaps a picture. He uploads it to the farm’s Facebook page, which will send a tweet to 115 followers.

Direct marketing is practically as much work as farming, but Facebook, too, is an aspect of sustainability, David explains. The farm doesn’t yet support the farmers: David works as a computer programmer of industrial machines, and Dani, a retired New York State prison psychologist, receives a pension. Reaching the small slice of the population that’s willing to pay more for organic food is crucial to the farm’s survival.

There seems to be a more considerable slice of the North Country population interested in not paying for electricity. Despite the rain, 20 people, most of them homeowners, trickle in for the tour.

They want to know how much everything costs. The $74,000 wind turbine cost the Bakers just $8,000. The New York State Energy and Research Development Authority paid half, and chunks were covered by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a federal tax credit. A NYSERDA grant covered about a quarter of the $40,000 solar array, and Dani expects a federal tax credit. The generator cost $12,800, including the six-foot deep, six-foot wide, 18-foot long hole in which its propane tank is buried.

One of the open house attendees did not have to travel far. Katherine Gwaltney, 29, has been living and working at Cross Island Farms as a WOOFer, or a member of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which links willing workers up with farms. She arrived here just in time for the wind turbine’s ribbon cutting. She’ll be moving on to another farm in Vermont tomorrow.

“It’s been interesting to be here while they’re doing it all,” she says, as the group meanders from the turbine to the solar array, where the caution tape has been removed. A worker is still busy tinkering with the control box. His legs, scurrying up and down a ladder, are visible from where the group stands in front of the array.

“It’s a whole other part of my education. It’s really grass roots that they’re taking it upon themselves to generate energy solutions on this farm without waiting to see what happens with big wind.”