RINDGE — These days, Craig Jensen likes to start his tours of Sun Moon Farm by showing off the property’s solar array.
The ground-mounted panels were switched on at the end of 2020, roughly two years after area organizations, including the Cheshire County Conservation District and the Monadnock Sustainability Hub, began drumming up support for a community-supported solar project involving local farms.
Now, 100 percent of Sun Moon Farm’s electricity comes from the installation, and other farmers across the region are buying in to eventually take over collective ownership of the array.
Jensen and his wife, Megan, had long been interested in bringing solar to their property off Thomas Road, but the cost of doing it on their own was prohibitive, so offering up their land for the collaborative project seemed like a perfect fit. Their only concern — the potential impact of the new structure on their “farmscape” — was quickly alleviated.
“What will that look like? What will that feel like? Once we do this, this is our farm forever. And we both had some hesitation — easily overcome by what we saw as the project goals — but we had some nervousness there,” Jensen said. “But now, it hasn’t been that long, and we’re growing into that space. It’s just part of the farm, and it’s part of the farm that I’m super proud of.”
Currently, the array is owned by investors, but farms that join the project through an LLC operating agreement contribute payments toward ownership by purchasing shares. In the sixth year of the agreement, the group will take over ownership through a buyout, and participating farms will access free energy through net metering, which connects multiple electric meters in different locations to the same installation.
Each share entitles a farmer to 5,000 kilowatt hours per year for the life of the system, estimated to be at least 20 to 25 years, and farmers can purchase multiple shares depending on their energy needs.
So far, six farms and organizations have signed on, and all but eight of the 22 available solar shares have been allocated, according to Benée Hershon, outreach coordinator for the Walpole-based Cheshire County Conservation District.
Hershon said organizers hope the latest round of crowdfunding that ended in March will help attract more participants by reducing the cost of the shares. The fundraising push through The Local Crowd Monadnock drew more than $17,000 for the effort, and shares are now priced at $3,570, compared to about $6,200 in 2019 when the project began.
She described the collaborative project as “an investment in the future of our region on many fronts.”
“So it’s ensuring the viability of the farms in our area — they’re really able to access more affordable energy in the long run through this project. It’s also going to increase the strength of our food systems,” Hershon said. “It’s good to have more farms with less financial burden, but it’s also a huge environmental win to be able to use that renewable energy.”
Jenny and Bruce Wooster already have an on-site solar array on their property at Picadilly Farm in Winchester, which powers its farmhouse and commercial activities. But the business’ crew house is on a separate plot that would need its own solar development — a huge expense for a small farm to shoulder.
“To invest $10,000 or $12,000 for that would be challenging. So [through this project], our investment is less than $4,000 for 20 years of participation,” Jenny Wooster said. “Economically, it’s a great opportunity for us to have solar power there. And relationship wise, it’s a pretty nice partnership to be involved in with the array at Sun Moon Farm.”
Wooster said she particularly likes the fact that the wider community has been involved in helping area farms become more sustainable and resilient through solar.
Jensen agreed that the benefits of the collaboration go beyond environmental stewardship and savings on energy costs. Next month, the members of the farmer group will have their first annual meeting, which will be an opportunity to share knowledge and ideas. His hope is that the local agricultural community will see “cascading effects” from their work together.
“One of the draws of this project is that all these little farms throughout the Monadnock Region could be competition to each other; could really divide the market,” Jensen said. “But we’re so much stronger when we look at each other as allies that have strength through cooperation.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been setbacks. Jensen said logistical hurdles, such as navigating the legal requirements around the project without much precedent to build on, as well as facing opposition from area residents, have slowed the process.
The partners have put in a lot of effort to push through those challenges, Hershon said, and their lessons learned may serve as the foundation for future projects outside the area. She noted that the conservation district is happy to share resources around the project structure and legal process upon request, and eventually, the organization hopes to make these documents publicly available on its website.
“Our biggest hope for this project is that it will expand beyond the Monadnock Region,” Hershon said. “Because we have, with our partners, ourselves, put a lot of work into this, and we want to see it [be] successful beyond our region as well.”
This article has been changed to correct the year the solar array at Sun Moon Farm was switched on, and the name of the Monadnock Sustainability Hub.