Harnessing Sun Power
In the Fall of 2011 we installed a 38kw photo-voltaic array on a Featherstone Farm shed roof, which now provides energy for over half of the farm's operations! Check out our Facebook album to see its construction, and read a 2012 Mix article about the background story and process.
Jack's Perspective on Sustainability
At Featherstone Farm, we have been thinking and writing about sustainability for years. Environmental sustainability is clearly the ultimate goal here, aiming to set the bar higher than simple organic certification. But what good is the best ecological farming plan if it condemns the farmers to a life of voluntary poverty, or ruins their backs, knees and nerves before they are 50? What farmer would want to adopt it, if it did? Who would advocate that such a system is sustainable?
Clearly, personal and financial sustainability are prerequisites for a pursuit of environmental sustainability. At FF we outline our thinking on sustainability in this way:
I Personal Sustainability
Can we continue to do this (particular practice, or farming in general) until we are 70 years old? Will we want too, or is it too stressful (physically and/or emotionally)? Will our children or grandchildren want to as well?
Status report at FF:
Rapid growth and changes in the past few seasons have brought with them “growing pains” which have taken a substantial toll on personal sustainability for Featherstone Farmer Jack Hedin and his family. Stresses of all kinds- dealing with drought, managing increasingly complex daily
activities on the farm, the challenge of organizing all of the farm’s 40+ seasonal employees- have all caught Featherstone managers by surprise, to some extent. We have all been working way too many hours again, spread way too thin, and the results have been predictable: stress, and more stress.
On the upside, 2014 promises to be a season of rapid progress toward better organization and management at Featherstone Farm; big improvements in “personal sustainability” could be just around the corner.
II Financial Sustainability
Can we afford to operate Featherstone farm in the way that we presently do, without sacrificing our retirement security, our children’s opportunities, our employee’s long term financial interests? Would any other farmer looking at our books consider FF a sustainable, secure model from a financial standpoint? Would more people want to do what we do, with all the risks?
Status report at FF:
Coming off a profitable year in 2010, Featherstone Farm undertook a series of very ambitious projects in 2011, all focused on making the place more sustainable from an environmental standpoint (see below). These projects were funded largely through additional borrowing which, coupled with residual debt from the 2007-08 flood recovery and relocation effort (and 3 unprofitable years 2011-13, see below), continues to present a huge challenge to Featherstone Farm’s financial health.
After 15 consecutive seasons dealing with surplus moisture (1996-2010: see my writing in the NYT), the past 3 seasons of chronic- and in 2012, acute- drought have been challenging, to say the least. We’ve had to learn a new way of doing things, and the “tuition” has been costly: Featherstone Farm has lost a great deal of money adapting to the new reality of climate change.
But again, the prospects for 2014 are relatively optimistic. With all acres sufficiently irrigated –finally- and with the farm’s organization and management better under control, there is a good chance the farm can return to profitability once again.
III Environmental Sustainability
Are we protecting our most important resource- our soil- in every possible way? Can we say that we are actually building soil (as opposed to mining it)? Could FF’s agricultural systems go on for hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years, without degrading the biological, chemical and physical properties that make the soil so productive?
Do we rely on resources- energy sources, crop inputs and materials of all kinds- that are essentially non-renewable? If so, do we have a serious plan about how to switch to more sustainable inputs in the future?
Are we creating pollution- primarily air emissions, but also solid waste- at an unsustainable level? That is, could we continue to landfill and exhaust the materials that we do for a very long time, without intolerable impact on the environment? Are our operations creating enough carbon emissions to eventually destabilize the climate and undermine our very ability to grow food?
Given agriculture’s need to produce enough calories to feed sustain 7+ billion people, are we doing all that we can to contribute to this project sustainably and responsibly?
Status report at FF:
The summer of 2010 was a “watershed moment” for Featherstone Farmer Jack Hedin, in terms of understanding the immediate impact of global climate change on agriculture in SE Minnesota (see http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/opinion/28hedin.html?_r=0). Featherstone Farm embarked on a series of major investments and initiatives the following year, aimed at making the farm more sustainable, and more resilient in the face of climate change. These efforts (while costly; see above) have been remarkable successful, by and large.
The most visible and ambitious of these investments was the 38kv photovoltaic array which was installed on the machine shed in the fall of 2011. This system continues to produce over half of the electricity consumed in the farm’s packing shed, machine shop, offices and irrigation plant. It is a major step toward reducing the farm’s carbon footprint. And it is a high profile statement to the community about Featherstone’s commitment to green energy.
But there have been other real steps toward environmental sustainability as well. Featherstone received a USDA grant to upgrade pastures at the Peterson Farm in 2011 as well, to reduce runoff and to protect the Root River watershed. Featherstone has rented more acres every year since it moved to Rushford, transitioning more prime acres to organic management, and allowing a longer, soil building crop rotation to take root. And the farm has simply grown much more efficient over the years, allowing more vegetables to be produced per acre of tilled ground, or per gallon of diesel fuel consumed.
Together, these steps have made Featherstone farm much more sustainable, from an environmental standpoint, than ever before. Yes, this progress has come at considerable expense on the personal and financial fronts. But 2014 promises to be a “correction” year which brings the 3 legs of sustainability back into better balance.
2010 Sustainability Assessment
Videos on Farming & Sustainability