Familiar Faces, New Setting at Annual Membership Meeting
In 2019 the Oregon Aglink Annual Membership Meeting relocated from its recent home in Wilsonville to a new spot: the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem at the revamped Northwest Ag Show, produced by EO Media. Members from all around the state were invited to attend the annual meeting on Thursday in between visiting vendor booths and attending seminars.
The annual membership meeting this year included an Oregon Aglink financial report from treasurer Fred Geschwill and executive director Mallory Phelan offered a review of the year’s fundraising and outreach. President Pamela Lucht shared the names of board members elected for the upcoming year by the general membership. Members enjoyed a lunch bar catered by Better than Mama’s, courtesy of lunch sponsors Rabo Agrifinance and Papé Machinery.
Guest Speaker seeks a “Win-Win-Win” for Oregon Agriculture
Solid attendance at the membership-only Annual Meeting turned into a packed house when the doors opened to allow in other NW Ag Show attendees to hear Chad Higgins present on “Farms of the Future: Practical Tech for Oregon Ag.”
An associate professor at Oregon State University, Higgins co-founded the NEWAg lab devoted to studying the “Nexus of Energy Water and Agriculture.” From monitoring microclimates in vineyards to using artificial intelligence in irrigation, the NEWAg lab and Higgins find places where data and technology exist already or can be developed to help agriculture. Among the central questions they ask of any technology, Higgins says they always pursue the practicality angle for farmers: “How do you make it cheap? How do you make it rugged and repairable?”
In the case of “agrivoltaics”—or solar panels installed above and along cultivated land—the technology may also prove to be profitable for farmers in Oregon and elsewhere. At Oregon State University, some unexpectedly lush grass under solar panels installed in a sheep pasture prompted Higgins to record data on temperature, plant growth, and moisture under the panels and in a control plot under direct sunlight.
The data showed a positive feedback loop between the plant matter and electricity production. The shade slowed evaporation and prompted the grass to grow more slowly but ultimately more productively than the control plot. In turn, the solar panels above grass converted light into electricity more efficiently than if they were stationed on hotter rooftops, gravel, or pavement.
In Higgins view, that’s a “win-win-win”: crop productivity is up, captured electricity is up, and potential profits are up for whoever is selling either product. Unlike previous schemes where solar panels replace farm land, this model shows an alternative route where farmers keep their soil in production even as it serves an additional purpose of harvesting sunlight.
According to Higgins, not every farmed acre would need to host solar panels, which fits with the fact that not every crop would thrive with this model. However, based on the wattage produced with this method, using agrivoltaics on 0.5% of cropland would offset Oregon’s energy demand.
Beyond waiting on USDA funding cycles to experiment with other crops like berries and barley, Higgins acknowledges there are other barriers such as permits, zoning, material shortages of steel, and even social resistance. For example, “sustainability” can be a sensitive topic for many in agriculture, calling up a mindset that may prioritize conservation at the expense of production. Recent years have shown farmers and ranchers warming to the term though, looking at sustainability as something they already do: operations must be economically sustainable to stay in business, and must take care of their soil to pass it on to the next generation. In coming years, agrivoltaics may be part of that solution.