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By JANE PRIMERANO
RARITAN TOWNSHIP Innovation has always been an important part of the farming operation at Oak Grove Farm in Hunterdon County.
Suppliers of specialty peppers and other vegetables, the Blew family has been ahead of the curve in many ways. Pioneers in the farmers’ market trend, they are mainstays of the Union Square Greenmarket at 17th Street and Broadway in New York City, prominent in their green and white tents.
They provide 254 varieties of hot peppers and 65 varieties of sweet peppers to restaurants and other customers. They grow 189 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in a rainbow of colors. Their High Hope Hogs is a provider of pork products and Oak Grove Mills sells flour and meal.
Diversity and a sense of their market are not the only things that put Oak Grove in the forefront of modern farming.
They came early to organic farming and water conservation. Ted Blew installed 2.5 miles of drainage tile and another three-quarters of a mile of diversions to conserve soil and keep water off their neighbors’ properties.
Their most recent foray into modern farming technology is obvious as soon as a visitor turns off Oak Grove Road onto the farm lane.
A massive array of solar panels gleams purple in the sun. Solar energy was a natural extension of their conservation mindedness. So it seemed natural that Ted and Susan Blew would be among the first farmers in New Jersey to take advantage of the rebate program for solar-powered electricity.
The Blews were able to take advantage of both a rebate program from the state and a generous offer from Sun Farm Systems, a Trenton-based solar company. According to Pamela Frank of Sun Farm, the company provided a program through which the customer put no money down and reimbursed Sun Farm with the savings on their electric bill. Sun Farm has had to amend their payment program due to delays in state paybacks, however.
Ted Blew explained as soon as he signed a contract with Sun Farm, the firm approached the state for the rebate, which saves the farmer or homeowner a good deal of paperwork. Once the rebate was approved, Sun Farm could start the work with the Blew’s owing the difference between the actual cost and the rebate.
Blew chose to pay Sun Farm over time with the savings on the electric bill. Other payment options are available, he added.
Unfortunately, too many people took advantage of the original state program, according to Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of Green Faith, an interfaith organization that helps religious institutions with alternative energy sources. Harper said the state is in process of revising the rebate program but it may not be as advantageous as in the past.
As easy as Sun Farm made the installation, it didn’t go completely smoothly.
The township zoning officer denied the Blew’s application for a permit, which Ted Blew, secretary of the township planning board, understood. “The ordinances are more than 20 years old. They’re outdated.”
So the Blews went before the board. “First they had to determine if it was a minor or major site plan,” Ted explained. “They decided it was a minor and went right to the hearing during the same meeting.”
The application was approved promptly.
Most people think of solar panels installed on the roof of a building, but none of the farm buildings at Oak Grove faced the right direction, nearly due South, for best efficiency.
Ted Blew was impressed that Sun Farm would not compromise efficiency of its clients’ system. He has seen installations on buildings that were not facing the proper direction.
Placing them on a building is also problematic because they are fairly heavy and most farm buildings aren’t designed to carry extra weight, he noted.
The panels occupy one corner of a former horse pasture, Blew said. They take up less than a quarter-acre of land and cut flowers will be planted between them, meaning the pasture will actually yield more profit than when horses were grazing there, Blew said.
The installation was completed in June and its effectiveness has been demonstrated in the savings the Blews have seen.
“Our electric bill has been $1,500 a month. The first month after the panels were in it was $2.18 and the second month, $2.19,” Blew said.
Of course, billing wasn’t without it’s issues as well. “The first month we actually got a bill for just under $1,400, so I called and reminded them we were on solar. They hadn’t set up for it yet.” They paid Sun Farm $700 a month, so still had quite a savings.
Blew still goes around the house turning off lights after his children, Charity, Eric, Amanda and Jonathan. “I remind them we’re running off the grid after the sun goes down,” he noted.
“We have more than 500kw surplus for winter, but we don’t know how efficient it will be in winter,” Blew said.
The presence of the panels doesn’t abrogate the need for back-up, Blew noted.
“We still can’t risk an outage. When the grid is down, we’re down. It has to be that way for safety for workers on the lines,” he said. “We always have to refrigerate our crops or heat our greenhouses and water is critical all year.”