Business

Solar-powered farming - Local firms get backing for renewables, farming mix

BY TAMEKA GORDON Business reporter

Friday, August 24, 2012    

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RENEWABLE energy and technology could go a long way towards improving food security.

Aside from conservation, innovation can also boost profitability and productivity of the Caribbean's agricultural sector.

Backed by Inter-American Development Bank's (IDB) funding, at least three local companies, which have already set out to mix alternative energy and farming, will be better able to do just that.

The Family Garden, Caribbean ESCO Limited and Echos Consulting will get US$200,000 ($18 million) apiece, as well as technical and business development support, to implement or scale up their ideas.

They were awarded for their proposals, which embrace "innovative energy efficiency or renewable energy solutions that have local or regional benefits, provide jobs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions", under the IDB's 2012 IDEAS Energy Innovation contest.

For the Harpers — of The Family Garden — environmental preservation and service to community and country are as second nature as is eating healthy.

So when they couldn't get a regular supply of local fresh herbs and vegetables, they decided to grow some at home. This hobby has ballooned into a 1,000-square-feet solar powered hydroponic farm.

"Our hoop-house — so called because the plants are grown in pipes with nutrient enriched water — yields 1,400 pounds of lettuce and 500 pounds of basil weekly," Rebecca Harper said. The capacity will be boosted to 3,000 pounds with the implementation of the project.

The grant will allow the Harpers to create 24 hydroponic systems, which will be distributed among seven farmers in the Jack's Hill community, as well as, the Jack's Hill Infant and Primary School.

The farmers will be provided with the seedlings to cultivate. They will then sell the harvested crops to the Harpers while the school's land will be used as a part of the project and the profits deposited into an account for the school's use.

The key aspects of the eco-friendly farms are the solar-powered pumps that channel recycled water throughout the "hurricane-proof hoop-houses".

"We currently use one-third of the amount of water that would be needed to irrigate a field, equal to the size of our 1,000 square foot farm," Harper said. The seedlings are less susceptible to environmental and pest issues associated with soil cultivation.

"The systems are low maintenance and the farmers will also be trained in the farming technique and care of the systems."

And while The Family Garden aims to create a self sustaining agriculture model,

Caribbean ESCo hopes to provide farmers with a viable alternative to dumping crops for which there is no ready market.

Eaton Haughton's "energy efficient hybrid solar agro-products dryer utilising alternative renewable energy and liquid desiccant technologies", for which he was awarded the grant, is set to significantly aid the small farmers of Seville, St Ann.

"The key is to prevent waste, provide stability in cases of market glut, and create value-added products to boost the agricultural sector," he said. "Persons will also be trained in building and maintaining the dryers."

Drying turns the un-purchased produce into suitable inputs for agro-processing, while farmers can mill the dried crops if so desired.

"Imagine the export prospects for the country; the processor will dry up a tonne of produce in 24 hours," he explains lauding the eco-friendly solar-powered technology.

The drying unit will be constructed with "all local labour" with a proposed 180 additional employees needed and will be capable of drying most things from bizzy, or kola nuts, to yam and potatoes.

But if farmers can't access dryers for their crop refuse, Echos Consulting plans to turn the produce that would otherwise end up on a garbage pile into energy, through its Caribshare Biogas Project.

Echos CEO, Richard May, says the alternative energy solution will be implemented by a not-for-profit organisation to be set up solely for the purpose.

The biogas project explores the use of electricity and gas creation from organic waste.

"This could be a new source of income for farmers as they could convert their waste — whether manure of crop refuse — to electricity and then sell it to the electricity supplier or use it to power their equipment," he said. "The reduction in energy cost will undoubtedly lead to greater productivity for our farmers."

Renewable energy sources and environmental sustainability are key considerations for the Caribbean, by May's reckoning

"The Caribbean must consider energy solutions that are specific to our context and needs," he said. "One of the core aims of the project is to create employment and promote the transfer of learning regarding renewable energy solutions."

The Department for International Development, the Global Village Energy Partnership, and the South Korean Government sponsored the IDEAS competition.

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