Oregon farms get $280,000 in federal grants to switch to solar energy

Funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture pay up to 25% of the cost of installing renewable energy systems

By: - October 6, 2021 5:00 am

Democratic leaders in the Legislature put Republican lawmakers in charge of spending $100 million for rural Oregon. (Courtesy of renewable energy coordinator/Lake County Resources Initiative)

When Josh Cohen bought his farm in the Rogue Valley 16 years ago, he expected to power his irrigation system, greenhouse and coolers with solar energy.

But the equipment was costly, and he hesitated to strap himself with a big loan.

Now he’ll achieve his goal with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Rural Energy for America Program.

“I will be producing electricity on my farm which is really cool,” said Cohen, 46. “It’s going to go back into the grid, and it’s going to produce roughly as much as we use on the farm. So it should pretty much zero out our electrical usage.”

Cohen’s project on his 10-acre organic vegetable farm in Applegate in Jackson County is among six solar projects that won funding in the latest grant awards through the federal energy program. A total of $464 million was awarded nationwide; Oregon got $280,000. 

The solar grants range from $20,000 to CF Jensen Farms, a grass seed producer in Silverton, to $6,590 to Nella Mae’s Farm in Cove, outside of La Grande. The USDA awarded $8,278 to Cohen’s Barking Moon Farm in Applegate. The Oregon Department of Energy will get $100,000 to conduct energy efficiency audits in rural areas, and the University of Oregon will get $100,000 to educate rural business owners about renewables and to shepherd 20 projects towards completion.

Though the grants are relatively small, the program helps small business owners in rural communities reduce costs while switching to renewables, said Jill Rees, acting state director of the USDA Rural Development in Oregon.

“By the time their payoff on the project comes, they’re really improving their bottom line,” Rees said.

Cohen grew up in New Jersey and was a restoration ecologist who focused on repairing damaged habits in Northern California before moving to Oregon. He now farms full-time, selling organic tomatoes, squash and other vegetables at farmers markets and through a subscription service. 

To fully fund his energy project, he’ll have to borrow money but he figures the loan will not increase his overall expenses.

“The loan payments are going to be about the same as my electric bill,” Cohen said. “So the quicker I pay it off, the quicker it will save me money.”

Ranking system used for project approval

The program has run for at least a decade, providing more than $5 million in grants to cover up to 25% of the cost of more than 250 projects in Oregon since 2011. It also offers loan guarantees for up to 80% of a project. In the current budget year, the USDA backed loans for more than $25 million in Oregon, and it awarded the two technical assistance grants totaling $200,000 to the Department of Energy and University of Oregon.

For the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the USDA distributed $159,000 in small grants up to $20,000 including the one for Cohen. Another $514,000 was allocated to cover one-fourth of the costs for seven large rural projects that have yet to be announced.

The program is only open to small businesses, farms and ranches in areas with a population of 50,000 or less. Agricultural production must provide half the owners’ gross income. 

“The overall goal of this is to reduce climate pollution and increase resiliency to climate change,” Rees said. “Year after year, Oregon is really high on the list of states for dollars allocated through this program.” 

Projects are ranked on aspects such as environmental benefit, amount of energy generated or saved and money put in by the owner.

“We fund them until the money runs out,” Rees said.

In the most recent round, 18 farms and business owners out of 27 that applied won approval.

Past projects have spanned Clatsop to Umatilla to Douglas counties. They’ve included hydro and wind projects and anaerobic digesters which turn manure into a gas. But solar installations are the most common, Rees said. 

Eastern Oregon has a lot of sun, and the cost per watt for a commercial installation dropped nearly 70% between 2010 and 2020, according to a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Josh Cohen (with intern Kristin Smith) bought 10 acres in Applegate in 2005. (YouTube)

Farmers, businesses get help

The $100,000 grant awarded to the Oregon Department of Energy will pay for 75% of the cost of an energy audit for farms and small rural business owners. Professionals visit the site to evaluate the conditions and equipment.

“They take the data they collect and review it and propose some energy-efficiency measures that the participant can implement to save energy at their site,” said Stephanie Kruse, facilities engineer at the agency. 

Most operations start small.

“We don’t see small businesses or farms doing a full revamp of their operations all at once,” Kruse said. “It’s usually over a five- to 10-year planning cycle.”

The University of Oregon will use its grant to provide technical assistance to farmers and small businesses in rural Oregon. “We are helping with siting and the design and some additional fundraising or bringing in financial incentives to the table,” said Titus Tomlinson, program director of the rural assistance program at the university. “The whole thing that we’re trying to do here is to make sure that we offset the cost up front and put it all on paper that over X, Y and Z number of years, you’re going to be able to pay this off and you are actually going to benefit financially as a result of reduced energy cost.”

One of the university’s prime partners is Lake County Resources Initiative, a nonprofit in Lakeview that serves as the “boots on the ground,” Tomlinson said.

The nonprofit will use the money to teach 150 farmers, ranchers and small business owners about renewable energy, consult with 40 owners and help 20 projects with development.

They helped Collins Agricultural Consultants Inc. of Oregon City receive a grant that will pay for 25% of a roof-mounted solar array that will produce enough energy to power three typical U.S. homes. 

Solar panels amid fruit trees

In Applegate, Cohen hopes his project will be completed by next year. He’s already been approved for a $40,000 loan. The plan is to install 48 panels in a field. 

“They’re going to go in the center of our vegetable field,” Cohen said.

Nearby, he’s planning on planting Italian prune plum trees, table grapes and Asian pear and persimmon trees which will add to his year-round bounty and give the high-tech energy display a natural backdrop.

For more information about the program, go to https://www.rd.usda.gov/or. The next applications for the program are due Nov. 1.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.