Solar for Large-Scale Agriculture: Denny

Denny Hamm was the first in his area to install solar, but he has farmed in the Chatfield area his whole life.

“I was a year old when my folks moved here, and my dad has farmed all his life. It’s just my kind of thing, between the livestock and doing a little bit of woodworking and metalworking. It’s nice to get out on a tractor sometimes and be by yourself and not worry about other things.”

Denny raises corn, beans, oats and hay on about 650 acres, some of it owned and some of it rented. Each year they get between 150 and 200 feed steer to raise and resell. They sold their dairy cows in ‘97, but now they raise chickens, pigs, goats, rabbits, ducks and geese, who are all pretty grateful Denny decided to go solar.

“During the winter I have so many more heaters going for the pigs and the chickens for the simple fact that I’m making my own electricity, why don’t I use it? So we give the chickens another light and another heater for the pigs. It enables us to produce our own food that way. And I don’t feel so bad to add more heaters in the winter. I’m also using more electric heaters in the house, just room heaters here and there for rooms that aren’t heated with the furnace.”

His move to solar began in 2012 when he added to the farm’s structures.

“I thought that with the new shed here I ought to utilize the roof. I thought of solar because way back in grade school there was a book in the library I looked at about how to make a window solar heater, so that got me interested. I’ve always followed it but not done much about it. Then there had been talk about grants, and then they’re talking about getting rid of the coal and the prices going way up, so I thought this might be the time to start making my own electricity.”

Denny met Solar Connection’s operations manager at the farm show.

“He was very knowledgeable. You could tell he knew what he was talking about. There’s no question there. What he had there to show was pretty impressive, and his knowledge on the solar panels themselves, and working with the power company. He could explain how to go about doing that.

“They were super to work with. If I had any questions, I’d just call him and I knew it would be taken care of. That meant a lot to me to have a company to work with where I didn’t have to worry about any of the small stuff. They just take care of it. I don’t have any problem telling other people about Solar Connection. I haven’t heard any bad things about them.

“When they came and did the job, they cleaned up. They didn’t have stuff blowing around the yard. They took the trash, and they even took some of my trash. Super guys to work with. Boy, they did a super job. I haven’t had any problems. Everything has held together. Any time I call anybody up there they get right back to me or refer me to somebody. It doesn’t matter who I get in the office, they’ll get me contact with the person I need.”

Image of a large solar installation on a large shed on a Chatfield farm. Of all of the Minnesota solar installers, farmer Denny H. chose Solar Connection because he had only ever heard good things about them and was impressed with their industry knowledge.

Solar Connection’s responsiveness became extra important a few years ago when his inverters started acting up.

“I called with the codes of what was wrong. He took care of it. The company sent out all new boards for all of them and everything has been fine since. It’s kinda nice to have a piece of equipment that never shuts down. It just starts itself up each morning.”

The fact that solar equipment is so robust and reliable is especially important for Denny because they are relatively inaccessible on top of his shed.

“Most people don’t even know the panels are here unless they see an article in the paper or hear me talking about it, so it’s not like a windmill, which some people think are an eyesore, so I don’t have to worry about that with the neighbors. That’s the one nice thing about it.”

But Denny has fielded lots of questions from those who do know about his system.

“They usually ask how much money I’m making, or if I’m making enough electricity for everything I use, and usually they’re surprised that I’m making more than I use. They’re surprised that for what I have up here, it’s more than I need. I think a lot of people still think you need a huge, huge solar farm just to produce what you can use yourself.

“Some think, ‘Oh, maybe I should do that.’ Some think they’re too old, but it does increase your property value, so there’s that, too. There are more and more people asking about them all the time. But a lot of times farmers have got to think about it for about five years before they do anything.”

The 30% federal tax credit, the biggest financial incentive for installing solar, is slated to expire in 2019, so farmers wanting to reap the maximum value from solar will have to act sooner than that.

“When I went over things with the banker, he said he couldn’t see any reason not to do it. Solar Connection had different sheets for me from different universities showing the production, so it was straightforward and easy to see it was going to be a money maker and a money saver. In fact, the banker who bank-rolled me for this, he met with Solar Connection as we were just finishing this system up, and he bought a system for himself. It’s a small system, but he was pretty impressed with it.”

“Right now, I’m producing about $5,300 a year with the solar. We’re not using it all, but eventually, we are going to be using more, so I’m glad I went with the full 39-kilowatt [which is the largest system most farms consider]. We try to cut down expenses all the time, and I guess that’s kind of the nature of farming. There are bad times, so you’ve got to cut. Some place you’ve got to get more efficient. With the solar, because they last for a long time, it will take some years to pay for it, but after that, it’s all free. And there hasn’t been any maintenance.”

Denny doesn’t have specific plans for the money he’ll save.

“Oh, there are so many things. New machinery. Get my bills paid down. It’s hard to say. Probably upgrade machinery, because you’re always looking to do that. So this will really help out after they’re paid off. Maybe a good vacation. You never know.”

But for Denny, solar isn’t just about economics.

“I know with all the talk of coal and power plants, they say that by a certain year they want all the coal gone. So what are we going to do? Hopefully I’ve taken care of myself here a little bit.

“Also, you have to have the initiative to think ahead and say, ‘I’m going to try to make this world a little bit better place for the next generations. It’s kind of gone downhill for the past 50 or 80 years, but I like to breathe and drink clean water. I’m hoping I’m doing something for myself and the community. It takes a little bit to do it, a little bit of money up front to get everything even, but it feels good that I’m doing something for the environment.”

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