While the larks sing in the trees and farm fields just south of Longmont, solar panels spread over five acres drink in the Colorado sunshine. Soon, fruits, vegetables and herbs will sprout in the partial shade under the technology.

Ground broke on the solar garden Saturday, with Sprout City Farms, a Denver-based urban agriculture nonprofit, hosting a ceremony on the farm property at 8102 N. 95th St. Roughly 30 people toured the five-acre plot, peering under the rows of solar panels. Here, they could learn about agrivoltaics — a technique for creating both solar power and agriculture.

Staff prepare for the grand opening of the solar farm on April 24, 2021. Sprout City Farms announced their newest farm site, Jack’s Solar Garden, south of Longmont, where they will cultivate crops underneath a five-acre solar panel array.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

The groundbreaking marked more than an industrious use of space.

Meg Caley, Sprout City Farms founding farmer and executive director, said the solar panels create a microclimate for plants, acting as a source of protection from hail, frost and other inclement Colorado weather. Caley said the Boulder County solar farm is the largest agrivoltaics site of its kind in the country.

“We really are trailblazing here,” Caley said. “It’s a really new, burgeoning area of development around the world. The goal is to share the findings as widely as possible with other farmers who would adopt this kind of system.”

Typically, solar panels stand 2 to 3 feet above the ground. At Jack’s Solar Garden, the panels stretch 6 and 8 feet tall, giving people the opportunity to work the land beneath them. As the world contends with climate change, the garden could serve as an important model to farmers across the globe, Caley said.

“There’s such a win-win situation,” Caley said. “(Solar panels) help with greater soil retention — that’s another boon in our drought-stricken area. The University of Arizona (a project partner) is doing research on that. They’re seeing that almost half the water is needed under the panels, versus the control plot out in the field.”

There’s also a benefit to the solar panels above the plants. The vegetation beneath the panels cools the air, helping to prevent the panels from overheating, Caley said.

Project leaders are already preparing the field space underneath the solar panels for the garden, with four truckloads of compost slated to arrive Monday. By mid-June, Caley said they hope to have three acres of garden planted. Underneath the panels, they will grow a host of plants, including tomatoes, squash, beans, peppers, carrots and greens.

“This thing is a giant experiment, so we want to see what does better,” Caley said, “and compare yields and results and everything.”

LONGMONT, CO - April 24, 2021: ...
Josie Mae Caley, 5, and Flora Silberman, work on a “tomatoes” sign during the event. Sprout City Farms announced their newest farm site, Jack’s Solar Garden, south of Longmont, where they will cultivate crops underneath a five-acre solar panel array.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Byron Kominek, Jack’s Solar Garden owner and manager, said the solar panels on the five-acre plot have the capacity to power more than 300 homes. The solar panels, which were installed late last year, have more than 50 residential subscribers and three commercial subscribers, as well as Boulder and Boulder County.

Kominek said his grandfather bought the farmland where Jack’s Solar Garden now stands in 1972. For 50 years it was used for hay production.

“Jack’s Solar Garden came about as a way to figure out what else we could do with our land, because hay really wasn’t paying the bills,” Kominek said. “Sprout City Farms, they’re helping us figure out how to do more with our land than just grow hay.”

Another element to the solar garden is the food grown will help benefit Longmont residents experiencing food insecurity.  All this year’s food will be distributed through the Longmont farmers market. Caley said anyone with SNAP benefits will be able to purchase it at half-price. Caley also said Sprout City Farms will be working with Boulder County Public Health to provide families that have SNAP and WIC benefits with a free weekly share of produce. The solar farm will also offer incubator plots to help new farmers test their business plans and receive mentorship from experienced staff.

Among those attending the groundbreaking was Jeannie Leach, a Lakewood resident and Sprout City Farms volunteer. Growing food under solar panels “makes perfect sense,” she said.

“I moved here from Georgia, where I was a science teacher. We had a 15,000-square-foot garden,” Leach said. “There’s as much sun, but a lot more precipitation — I just can’t imagine how agriculture functions here. This seems like an approach that makes sense.”

Husband and wife Jim Dunn and Yvonne Yousey, of Littleton, also like the idea of the project.

Dunn, an original board member of Sprout City Farms, said he’s continued to follow and support the nonprofit’s progress from afar, since he left the board in 2015 after about eight years of service.

“It’s tremendous,” Dunn said of the project. “There’s a productivity to it. You can make electricity and food at the same time.”

State Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis and State Rep. Tracey Bernett both have been inspired by agrivoltaics. They attended Saturday’s groundbreaking, where Jaquez Lewis and Bernett announced they plan to introduce Senate Bill 235 to the Senate Agriculture Committee this week. The $5-million bill will seek state funding for agrivoltaics.

“Tracey and I believe we can spread what’s happening here to other areas,” Jaquez Lewis, who represents Senate District 17, said. “Think about everything we’re doing holistically here. It’s helping farming, we’re creating solar energy and encouraging pollinators.”

Bernett, who represents State House District 12, said: “I look at this as just a start of what we can do in Colorado.”

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado State University and the University of Arizona will be research partners in the project. The Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center, the educational nonprofit part of Jack’s Solar Garden, will help connect the community with the effort, including offering Saturday tours.

Sprout City Farms is crowdfunding to pay for the buildout of the farm. As of Saturday morning, they had raised about $8,000 of the needed $15,000. People interested in donating can do so on Sprout City Farms’ website at sproutcityfarms.org.

“All of the struggles that we’re facing with the climate crisis,” Caley said, “this could help tackle those and pave a new way forward.”

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