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By Eric Laschever
Harley Soltes, owner of Bow Hill Blueberries, reached for the phone. The application deadline for the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) was fast approaching. Harley knew that he needed someone who—in his words—was “grant savvy” because such grants could make the difference between success and failure in adding solar power and energy efficiency to a farm.
“You really need Mia,” Harley’s colleague told him.
Mia Devine, Spark Northwest’s rural program lead, took Harley’s call. Mia had given up a high-powered engineering career to run her own farm and help other farmers obtain leading edge technology to cut energy costs. And for her, Harley’s short time frame added a bit of challenge and excitement to a task that had become second nature. But, before we dive into this electrifying story, let’s visit the farm.
Tucked away in the Skagit Valley, the community of Bow and Bow Hill overlook Samish Bay. Established in 1947, Bow Hill Blueberries is the site of the valley’s oldest family-run blueberry farm. Harley and his wife Susan bought the old Anderson farm in 2011 – rejuvenating the soil and transitioning the farm to Certified Organic. The farm specializes in heirloom berries and produces over 4500 bushes of Rubel, Stanley, Jersey, and Blue Crop. Some of those plants are more than 70 years old.
When the Soltes bought Bow Hill they understood that five acres of fruit alone would not be profitable, and Harley saw the processing plant on the property as the key to their farm’s success. “This is what has made Bow Hill possible: a licensed Washington State Department of Agriculture food processing facility. It allows us to produce value added products,” says Harley.
To the Soltes, the process of turning raw blueberries into something new with enhanced value is both a challenge and a source of enjoyment and pride. Each of their heirloom varieties has a slightly different flavor that lends itself to a specific value-added product. For example, the Rubel—the original wild high bush blue berry—was perfect for their Heirloom Pickled Blueberries, which won the prestigious Good Food Award in 2019.
The Rubels “come out really crisp and you can get a lot of them in a jar,” beams Harley. “They’re like capers.” The old tough Stanley bushes, which survive well in the farm’s wetter area, also taste great pickled Harley explains. The Soltes also press the Jerseys and Rubels for their juice, which won a Good Food Award in the Elixer category. Plus, frozen Jerseys end up on the Seahawks training table, where the players use them in smoothies. (See their interview on King 5.)
All this processing has its costs, however – particularly when it comes to energy. “Part of our value-add is freezing all of our fruit,” explains Susan. “We take all our fruit out of the field and freeze it on site, and refrigeration uses a lot of electricity.”
Which brings us back to Harley’s call with Mia and the looming REAP grant deadline.
“If you don’t know the language of the federal documents … you could make a mistake of a checkbox and lose your grant for something you didn’t understand – even if your project is a valid and eligible for the grant,” explains Harley. “You really need somebody who is grant savvy to make sure you answer all the questions right.”
Luckily for Harley, Mia is fluent in federalese.
In a matter of days, Mia was able to review the paperwork that Harley had compiled and extract the necessary data for the grant application. One of Spark Northwest’s nonprofit partners, Sustainable Connections had completed an energy audit of the Soltes’ processing facility with recommended energy improvements, and local contractors had provided cost estimates to complete the work. Based on this information, they knew the roof of the processing facility had 85% annual solar exposure and a solar array would offset about 20% of the property’s total annual electricity use. Plus, improving the efficiency of their lighting and dehydration systems would result in an 85% reduction in energy consumption for those activities. All good news for their grant prospects.
In addition to the energy and cost savings calculations, Mia helped Harley in small ways – decoding jargon, answering questions, assisting with writing, and ultimately meeting the deadline for not one, but two grants. A few months later, the Soltes were awarded $16,000 in federal support, which they used to add a 9.9kW solar PV system and to upgrade their facility for increased energy efficiency.
Today, the solar array on the southeast facing roof of the blueberry processing building is highly visible when approaching the farm from the east; no accident according to Harley who wanted to show it off. Inside the facility, the Soltes are upgrading their lights with an LED system and have replaced an inefficient food dehydrator with one that dries three times faster and is insulated.
In total, the Soltes are saving approximately $2,600 in annual energy costs, a number that will increase as they finalize their upgrades.
Harley acknowledges that the solar power and energy efficiency learning curve was steep. “We didn’t know what the opportunities were,” he explains. “I’m amazed by how hard Mia worked and her follow up after the fact.”
To date, Mia and her colleagues at Spark Northwest have completed 128 clean energy projects with farmers and rural business owners reducing their costs, increasing self-sufficiency, and helping to ensure that Northwest farms continue to thrive for generations to come.
As for the Soltes, they often hear stories from locals who remember picking blueberries in their fields as far back as the 1940s. For many, picking here was their first job. The Soltes’ goal is to continue creating harvest memories and connections to farm-fresh food. Thinking ahead 80 years, the Soltes envision happy pickers among the of Rubel, Stanley, Jersey, and Blue Crop on Bow Hill’s five acres. One can almost see the solar panels gleaming off the production barn roof in the background.
You can check out Bow Hill Blueberries and their delicious products online or stop by their farm in Skagit Valley. Plus, hear more about their heirloom varieties in this video. You can also learn about Spark Northwest’s rural energy programs and support their work by making a tax-deductible donation.
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