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By Johnathan Van Roekel
Within the fertile Willamette River Valley near the town of St. Paul, Oregon, in Marion County, a family farm legacy continues to be written. In 2018, the Oregon Century Farm & Ranch program awarded Mullen Farms, with a sesquicentennial award, honoring their continued farming efforts over the last 150 plus years. Over these years, five generations have seen firsthand how the introduction of new technologies in agriculture can change farming practices. From the first mechanized tractors to GPS-linked equipment, many of these technologies have been embraced. Jerry Mullen, grandfather, farmer, and great-great grandson of Mary Mullen was not an advocate for solar energy in its early days. But his commitment to the longevity and prosperity of his family farm led him to put the power of the sun to work for his business.
In 1852, an Irishman by the name of Robert Keaton traveled over the Atlantic Ocean and across the continent to homestead a 160-acre land claim along the Willamette River. A few years later, his mother Mrs. Mary Mullen and his brother Patrick would join him. Patrick would go on to marry a woman by the name of Mary Flynn. Their son, Charles S. Mullen, Sr., known as ‘Gramp’, would end up purchasing the farm from his siblings in 1920 and would continue to live and work on the homestead for 101 years.
Today Jerry Mullen and his family continue their time-tested farming traditions on much of the same ground. But the Mullen family is no stranger to hard work and hardships. When Jerry was two years old, he lost his father in an accident. The original farm had been split between Jerry’s father and his dad’s brother Jack. With the help of Gramp and Jack, Jerry and his mother were able to continue farming their share of the homestead. Jerry graduated from OSU in 1969 and married Kathy Davidson in 1970. While Jerry was teaching school and Kathy was finishing her degree at OSU in 1971, the couple purchased the Mullen homestead from his mother. Jerry proudly reflects, “we were on the farm almost every weekend and holiday to swing the purchase of my home place.”
Jerry and Kathy would go on to purchase another property in 1975 where they would raise their 4 children. Over the next 40 years, Jerry and his family would add twelve more locations to the farm. They rent some land while the rest is owned and maintained by immediate and extended family members. Daniel, Jerry’s son, plays a major role in managing much of the farm’s assets these days. Also, an OSU graduate, Daniel volunteers his time and skills with local health services and the fire department all while working long hours on the farm. Today Mullen Farms operates on 1,542 acres and is diversified, raising grass seed, snap beans, sweet corn, squash, wheat, clover, vegetable seeds and hazelnuts.
With this growth, however, came the challenges of increased energy costs. The addition of a seed cleaner built in 2006 turned Jerry’s attention to managing those costs. He had been approached by solar companies in the past but had remained “cautiously optimistic”. However, when he received an email from the Department of Agriculture referring him to the non-profit Spark Northwest, he reached out. Jerry began to work with Spark Northwest’s Rural Renewables Program and soon realized that they could help him navigate the solar market and get a fair price. “It has to pencil out and make sense financially” he says, “and it is really important to work with credible contractors.” Spark Northwest helped secure three separate solar quotes from local Energy Trust Trade Allies, secure a $10,000 grant reimbursement from USDA’s REAP program, and aided Jerry in understanding the other financial incentives available in Oregon. With this technical and financial assistance, Jerry felt confident to move forward with a 9.5 kW ground-mounted solar electric system for his seed cleaning operation.
After doing substantial improvements to irrigation infrastructure on land adjacent to the Willamette in 2014, Jerry says “we started looking into adding solar power to offset our PGE expense for irrigation on three pumps.” One 30 horsepower and two 75 horsepower pumps pull directly from the Willamette River and provide for 750 acres of irrigated land. These pumps alone use 64,860 kWh annually. Once again, Jerry turned to Spark Northwest for project assistance. The result was a 50.4 kW ground-mounted solar electric system which fits nicely along the edge of a hay field and offsets nearly 100% of the energy demand for the pumps. The system takes up about one-tenth of an acre.
With Energy Trust of Oregon cash incentives, the Federal Solar Investment Tax Credit, business depreciation benefits, and utility bills savings, Jerry would recoup his initial investment within eight years. With a 25% USDA Rural Development REAP grant awarded to the project, however, his economic payback will be reduced to five years.
“Without Spark Northwest’s help we probably wouldn’t have gone through with writing the grant. Having someone who knows how to get you through all the hoops is really helpful,” he says. He emphasizes that the challenges of tackling grants, negotiating prices, and accessing incentive opportunities alone can be a daunting task. “The assistance was by far the most important aspect of moving forward with this project” Jerry says. “I would definitely recommend any grower or anybody who has access to Spark Northwest to get help on a project”.
Jerry and Kathy’s nine grandchildren, spanning from ages 3 to 19 years old, all enjoy working and living around the farm in some fashion. “Farming is in their blood,” Jerry believes. “They learn a good work ethic and also get paid, thus having the responsibility for their own money.” When asked what he wishes for the future Jerry enthusiastically responds, “our hopes are to leave it in good enough shape, efficient and viable enough, to keep this farm as a family unit for generations to come.”
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