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North Hills Monthly

Frankferd Farms Promotes Sustainable Farming through Solar Energy

Jun 01, 2015 11:31AM ● By Jill Cueni Cohen
Along with his wife, Betty, Saxonburg business owner T. Lyle Ferderber, 57, has cultivated a good life and a growing business out of nothing more than grains of wheat and the desire to support their family in the same reliable way that their ancestors did before them. “We love the life of self-sufficiency,” declared Ferderber from his 100-year-old barn on his award-winning farm, which is now powered partly by solar energy.

Last year, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) presented Frankferd Farm Foods with the Sustainable Ag Business Leadership Award. According to Brian Snyder, PASA’s executive director, Ferderber exemplifies the spirit of sustainability in agriculture and food systems, having demonstrated the versatility and resilience required of those leading the way to a sustainable food future. The award is a recent development, but the Ferderber’s mission to live off the land has been underway for decades.

“We’ve been milling flour for 38 years and organic farming for 40 years,” said Ferderber, noting that he won the award because of his most recent method of using solar energy to add value to his business. “We supply up to 60 percent of the needs of our farm, home and flour mill with solar energy.”

As one of the world’s first solar-powered flour mills, Frankferd Farms is not only providing energy for itself, but is also able to sell the unused portion of the captured sunshine back to the power company. “It’s a pretty simple system,” said Ferderber. In 2011, he installed a 10.7-kilowatt solar array of 44 panels—each one of which can generate 230 watts of electricity—on his farm. “By the time they got up and running on June 1, we were so excited that we put a larger array in our business on Saxonburg Boulevard,” he said.

The 16.7-kilowatt solar array on Frankferd Farms’ food warehouse store in Saxonburg generates enough electricity to power walk-in coolers and industrial-sized freezers. “They provide 25 percent of our power,” Ferderber said, adding that the solar panels are virtually maintenance-free. “You build them, check on them once in a while, and let them go.”

Ferderber said that PASA is leading the way in what he calls value-added farming. “If you’re a dairy farmer, and you also make and sell your own cheese, then you’ve added value to the milk,” he explained, noting that this is an important strategy that organic farmers must use to be sustainable and profitable in today’s economy. “We’ve been doing that for three decades and more.”

Harvesting sunshine has been his latest smart move, despite the fact that in the past five years since Ferderber made the investment, the cost of solar panels has dropped approximately 30 to 40 percent. “Back when we installed them, the 11-kW array was $50,000, and the 16-kW was $70,000,” he recalled, adding, “I like to say we took one for the team.”

Ferderber explained that solar energy is a great alternative to conventional fuel sources, and he has no regrets. “It’s like debating whether or not to get a better car; but if you don’t buy now, you don’t provide the impetus for others to buy more in the future,” he said, noting that he has played his part in making the cost go down. “We’ve had that debate with people who are thinking about it themselves, and we always say ‘You should just do it.’ It’s not like we’re anti-petroleum, but we’re pro-alternatives. The oil will last longer when alternatives are embraced.”