DRESDEN, Maine — Like many farms across Maine, Goranson Farm is in the early stages of a generational shift.
Carl Johanson, 26, is poised to take over the reins of the farm with his younger brother Goran, 21, when their parents Jan Goranson and Rob Johanson are ready to step back from the daily operations of the 80-acre farm, which Goranson’s parents began as a potato operation in the 1960s.
But succession plans haven’t been delineated just yet, and for the present moment the family is at a point where they are working together, each doing their part running different aspects of the organic diversified vegetable farm.
This collaborative phase is allowing the members of the Goranson-Johanson clan to each pursue what they are interested in on the farm. And while the younger generation is channeling nostalgic farming practices by expanding horse-driven cultivation on the farm, Rob Johanson is using new technology — in the form of a recently installed solar array — to power the farm toward a more sustainable future.
“It’s a really cool juxtaposition. You’ve got the horses, which are kind of the original form of renewable energy, and then you’ve got the technological solution to energy generation with the solar array,” Carl Johanson said.
The farm’s 25,000-watt grid-tied solar installation, consisting of four large mounted solar arrays, has the potential to cover the farm’s entire power needs, including the Goranson homestead located on farm grounds.
While he admittedly is the skeptic in the family when it comes the solar panels, Carl Johanson is grateful his father is thinking about the future of the farm’s energy independence, which someday will be in his hands.
“My dad sets a pretty strong example,” Carl Johanson said. “He has always described the progression of society in terms of the innovators, early adopters, and then everybody else who follows after, and he’s definitely one of those people who wants to be an early adopter.”
A progressive history
But this isn’t the first generational shift that has brought changes to the operations at Goranson Farm.
Thirty years ago, when Goranson came back to the farm from California, where she was attending school, she brought with her fresh ideas about the possibility of local agriculture.
Being out West in an urban area and experiencing the local markets that were a stronghold there, Goranson was inspired to diversify her parents’ potato farm and expand beyond simply selling to commodity markets.
“It planted this seed that maybe we could grow something other than potatoes on the farm,” Goranson said. “We decided that we really wanted to not be a commodity farmer, relying strictly on wholesalers and [having them] set the price for our crops.”
In 1986, Goranson joined a farmers market, the first for her family’s farm. She was known as the “potato lady” for the expansive selection of tuberous varieties she offered. But her reputation would change quickly. Around that same time she met and teamed up with her would-be husband, Rob Johanson, who was growing a wide array of warm climate crops in greenhouses, helping her work toward her diversified vision.
By using budding greenhouse techniques to grow things such as cantaloupes and eggplants during the summer and season-extending growing methods to continue cultivating cold hardy crops later into the fall and winter, the selection of products offered by Goranson Farm exploded in the late 1980s.
In 1990, the farm began offering its community supported agriculture, or CSA, program, had joined several more farmers markets and became one of the cornerstone operations to the growing small-farm hub forming in the southern midcoast area.
“Those ideas were pretty much just on the forefront of this change, this real change in the perception of what a farm was, and what agriculture could be on a smaller farm,” Goranson said.
Since 2000 the farm has been a fully certified organic growe r. Goranson Farm presently cultivates 32 acres of vegetables, and it maintains an additional 50 acres in cover crops, which are rotated annually.
With this level of forward thinking chronicling the 50-year history of Goranson Farm, it’s no surprise that in transitioning from one generation to the next, Goranson and Rob Johanson were thinking about how they could make the farm more sustainable for their sons.
For Rob Johanson, sustainability meant making strides toward energy independence in a way that was feasible for his family business, which was the motivation behind the solar power array installed at the farm in September 2016.
“We’re trying to survive as a family business, while being less dependent on energy sources that are beyond our control. [Solar] seemed an appropriate way to go,” Rob Johanson said. “My biggest concern now, of course, is liquid fuels, but we can at least take care of the electric energy part of the farm. That’s a step in the right direction to make us less dependent on outside sources.”
The goal of the solar array is for the panels to generate enough solar power for the farm to operate at a net-zero energy cost — a stark difference from the nearly $600 to $800 per month Goranson Farm had been paying in electricity costs per month.
The panels are on a tracking system and move with the sun in order to capture as much solar energy as possible. Since the array is tied to the electric grid, if the panels are not collecting enough solar power because of decreased daylight hours, the farm also can use standard electricity. On stormy or cloudy days, the amount of solar power captured by the panels will decrease, though some solar energy can still be harnessed through the cloud cover.
As the days become longer, the panels will be generating more solar power than the farm needs. This excess power is sent back to the grid, and the farm will be credited by the utility company under the state’s net metering policy. Since the Goranson Farm solar array was installed last year, the farm is grandfathered and will not be affected by new rules approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission earlier this month that roll back net-metering credits.
The next step for Goranson Farm is to invest in batteries for the solar array that will allow them to store excess solar power generated by the panels for use at a later time.
The $110,000 array was funded in part by an $18,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, with the remaining cost of the array being financed through a loan. The debt on the solar array is one thing that makes Carl Johanson skeptical, though his father said the loan will be paid off in 10 years via monthly payments that do not exceed what they were paying in electric bills.
“This was as much about [our children’s] future as it was ours,” Rob Johanson said. “They’re going to benefit from this. It is a long-term investment for the farm, so it should be a benefit to our sons as they move forward with their careers.”
With succession plans still very much in the amorphous state, Goranson said she has never wanted to push her sons into taking over the farm, especially since her youngest son is only 21.
But Carl Johanson said this freedom to try other things, such as theater or golf, awarded to him and his brother by their parents, made him realize how much he cherished the agrarian lifestyle his family had cultivated.
Making the future of the farm more financially and environmentally sustainable with the installation of the solar array is just another example, Carl Johanson said, of his parent’s dedication to providing him and his brother with the best possible circumstances to thrive in.
“All the credit goes to them,” he said. “For providing an environment that allowed us to come back.”