Posts By: Nathaniel Gibson

Buying the farm: Vermont Land Trust partners with Wells to conserve farm — Montpelier-Barre Times Argus Article

Posted on September 13, 2011 by - Montpelier-Barre Times Argus, Rutland Herald

Delaney Farm Wells

The Vermont Land Trust and the Town of Wells partnered to conserve 300 acres of scenic farm and forestland.

Buying the farm: Vermont Land Trust partners with Wells to conserve farm

Nathaniel Gibson

According to the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s report on the future of Vermont, Vermonters rank “the working landscape and its heritage” more highly as a common value than any other. But practical realities are pulling in the opposite direction. The council predicts that if current trends continue, today’s working landscape will not exist for the next generation. A recent conservation effort in the town of Wells, located in southwestern Vermont, is bucking that trend. The Vermont Land Trust has partnered with the local community to conserve the Delaney farm, a picturesque parcel of over 300 acres of farmland, forest and frontage on Lake St. Catherine.

Since 1977, VLT has been working to preserve the Vermont landscape. To date, the nonprofit has permanently conserved over 1,650 parcels of land covering over 500,000 acres – about 8 percent of the private, undeveloped land in the state. The parcels include more than 700 working farms and hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland, as well as community parks and recreational areas.

Since coming to VLT in 2002, Donald Campbell, southwest regional director for VLT, had been receiving inquiries about the possibility of conserving the Delaney farm, given its choice lakeside location and natural beauty.

The Delaney estate put the farm on the market in the spring of 2010, after the previous owners Joan and Charlotte Delaney passed away in 2008 and 2006, respectively. Given the parcels’ quality, VLT and the Wells Select Board agreed that VLT should try to secure the land while the town raised the funds to purchase portions of it back for community use.

“This is an iconic piece of property,” says Select Board member Rich Strange. “The town doesn’t have any access to the lake, so that was one of the big things we were looking for.”

VLT typically preserves land through conservation easements wherein the organization purchases the rights to future development or subdivision from property owners. Property owners can use the land for farming, forestry, education and other activities that sustain the property, or sell it whenever they wish. When the land changes hands, the conservation easement remains tied to the property, ensuring that the land will be protected in perpetuity.

Delaney Farm Map

A map of the Delaney parcel shows the portions to be used for community forest, recreation, and farming.

Because of the time constraints and significance of this property, VLT used capital from a revolving fund and offered $700,000, which was accepted, and took ownership on July 1, 2010. The Select Board then had time to involve its residents, many of whom were already strong supporters of the project, in the process of deciding how to use it. The land was subsequently divided into five parcels: a 105-acre farmland parcel, a 17-acre shoreline parcel, a 170-acre wooded parcel, and two small house lots that VLT is selling to individuals.

The farmland parcel is under contract to Rico and Jill Balzano, through VLT’s farmland access program. The Balzanos have dubbed the land “Little Lake Orchard” and plan to offer community supported agriculture shares and pick-your-own options that will be a source of local food and allow people to walk the land and enjoy its views. Prospective crops include apples, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, plums, apricots and pears.

The 17-acre shoreline parcel will be conserved as a community recreational area. “Part of the Select Board’s vision was that the town might own part of the lake frontage and create a public recreation area for all members of the community to picnic, boat and enjoy the lake up close,” reports Campbell. The town hopes that the property will be an example of sustainable lakefront management minimizing environmental hazards, such as runoff.

The 170-acre wooded parcel, a diverse piece of land featuring a sphagnum bog and multiple vernal pools, could be used for recreation, forestry and education. The Delaney sisters had allowed local residents to hunt on their property, another potential use.

The success of local fund-raising and widespread support for the project among Wells residents have impressed Strange. “The town is thankful that the community has been behind this project the whole way – even though we have had to move fairly quickly,” he reports. Strange hopes that the project will continue to bring residents together as they start using and enjoying it in upcoming months.

When partnering with municipalities, VLT typically requires a management plan with public input. The Select Board will hold a series of public meetings this fall to develop plans for the shoreline and wooded parcels. VLT will retain conservation easements on the parcels, with provisions tailored to the intended uses of the respective areas.

“Working with VLT has been great,” Strange says. “They have the experience and know what works and what doesn’t.”

The project has received support from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, an independent state funding agency that is granting $253,500 to VLT for purchase of a conservation easement on the farm parcel. Roughly half this amount is federal funding from the Natural Resource Conservation Service administered by VHCB.

VHCB is also granting $91,000 to Wells for purchase of the forest and shoreline parcels. These grants – combined with approximately $170,000 raised by the town, private foundations and individuals and the bargain prices at which VLT is offering the parcels – should allow the town and the Balzanos to assume ownership of their respective properties by early fall.

Campbell notes that the state is getting a lot of value for its support because of significant matching funds that have been leveraged from federal agencies and more local sources. And the end result – conservation of community land – is a reward beyond measure.

“The Wells community has really been there for us and involved with the process,” observes Campbell. “VLT is there to help communities, but we need to have communities saying what they want.”

Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in Pawlet and may be contacted at

The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus:
September 11, 2011

Bright days ahead: The sun rises on another solar farm and more jobs in Vermont – Rutland Herald Article

Posted on August 7, 2011 by - Environment, Montpelier-Barre Times Argus, Rutland Herald

Bright days ahead: The sun rises on another solar farm and more jobs in Vermont

AllSun Tracker panels capture rays at the South Burlington farm. The panels are equipped with wireless and GPS technology that allows them to track the sun's path and generate over 40% more energy.

Nathaniel Gibson

Renewable energy sources are proliferating across Vermont, including wind, hydro, solar, biomass and geothermal projects. Last month, the state’s largest solar farm to date was brought online in South Burlington during a ceremony intended to showcase the array’s technological innovations, the jobs created by such projects and the future of clean energy in Vermont.

The 2.2-megawatt array features 382 5.5-kilowatt panels equipped with GPS and wireless technology so they can orient to the sun’s path. By tracking the sun, the panels can produce over 40 percent more energy compared to traditional fixed-panel solar arrays. This array, the first in North America to use such a configuration, will produce an estimated 2.91 million kilowatts of power annually.

The panels are designed to withstand Vermont weather. After sundown, each panel returns to a horizontal resting position for the night. If snow falls overnight, most will be dumped when the panels resume operation in the morning and tilt to the sun – and the rest will melt as the panels heat up. Internal wind sensors signal the panels to go into their horizontal resting positions during windy conditions to protect them from wind damage.

The panels, AllSun Trackers, are manufactured locally by AllEarth Renewables, Inc., of Williston. Founded in 2005, the company initially focused on manufacturing small-scale wind turbines, but decided a few years later to shift its focus to solar trackers.
Speakers at the July 27 commissioning event included Gov. Peter Shumlin, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, Speaker of the House Shap Smith and David Blittersdorf, CEO and founder of AllEarth Renewables.

“This project not only produces renewable energy from the sun; it creates a lot of local jobs,” said Blittersdorf. “We’ve innovated and refined our AllSun Tracker so it can be affordably used to power homes or businesses – and at the same time make up a utility-sized farm like this project in South Burlington.”

The land used for the project is owned by two local developers, Joe Larkin and Patrick Michael, who submitted an application to the Vermont Standard Offer Program. The program assists renewable energy producers by guaranteeing long-term contracts and setting rates that allow them to recoup their initial investment and operating costs. The power generated by the South Burlington farm is being sold back to the Vermont Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development (SPEED) program, an initiative managed by the Vermont Electric Power Producers that is designed to encourage the growth of renewable energy in the state by setting goals for renewable energy production. By 2017, the SPEED program aims to generate 20 percent of the state’s energy needs from renewable energy.

After their application was approved, Larkin and Michael began working with AllEarth Renewables, who partnered with many local companies to assist with the installation process. Grennon’s Solderworks of Bristol performed the soldering work for the trackers’ electronics, cable parts were supplied by Foxfire Energy of Chittenden, and metalwork was done by NSA Industries of Lyndonville and North East Precision of St. Johnsbury. Two Williston-based contractors, J.A. Morrissey and Engineers Construction, Inc., provided manpower and expertise for the on-site groundwork as well as the actual mounting and installation of the panels.

Expansion of solar energy sources in the state means an increase in clean energy jobs. “One of the things that’s really great about this solar farm and the work of AllEarth Renewables is the number of jobs that go into such a venture,” says Andrew Savage, the company’s director of communications and public affairs. “It’s exciting for all of us to see clean energy manufacturing and jobs growing within the state.” The company employs 26 full-time staff and 5 seasonal staff and has manufactured and installed over 800 solar tracker systems.

Jeanne Morrissey, president of J.A. Morrissey, spoke emotionally of the significance of such local, collaborative efforts for working class families in this era of economic recession: “To have to have conversations over whether we are going to heat the house or going to feed our kids is a really hard conversation … Jobs mean the ability to stay in a home and raise a family.”

Smaller versions of the AllSun Tracker panels are effective in residential settings. A single 4.1-kilowatt tracker produces about 490 kilowatts per month – greater than half of an average Vermont household’s energy consumption, according to estimates by the Vermont Department of Public Service. The panels are also designed for net metering: The electricity generated is routed first to the owner’s residence or business. Any excess is fed back into the grid and is effectively sold back to the utility in credits as the owner’s electric meter runs backward.

To offset the cost of installing residential systems, AllEarth Renewables offers power purchase agreements. Customers pay a reduced amount of $4,400 up front for the panel and over the next five years pay for the solar power they produce at a cost equal to what they would have paid the electric utility. At the end of the five-year period, customers can renew the agreement for five more years or purchase the panel at fair market value, estimated to be 30 percent of the original price. If a customer decides to purchase the panel, half of the up-front payment ($2,200) is credited towards the purchase.

Each panel is equipped with a wireless reporting system that transmits daily data on energy production. This data provides current owners with information about their own trackers’ production and also allows prospective owners to gauge the production that they can expect.

Encouraged by the demand for solar technology within the state, AllEarth Renewables is planning to expand beyond Vermont. The company hopes that out-of-state demand will allow it to increase manufacturing capacity and hire more employees while remaining rooted in Vermont.

Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in Pawlet. He can be contacted via

The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus:
July 7, 2011

More than solar at this fest: Annual SolarFest event celebrates sustainable living and more – Rutland Herald Article

Posted on July 31, 2011 by - Montpelier-Barre Times Argus, Rutland Herald

Volunteers for Peace Performance during SolarFest 2010

The Volunteers for Peace perform a Skit on the main stage during SolarFest 2010.

More than solar at this fest:  Annual SolarFest event celebrates sustainable living and more

Nathaniel Gibson

To call SolarFest a renewable energy festival doesn’t really do justice to this unique annual event at Forget-Me-Not Farm in Tinmouth, scheduled this summer for the weekend of July 15 to 17. It is indeed a celebration, one that combines learning the skills required to cope with a changing environment in the context of a beautiful natural setting, with plenty of good food and entertainment thrown in. But it’s much more than a fun learning experience. SolarFest is a process that has brought families, communities and even countries together for almost an entire generation now.

Since its beginning 17 years ago, SolarFest has matured from a small gathering of 200 to an event that attracts thousands of attendees. Despite its growth, the festival continues to draw all its power, including power for the sound and lights on the main stage, from renewable sources.  This year, in recognition of the organization’s commitment to renewable energy and sustainability, SolarFest was awarded the 2011 Governor’s Award for environmental excellence.

SolarFest will mark its seventeenth anniversary this summer by offering, as always, timely information on the latest developments in renewable energy resources, coupled with great entertainment, all kinds of food and lots of activities for children. This year’s keynote speaker is Jeffery Wolfe, CEO and Chairman of groSolar, one of the largest installers of residential solar power systems in the country. The lineup of musical acts includes Jon Cleary’s Philthy Phew, Lynn Miles, Peter Mulvey, Antje Duvekot, Bow Thayer and Perfect Trainwreck, and Roomful of Blues.

Attendees will be able to choose from more than 80 different workshops over the course of the weekend, organized thematically into five tracks. Just a few sample workshops are: Net-Metered PV Systems (renewable energy track), High Performance Natural Buildings for Cold Climates (green building track), Fossil Fuel Free Farming (sustainable agriculture track), Life After Vermont Yankee (thriving locally track), and Climate Change 101 (solar generation youth track).

Frequent tours are offered to introduce key features of the festival, such as the informational panels and the on-site renewable energy system — which even incorporates solar hot water showers. The week preceding SolarFest a photovoltaic workshop serves the dual purpose of providing a hands-on learning opportunity and getting the renewable energy system set up.

A unique and popular event is the SolarFest theater-in-the-woods production. This year’s play, written by SolarFest president Melody Squier, incorporates themes of local and sustainable living as it tells the tale of Tinmouth’s 250-year history. Directing the play is Melody’s son Wheaton Squier, who attended his first SolarFest event when he was only a child and has been helping out ever since.

Wheaton has watched the festival grow steadily over the years. In addition to relaying messages and equipment, parking cars and helping his father Marshall with event security, he has also been a previous member of the theater-in-the-woods cast. His first stint as director was at last year’s SolarFest. He says, “It was my first time directing, and I wasn’t sure what the experience would be like, but we had a great cast and lots of fun. I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to this year — we have another great group of young actors and actresses.”

Rehearsals for the theater-in-the-woods begin about a month before the event, along with all the other necessary preparations for the festival. Volunteerism is vital, with more than 300 volunteers from all over the world assisting each year. The volunteers collaborate to transform Forget-Me-Not Farm from a working 80-acre therapeutic horse farm into a festival site — work that typically involves a lot of haying, mowing and weed-whacking, as well as posting of all the signage. Beyond the initial preparations, volunteers also run the festival and break it down when it is over.

“People come back year after year,” says Wheaton. “I’ve been involved as long as I can remember, and I think that being so close to a large, community and volunteer-run organization is a really important part of my life. It’s always nice to work together with lots of people and have the reward be this amazing festival.”

The volunteers typically include about 10 members of Volunteers for Peace, an organization that promotes international volunteerism as a means of community development, intercultural education and service learning. These volunteers usually show up around the July 4 weekend, about 10 to 14 days before the festival, and help transform Forget-Me-Not Farm to SolarFest. Typical projects include picking up fencing, building the stage, damming up the nearby river by hand to create a swimming hole and cleaning the barn.

For some volunteers this is their first visit to the United States, and these visitors often comment that their experience in Tinmouth defies many of their stereotypical beliefs about life in this country. Long-lasting friendships are formed as the work progresses, and many of the Volunteers for Peace return to help out in subsequent years.

The Squier family in turn has traveled to Spain, France, Canada, England, and Italy to visit some of their SolarFest friends. “The relationships we have built with the volunteers feel very much like family and going to their homes feels that way as well. It is always wonderful to travel, but to be hosted with such love is something much more,” says Wheaton.

Anyone interested in volunteering for SolarFest can sign up at the SolarFest Web site, which also has information about the full schedule of events for the weekend.

Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in Pawlet. He can be contacted via

The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus:
July 3, 2011