Grants help Palisade firms go green, save green

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Theresa High owns and manages a business that essentially turns sunshine into products — more specifically apricots, cherries, peaches and wine grapes as well as an assortment of garden vegetables.

So it only makes sense, High said, to harness the sun in other ways, including generating the electricity that powers the packing shed and store at High Country Orchards. “It’s a natural.”

High Country Orchards was one of two Palisade businesses that recently received a total of more than $30,000 in federal grants designed to help agricultural producers and rural companies reduce energy consumption and costs.

High Country Orchards received a grant for $28,283 to install a solar system to generate electricity at its country store.

Vineland Enterprises received a grant for $4,008 to replace an inefficient produce cooler at its Palisade store with a unit that’s 45 percent more efficient. The change was among the recommendations in a professional energy audit of the operation.

Eleven Colorado businesses received a total of $180,000 in grants through the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture selected 450 projects for a total of nearly $7.4 million in funding.

The program, authorized under federal farm legislation enacted in 2008, offers grants to farmers, ranchers and rural businesses to purchase and install renewable energy systems, make other improvements that increase energy efficiency and conduct feasibility studies for renewable energy projects.

High Country Orchard grows fruits and vegetables on nearly 130 acres of orchards, vineyards and gardens overlooking the Colorado River south of Palisade. The company sells and ships fresh peaches as well as preserves and salsas, offers tours and operates a country store at 3548 E 1/2 Road.

High Country Orchards installed one solar system near its packing facility and another system atop its store. While High said she’ll know more after the systems have been in operation for a full year, each system is expected to generate enough electricity to not only meet the demands of the packing shed and store, but also transmit some surplus back into the grid.

While High Country Orchards relies on traditional farming methods to grow and harvest fruits and vegetables, the business also relies on technology to improve processes, reduce costs and ultimately maintain a sustainable operation, High said.

A start-of-the-art digital sizing and sorting operation in the packing shed quickly, but gently, processes tree-ripened fruit. The system automatically sorts fruit by weight and girth and also detects any imperfections. During peak operations, the system can sort 600 peaches a minute — enough to load a pallet full of boxes in less than 10 minutes.

The installation of the solar systems constitutes another part of those efforts, High said. “Our goal is to maximize our efficiency.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the latest round of grant recipients and said funding will help agricultural producers and rural business owners reduce energy consumption and costs and, in turn, create jobs and improve profitability as well as conserve resources and protect the environment.

“Stable energy costs create an environment for sustainable job growth in rural America,” Vilsack said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., congratulated the Colorado businesses receiving the grants.

“Energy independence is a critical goal for our country,” Udall said. “These grants will help create jobs and power our economic recovery. It is encouraging to see businesses throughout rural Colorado embracing these innovative technologies to boost their companies and recharge our economy.”

Across Colorado, businesses receiving the grants used the funding to install solar systems and wind turbines to offset electricity costs. Other grants funded the replacement of metal halide lighting fixtures with more efficient light-emitting diode fixtures. Still another grant funded a study exploring the feasibility of operating a 12 megawatt to 14 megawatt wind farm in San Miguel County in Southwest Colorado.