As the energy the U.S. receives from solar power increases, more land is allocated to hosting the solar panels that produce it. And in many cases, landowners have written off the grasses and plants below the panels. But that may not have to be the case — new research about the viability of such land is proving how productive this vacant space could be.
In a study published by PLOS One in November 2018, Oregon State University researchers describe their findings that shade cast by solar panels installed on parched or water-stressed land creates a beneficial microclimate, increasing moisture retention and water efficiency, and boosting the health of the plants and soil below the panels. The plants showed higher nutritional value and productivity — the researchers measured a 90 percent increase in late-season biomass in areas under PV panels. They say these impacts should be considered when designing solar farms so the land can be “agrovoltaic,” generating both solar power and crops. This doubly productive technique is common in Asia and Europe, but not yet in the United States. They write, “The agricultural benefits of energy and pasture co-location could reduce land competition and conflict between renewable energy and agricultural production.” Plus, they say adjusting the panels to cast a uniform shadow pattern could encourage consistent biomass benefits, so the land can be used as resourcefully as possible. While further study is needed on the economics of agrovoltaics, and on the effects of various climates on these results, semi-arid pastures with wet winters appear most likely to benefit from such a setup.
Other U.S. farmers and solar facilities are experimenting with low-impact solar development that incorporates plants and even livestock. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), one burgeoning technique is to keep a herd of sheep on land with solar panels so they can graze on the grasses that grow beneath ground-mounted installations. The sheep naturally keep mowing costs low. In some cases, sheep farmers can partner with solar developers in a mutually beneficial exchange — the farmers gain grazing land, and the solar developers gain affordable vegetation control. In his presentation “Overview of opportunities for co-location of agriculture and solar PV,” NREL analyst Jordan Macknick writes that pairing solar arrays with vegetation and livestock can benefit landowners by controlling wind and soil erosion, increasing pollinator habitat, and safeguarding soil health; and it can benefit solar developers by reducing site preparation and the costs associated with installation, operation, and maintenance.
Fix It Before You Nix It at a Repair Café
From damaged gadgets to defective appliances, you may be more likely to toss faulty equipment into the garbage than you are to tinker with its broken components — but some stuff just needs a quick fix to get back up and running again. Repair Cafés function as public hubs where people can bring those broken items to get assistance with repairs — or where volunteers can offer up their repair expertise in a particular field. Fixes are available free of charge, but donations are welcome, and people with nothing to mend can still grab a coffee or pitch in on a fix to learn new skills.
Martine Postma opened up the first official Repair Café in Amsterdam in 2009, and in the decade since, the concept has grown to 1,500 cafés worldwide, including 87 in the United States. According to the Repair Café Foundation, the cafés don’t intend to compete with professional specialists, and sometimes direct visitors to see a professional. The organization seeks to raise awareness about the possibility of fixing things in the first place — the more items that are mended by specialists or café volunteers, the less waste people will be producing overall.
To find or start a repair café in your community, go to the Repair Café website. The site also hosts forums for volunteers to swap stories and repair tips; just click on “Community” at the top of the page.
Stop Shopping with Buy Nothing Groups
Thanks to e-commerce marketplaces and one-click purchases, consumers can find and buy what they need in an instant. If your budget allows, you can have almost any item delivered to your doorstep in a matter of days. But perhaps that appliance you’re pining after is sitting idle in someone else’s kitchen — or maybe your neighbor could benefit from those clothes you’re about to donate. That’s what the Buy Nothing project proposes — that by connecting with our neighbors, we can source what we need without shopping. Buy Nothing launched on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 2013, and has since grown to include communities from coast to coast and in multiple countries. It’s made up of neighborhood-specific Facebook groups in which members give and receive goods free of charge, and because of the groups’ hyperlocal nature, all transactions are with neighbors. No bartering or payment can take place through the forum — items must be given freely. Buy Nothing hopes such exchanges will strengthen communities and reduce consumerism by encouraging people to share what they have and request what they need from folks who live nearby. When a group hits a membership milestone set by the founders, it’s split into two groups to restrict exponential growth and maintain familiarity among members.
Buy Nothing is useful when you’re seeking something specific, but perusing the page just to see what pops up can also be fruitful. Find out whether your neighborhood participates in this project at the Buy Nothing Project. If your location isn’t on the list, fill out the form on the page for starting new groups.
International Sourdough Starter Library
Sourdough starters bring bread to life through wild yeast fermentation, and give loaves a unique sour flavor. The taste of each batch is influenced by the starter’s specific microorganisms and surroundings, so a wide variety of sourdough flavors exist. To collect and catalog this biodiversity, the Puratos Sourdough Library in Saint-Vith, Belgium, opened in 2013 and began gathering and safeguarding sourdoughs from around the world.
Each year, the nonprofit conservation library focuses on one region and collects as many sourdoughs from that area as it can. Refrigerators line the walls of the library to maintain the collection, which has grown to 115 sourdoughs that together contain approximately 950 strains of wild yeast and lactic bacteria. Puratos partners with professor Marco Gobbetti, who analyzes the composition of each sourdough strain in his laboratory to further the library’s expertise so it can educate bakers and consumers. Plus, Puratos has drawn from that research to develop its own line of bakery sourdough products.
You can take a virtual tour of the facility’s digs by visiting Puratos and searching for “sourdough library.” In addition to a view of the room where the collection is kept, the tour includes engaging video profiles of some of the sourdoughs and the places they came from. Puratos also keeps an online database of sourdoughs where bakers can submit their recipes at The Quest for Sourdough. Each recipe in the “online library” is uploaded to an interactive map, and some of those starters are then selected for preservation. You can find Karl de Smedt, the sourdough library manager, on Instagram @The_Sourdough_Librarian.
Herbicides Escalate Antibiotic Resistance
The herbicides glyphosate (sold as Roundup) and dicamba (sold as Kamba), widely used on crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand them, also contribute to antibiotic resistance, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal PeerJ in October 2018. Researchers found that bacteria builds resistance to antibiotics exponentially faster — 100,000 times faster — after coming into contact with one of these weed-killers.
These chemicals will render medicines less effective for fighting infections, even if total antibiotic use is reduced and new antibiotics enter the market. Because of our looming post-antibiotics future, the researchers say we must change the way we use and distribute products that contribute to the issue. They conclude that more research is needed to measure the effect of manufactured chemicals, both on their own and in combination with others.
Cyclists Get Their Kicks
Route 66, the legendary highway that extended from Illinois to California, was traditionally traveled by car until the interstate made it mostly obsolete. Now, three decades after it was removed from the U.S. Highway System, traversing the highway by bike is becoming more common as the Adventure Cycling Association redevelops portions of the course into U.S. Bicycle Route 66. This 2,499-mile route for people-powered transportation runs along or adjacent to the former highway in many places, past preserved landmarks and roadside attractions, although it occasionally deviates from the old road in favor of safer or more scenic paths. The Adventure Cycling Association offers recommendations for a safe, comfortable ride on its website.
USBR-66 is part of a larger project called the U.S. Bicycle Route System, which has been working since 2005 to create and expand bike routes across the country. To peruse maps of available routes and access additional bicycling resources, go to Adventure Cycling.
Sustainable Ag Syllabus
Farmers seeking self-directed education to hone their homesteading skills can turn to ATTRA, a program that was developed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology to provide information and technical help to people involved in sustainable agriculture, including farmers, gardeners, extension agents, and educators. ATTRA’s website supplies numerous guidebooks that cover a wide range of topics. Search for “Publications” on the site to find reading materials on pest management, composting, crop insurance, water conservation, and more.
All of ATTRA’s guidebooks are free to download and read digitally, and also come in hard copies for a small fee. However, the program wants its materials to be accessible, so if a particular publication’s price is outside your budget, you can call 800-346-9140 to request a free copy. You can also supplement your reading with ATTRA’s free videos, podcasts, and narrated slideshows; just click on the “Multimedia” tab online to dive in.