Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Saffron and Solar Farms: A Successful Agriculture Solution

Harvest with standard agricultural equipment operating between rows of solar panels. (Courtesy photo)

George Harvey

Farmers must work hard. People accept that to the point that it seems almost legendary. Farmers have to live with the realities of drought, floods, infestations of pests, late frosts in the spring, and early frosts in the fall, among other things. It is not an easy life, and increasingly, family farmers are closing their operations down and going into other lines of work. It is not necessarily what they want to do, but it is sometimes what they feel they must do.

The times have brought several things that can give farmers some relief. In many places, they can lease parts of their farms to developers of renewable energy, bringing in much-needed cash, often enough for them to keep on farming. In some cases, they can develop their own renewable energy systems on their land.

Some people who object to this, taking the view that farm land should be only be used for farming. Forcing farmers to live by such a rule can put some of them out of business. When that happens, the land might, over the course of decades, revert to a natural state. Or it might be developed for some other purpose. Maybe that would be housing or industry. Based on what we see, however, it seems unlikely that it will be retained for farming.

Saffron crocuses blooming in a raised bed within a solar array in New Haven, VT. ( A. Ghalehgolabbehbahani, UVM)

In August 2018, Green Energy Times carried a story called “Saffron and Solar Farms,” by Dr. Margaret Skinner a research professor at the University of Vermont. Her areas of expertise are Integrated Pest Management, Biological Control, Insect Pest Identification, and, interestingly Saffron Production. She and her colleagues had been looking into crops that could increase the incomes of farmers in Vermont, testing them to see whether they would thrive in the state’s climate and soils. One crop they had looked into is saffron, a spice that can bring prices of $5,000 or more per pound.

By 2018, they had come to the conclusion that Vermont farmers would be able to grow saffron for profit, and they were looking at the question of how to use the land to best advantage, because it seemed unlikely that saffron would be mono-cropped on a farm in the state. With the help of Peck Solar, they grew saffron between rows of solar panels. That was the state of things when Skinner wrote her article in August 2018.

The research has gone on from there, and we can report on how it is doing. Early attempts to use standard solar arrays were not uniformly successful, partly because saffron doesn’t grow well in heavy clay soils, where their first trial took place. In more favorable growing conditions, saffron grew well in and around the fixed-angle arrays. Peck Solar, which provided the solar system site, suggested that two-sided vertically positioned solar panels made by Next2Sun, a German company, could be used to greater advantage for agrivoltaics. We might remind readers that Peck Solar took the name iSun in 2021.

Dr. Skinner works with two others on the current agrivoltaic research. One is Dr. Bruce Parker, also a professor at UVM, whose areas of focus include Entomology, Integrated Pest Management, and International Agriculture. The other is Laura Eckman, a PhD student interested in Agriculture and Entomology.

The thing that makes the difference with the Next2Sun panels is that they can be installed vertically on a north-south axis. That way, the panels will get the sunshine in the morning and in the afternoon. They can out-produce conventional, fixed-angle arrays in early and late hours, losing a bit of production around noon. But there is more to the advantage.

Because the panels are vertical, they cover very little land (only around 4 inches), and even that land is not necessarily taken out of production. The current research project has solar arrays in lines thirty feet apart, with each line consisting of two panels, one above the other.

Crops that will be planted next summer include beets and carrots, primarily because they are standard crops in Vermont. The lines of photovoltaic panels have some areas where the lower part of the row has no panel, and tall crops such as peas can be planted in those areas. And space will be reserved for trialing saffron, because of its high commercial value. Obviously, other crops can be included in such a scheme, but this is a limited pilot test.

An agrivoltaic solar-wind farm in Europe during the winter. (Nex2Sun)

The land, with such a layout, can be nearly 100% devoted to agricultural production. Most of the crops can be raised just as they otherwise would be. Saffron does require hand work, in planting, weeding, and harvesting. On the other hand, it can be a very worthwhile crop. Also, since saffron corms are perennial, a single planting should last for years.

iSun gave some thought to the details of the installation, also. Care has been taken not to use concrete to support the panels. Instead, stakes are driven into the ground to support them, deeply enough that they should not yield to any wind that might be anticipated. An advantage of this is that the array has minimal long term negative impact on the land, and the system can be taken down to be moved to another layout or location.

iSun is fully supporting the installation and operation of this project with the expectation that it will develop expertise that can benefit Vermont’s farmers. The University of Vermont is giving use of the land and there is support from the UVM Horticultural Research and Education Center. Major funding is provided by the USDA Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (

Dr. Skinner said of this, Its really exciting and appropriate for us because it is a solution to keeping agricultural land operating.Farmers can still be farmers, and that is important. Demonstration events are anticipated once the vertical array is in full operation. For more information, contact:

Bruce L. Parker,

Margaret Skinner,

Laura Eckman,

To see this article as a pdf file, showing how it appears in print, please click HERE.

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