Joe Powell, originally from Pennsylvania, came to Early County to “do the work of the Lord,” and makes himself available as a resource for gardening. Powell has installed a simple system for providing light and small-scale irrigation using solar power.
BLAKELY -- On a sunny morning in Early County, muscadines, fruit trees, melons, grapes and paw paws receive life-giving irrigation -- water pumped through soaker hoses from a nearby tank of rain water. What makes the scene unusual is that the pump is fueled by a source some 93 million miles away.
Joe Powell, 60, a transplanted Pennsylvanian, came to Early County "to do the work of the Lord" and to do what he could to assist the congregation of the local Seventh Day Adventist Church. Director of prevention and treatment for addictions in his former state of residence, Powell has family roots and land near Blakely.
"I have always had a garden of some sort, whether I was in the city or anywhere," Powell said. "My aim right now is to develop hands-on acreage where people can learn to work with soil and have their own gardens. I was a walking resource for the state when I lived in Pennsylvania, and I'm going to be a resource here to teach whoever wants to learn."
A few months ago, Powell attended an irrigation workshop in Newton, sponsored by StrikeForce, a cross-agency program of the USDA designed to accelerate assistance to minority and underserved communities and farmers in high-poverty counties of Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas. The information Powell gained spurred his experimental nature, and soon he had put together a solar power "kit" from a company called Harbor Freight.
Powell's simple system involves small solar panels, a regulator, inverter and an electric cart battery. For a total cost of around $250, Powell says the system is sufficient to provide water for the 1/4-acre or so he calls Pleasant Acres. StrikeForce area coordinators are taking Powell up on his willingness to serve as teacher and model for farmers in the area, or anyone interested in a backyard or community garden.
It seems clear that solar power can fill the bill for small jobs like Powell's Pleasant Acres, but can it do the big jobs too, like pumping serious water from below-ground aquifers or moving giant pivot irrigators? Powell isn't sure.
Seth Pepper, a principal owner of Agriculture Solar in Tucson, said solar power, as well as power from wind and other alternative sources, has come of age. He said he believes what is needed to shake the traditional power sellers is a dramatic paradigm shift -- the ability and willingness to look at things in fresh new ways.
"We've all grown up accepting the idea of purchasing our energy," Pepper said. "Now there is the option of generating it for ourselves. At no time in history has this been possible, and Americans aren't used to that. A lot of what we do is educate, help open people's minds. Go to Europe, and you'll see farms running off-grid, using solar, solar/thermal and wind."
According to Pepper, even large-scale farming can be accomplished using modern solar panels, electrical storage systems and other reliable equipment, and for an ultimate cost lower than farmers are paying for diesel or electricity. This is especially true since Chinese companies have flooded the market with low-cost solar panels, driving prices down across the board, Pepper said.
"I remember when the Internet was new," Pepper said. "No one wanted to use their credit cards to order through it. Now, most people see how it really works and all the advantages that come with it. I think solar power will be something like that."