Connecticut lavender farm one of 1st in nation to get SmartFlower solar energy system
KILLINGWORTH >> A tiny family-run lavender farm in south central Connecticut is the first in the state — and only the second in the nation — to install a curious flower-shaped photovoltaic solar system that will generate nearly 100 percent of its power.
Lavender Pond Farm, operated for the past three years by husband and wife co-owners Chris and Denise Salafia at 318 Roast Meat Hill Road, recently acquired a solar SmartFlower, the first all-in-one photovoltaic solar system.
Their SmartFlower, aptly so, has a purple wrapped “stem,” or base. The couple acquired with the help of a grant.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney visited the 26-acre farm Wednesday afternoon, as part of a day-long tour of local agritourism businesses ahead of next year’s five-year renewal of the U.S. farm bill.
Chris Salafia, who for 25 years has owned a company that develops software for police departments, said that about four years ago, he began itching to do something different for work.
The way the couple came to the former cattle farm — and ended up growing lavender — was a confluence of life events. “I call it the perfect storm. The first thing is, the kids are only kids once,” said Salafia, who still owns the business but has a very capable team to run it.
“It allowed me to step back and take the opportunity to beautify my home, spend some time with my kids, and do something different. There are people who love puppies, they love the newness of things. I love startups,” he said.
His wife, a former children’s dance teacher, had just lost her mother to cancer, so it was an emotional time, Chris Salafia said.
Denise Salafia said she’s been intrigued by the idea of renewable energy for a while. “I’ve always thought about solar, but the roof has to be facing the right direction and there are all sorts of different restrictions, and I didn’t think it was really pretty,” she said.
Looking at the eye-pleasingly designed SmartFlower, she said, “I thought this is really pretty and it would have the right feel that we wanted here at the farm.”
She had visited the Connecticut Flower Show, saw the power generator, and thought, “‘I really want one of those on my farm.’”
Inspired by sunflowers and other phototropic plants that follow the sun across the horizon, the SmartFlower “wakes up” at sunrise, fans out its 12 solar “petals” to 194 square feet and automatically cleans itself in preparation for capturing the sun’s rays, according to the company.
It turns to face the sun at a 90-degree angle, and follows the sun throughout the day using dual axis tracking to maximize solar energy yield. At night, it folds itself up for compact storage, then begins again in the morning, according to SmartFlower.
Joe Skaret, lead technician at All Green It Solar in Southington, installs roof-mount and ground-mount systems for residential, commercial and farm customers, and said setting up the SmartFlower at Lavender Farm took only a day, He said this was much less time than roof panels take to install.
“We dug a trench, put a pipe in the ground and wired it in,” he said. “It’s a very simple process compared to the other systems.”
The Lavender Farms system generates 2.8 kW compared to 5 kW to 5.5 kW, which would take 25 to 30 solar roof panels to output, he said. “So, it’s a considerable size difference.”
“In a shade-free environment, it’s able to be in a 100-percent pretty much perfect [angle facing the sun] throughout the entire day,” Skaret said.
“When the sun comes up in the east, it’s (the device) pointing directly east, so [the SmartFlower is] right there, and then it tracks the sun throughout the entire day so you can get perfect production,” Skaret said.
The purchase of the Lavender Farm SmartFlower was funded in part by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Rural Energy for America Renewable Energy System grant. The REAP program helps increase American energy independence by increasing the private sector supply of renewable energy and decreasing the demand for energy through energy efficiency improvements, according to its website.
The couple had it installed at Lavender Farm a month ago.
“We really are looking to make the world a more beautiful place and be one with nature,” Denise Salafia said. “We want people to come and be able to enjoy and take what they need from the lavender, from the farm, and just being able to be solar-powered is being one with nature,” she said.
Courtney enjoyed a tour of the grounds by golf cart.
“One of the really overlooked stories in Connecticut is the rural economy is really a bright spot. I see a lot of new people coming in with all different forms of agriculture,” he said afterward. “This one is about unique as it gets.”
The congressman said learning first-hand about these agricultural businesses is enlightening. “Being able to really see the results of the program and benefits of more efficient operation is just really helpful,” he said.
“The model that they’re using here, which is a much more entrepreneurial version of agriculture, that’s the future for New England and Connecticut,” said Courtney, who also looked around Chatfield Hollow Farm (which grows edible and medicinal mushrooms, vegetables, ornamental evergreen and ginseng) and Killingworth Cranberries in town Wednesday.
“It’s a creative approach to creating revenue streams that makes it sustainable and it’s conducive to family stability, so it’s all good,” Courtney said.
Nearby the SmartFlower, honeybees buzzed about the farm’s stacked bee hives. The Salafias use the honey for their increasingly popular Lavender Lemonade, a small-batch gourmet cold drink that is infused with fresh lavender and honey and bottled in Norwich.
It has a mild lemon flavor and just a touch of sweetness. Denise Salafia said the farm is so busy on the weekends that she has had to hire five employees to run the tiny shop. “We get customers from all over the state and Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey,” some of whom are such fans of the lemonade they lug home cases of the beverage which is only available at the farm.
“We grow the lavender, dry it, debud it, use it to make the products, and do all the sewing (for sachet bags, etc.),” Denise Salafia said.
From the first to the second year they were open, business doubled, and the next year, it doubled again, she said.
Finding the farm and purchasing it, Chris Salafia said, was so uplifting for his wife, who was still mourning her mother’s death.
“She calls it her Miss Rumphius moment (from the children’s picture book by Barbara Cooney). She had read her mom that story while she was in hospice,” he said.
“The property came on the market, I made an offer they should have refused, and here we are,” he said.
And the choice of crops, Chris Salafia said, came from the success his wife had growing it in her garden at home.
“Lavender loves cruddy soil. This area is great for that. It doesn’t need a lot of maintenance,” he said. “Lavender are a lot like children. If you spoil them, they go rotten. It’s a drought-tolerant plant so it doesn’t need a lot of water.”
Everything in their shop is handmade and “strictly based on the plant: lotions, gels, soaps, oils, candles,” he said.
Even their boys, Joey, 10, and Jackson, 13, are part of the family business.
“The kids weed, pick up rocks, harvest, but they also help me with the web site, they pack the products, they work the cash register, they go to farmers markets,” their father said.
“With kids today, at least our theory is, we try to give them something different. There’s enough Xboxes and Playstations to go around. We don’t have the solution for it, but they have to come out and pick up rocks,” he said.
Jackson is in charge of the distiller, which is used to make the lavender essential oil. “At 7 o’clock, he’s got to go out, he’s got to shut the still off. He’s got to plug it up. He’s got to shut the water off. If he doesn’t, then things go wrong. So it’s a little bit of responsibility,” Chris Salafia said.
The calming nature of the lavender plant make the farm even more relaxing to visit — and run. “So we’ll find people just sitting under a tree or sitting in the gazebo and just chilling, so it’s a good vibe here,” he said.
Lavender Pond Farm, at 318 Roast Meat Hill Road, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. For information, see lavenderpondfarm.com or call 203-350-0367.