CT Farm Energy Program faces closure in days

For four years Amanda Fargo-Johnson has steered Connecticut farmers and rural businesses through the thicket of grant applications and financial incentives to help them pay for money-saving energy improvements.

But hundreds of inquiries, dozens of grant applications and more than a dozen energy workshops and expos later, Fargo-Johnson's tiny Connecticut Farm Energy Program is on the verge of falling victim to the very thing she's worked so hard for on behalf of others -- grant money.

The grant for her own program has yet to come through, and that means the office will likely close its doors May 1.

"It's disheartening," said Fargo-Johnson, in something of a diplomatic understatement.

Farm Energy began as a way to boost Connecticut's participation in the Rural Energy for America Program -- REAP, which provides grants of up to 25 percent of the total cost of a renewable energy or energy efficiency project.

The application is widely regarded as a monster. So Fargo-Johnson -- working part time with an occasional grant writer -- will literally fill out the application for time-strapped farmers and other small businesses who are largely unschooled in the vagaries of grant applications.

The program quickly grew into a one-stop-shopping for energy, with Fargo-Johnson helping to pair REAP grants with state grants, loans, tax credits and other incentives. She has run workshops and energy expos around the state to help farmers and rural business owners explore what's available to them. The 1,700 copies of the best practices guide she developed are gone. She had planned to revise it this year for yet another printing.

"Even if people don't use REAP, we're kind of the fielding office for energy questions," she said. "If people have questions, they call us and we kind of direct them."

Projects Fargo-Johnson has helped with run the gamut from multimillion-dollar rural hydro operations and large solar installations to basic energy efficiency retrofits like heat curtains for greenhouses and more efficient lighting and heating.

Sarah Coon of Paley's Farm Market in Sharon this week was putting the final touches on her REAP grant application for a solar system to help with electricity costs for refrigeration and air conditioning -- a $162,000 project.

Had she not attended one of Fargo-Johnson's workshops, she would not have known REAP grants existed, nor would she have met a representative of Connecticut Light & Power, who told her about a program to help finance the rest of the project.

"I'm also on the Sharon Energy Task Force, so I know a little," Coon said. "Even with that background and wanting to do things like this, without her having a workshop we would never have known about this.

"If we were trying to do this ourselves, we probably would have given up a long time ago."

With the help of Farm Energy, Jewett City Greenhouses owner Lou Demicco was able to upgrade two of his old leaky greenhouses by covering them in Lexan and adding an efficient ventilation system, as well as installing a heat curtain in another greenhouse.

He got a $19,000 REAP grant that he paired with a $37,000 state grant, which left him to cover a small portion of the full $75,000 cost. He was already seeing energy savings this past winter.

"If it wasn't for Amanda, I probably wouldn't have gotten it," he said of the REAP grant.

Eric Babcock, the manager of T&C Greenhouses in Preston, said his heating bill this winter was about half of what it had been after Fargo-Johnson helped him win a grant to convert from oil to high efficiency gas heating in about a dozen small greenhouses.

His reaction to the anticipated closing of the Farm Energy Program: "Holy mackerel." And he wondered what it might mean for future plans to add a solar array.

The Farm Energy Program exists indirectly through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where it has faced financial Armageddon pretty much since it began as a pilot program in May 2009. It operates through the Eastern Connecticut Resource Conservation and Development Council, RC&D, one of about 375 councils nationwide that fall under the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, though the RC&Ds no longer receive USDA funding. Farm Energy is also a partner with Rural Development, another USDA program.

Farm Energy has received its own funding through a Rural Business Enterprise Grant - RBEG, which is funneled through Rural Development. But the $80,000 two-year grant Fargo-Johnson applied for is in limbo, with no indication when, or if, it will be acted on.

Fargo-Johnson had managed to stretch her last grant -- $75,000 -- that began in the summer of 2011, through March 31, several months longer than planned, but she's running on empty right now even as the REAP grant deadline is April 30.

"We ran out last week," she said. "My feeling is we have commitments to the people we're currently working with. I've been working with these people some for a year, some for six months, some for three months. I want to see them through."

Eastern Connecticut RC&D Council President John Guszkowksi said he's providing the funds to keep Farm Energy running through this month. And he is helping it look for new funding sources. But he admitted that having to "mothball the program and send everybody back home without losing momentum" could be difficult.

The potential loss of the Farm Energy Program also comes as the state is seeking to ramp up its commitment to farm energy. The Governor's Council for Agricultural Development, in its first report released recently, listed dealing with the cost of energy as one of its recommendations.

Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky said farm energy was "at the top of the list of challenges for Connecticut producers." And he noted that the Farm Energy Program also recently received a $5,800 Farm Viability grant from the state to finance a baseline survey on farm energy use. But Fargo-Johnson said that unless the RBEG funding comes through, the matching funds to actually use that grant won't exist.

"I'm not sure what will happen when we go away. People will have to hunt and peck for information," she said. "I don't know anybody who's going to fill the gap."