California is easy to spot from space: It’s the place on the far left of the U.S., the area seemingly teetering on the edge of the Pacific.

But, if there were any doubt, astronauts could nail down their geography these days by the reflection emanating from the Golden State — not the glitter of gold, but the glare from hundreds of thousands of solar panels generating electric power.

California is the solar capital of the U.S., if not the world. There are now more than 72,000 systems in the state, generating an estimated 724 megawatts of power.

Agriculture is embracing solar just as rapidly as other industries and municipalities. There are too many incentives, financial and otherwise, for producers not to grab sunbeams.

Del Mar Farms’ packing operation at Patterson, Calif., is one of latest to join the stampede to solar, with a recently-installed roof-mounted 354 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system that will produce 600,000 kilowatt hours of power annually.

Del Mar, owned by farmers Jon Maring and Lee Del Don, produces almost 20 different crops in Stanislaus, Fresno, San Joaquin and Merced counties. Both owners were in their early 20s when they purchased their first plot of land in the Westley, Calif., area and started growing bell peppers in 1983.

Now, they grow apricots, basil, beans, cabbage, canning tomatoes, fresh market tomatoes, cauliflower, cherries, cotton, grapes, herbs, cantaloupes, honeydews, oat hay, olives, parsley, spinach, walnuts, wheat and zucchini — as Maring says, “Everything from A to Z, with a few letters missing in between.”

He and Del Don have vertically integrated their businesses over the years to include packing, cooling, storage, marketing, chemicals, fertilizers, trucking, seed, harvesting, and equipment rental.

Maring joined the solar revolution about a year and a half ago when he installed a system at his home to see if what people were saying was true.

It was, and he decided to incorporate solar in Del Mar’s packing plant.

The move by California agriculture to solar and other renewable energy sources started with the deregulation of the electric utilities in 1998. The California Energy Commission launched a renewable energy program to help increase electricity production statewide.

The California Public Utilities Commission has $3.3 billion available to offer incentives to those who install solar power for commercial operations. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 also offers tax incentives for renewable energy projects, including solar.

As part of this effort, Ingomar Packing Co. at Los Banos, Calif., received discounted interest on bonds to install a $3.5 million solar system. The bonds are only available in economically distressed areas.

Utilities also offer incentives to switch to solar. Factor in depreciation schedules, and solar is getting cheaper all the time.

Solar makes more sense for homes because electricity costs more for residential users than commercial users, according to Maring.

“I had been looking at solar for probably seven or eight years and decided to put it in my home to see if the power savings numbers worked out. Everything happened as I was told it would happen.”

Maring and the company that installed Del Mar’s system, Cenergy Power, put pencils to commercial solar for the farming operation’s packing house, and Maring decided to go with solar for a portion of the electrical needs at the 90,000-square foot Stanislaus County facility.

“With the recent expansion of our cooling capacity and the attractive solar economics offered by Cenergy Power, we knew the time was right to go solar.”

The system cost $1.5 million. The panels installed earlier this fall are guaranteed for 25 years. Cenergy is responsible for maintenance of the system for 10 years, as part of the installation price.

Fresh market apricots, Roma tomatoes, melons and almonds grown by Del Mar Farms are packed or cooled at the company’s packing house.

Solar incentives, tax advantages keep changing

Maring cautions that solar incentives and tax advantages keep changing. “Rebates and incentives are a moving target, so if you’re thinking about solar you need to watch it because it is changing all the time.”

Del Mar’s solar array will cover about a fourth of the packing house’s energy costs, but will produce 90 to 95 percent of the energy needs of that area. The electric bill for that area has been about $70,000 per year, and Maring figures a payback for the installation in four years.

Maring was reluctant to discuss details of Del Mar’s specific rebate/incentive/tax payback scenario, but it is obvious the ultimate cash outlay is significantly less than the purchase cost.

“It is pretty complicated and involves income tax brackets, incentives, depreciation and rebates from energy companies,” he says. Unlike some solar packages, Del Mar cannot sell energy back to Pacific Gas and Electric.

Del Mar General Manager Brian Wright and Maring say another important factor in moving to solar is the growing sustainability issue in food production. Del Mar will get new sustainable “points” for the solar installation.

Del Mar has been audited for sustainability for the past six years. Wright says the company audits internally as well as inviting third party and buyer audits to enhance commodity sales to companies like food-buying giants like Sysco, Costco and Wal-Mart.

Del Mar is proud of its 2009 sustainability audit score of 92 percent.

“Everybody is looking for points on their sustainability grade sheets. We are doing everything we can to use less water, less energy and things like that in growing the crops. Solar energy is something we can do beyond what we are doing in the field and in the packing process,” says Maring.

Solar energy and sustainability

Food safety was the big issue when the sustainability audits started, says Wright, but it has grown beyond that.

“They still swab everything here at the plant as part of the safety issue. It’s a lot more than that now.”

For example, Maring is utilizing fuel management systems on his tractors, and that counts in the sustainability audit.

“These new systems are changing the way we have always thought we have to operate a tractor.” Changing gears and raising or lowering RPMs as directed by the fuel management systems can make a “substantial difference in the amount of fuel you use.”

Wright says Del Mar’s farming operation incorporates Integrated Pest Management in production, which not only helps in the sustainability audit, but helps keep records of everything used in producing crops.

“I think we are creating a better quality, safer product, and it gives us and our buyers more confidence in the products we market to them.”

All waste paper and plastic generated in the plant, as well as used oil from machinery and equipment, are recycled.

Maring admits that some areas of the auditing process have not always been on a farmer’s radar, “but, when there is an incentive to do it, it brings it closer to our attention.”

Major food buyers are increasingly demanding more from their suppliers. Many resist that, but Wright and Maring know if they don’t try to conform, sales could be in jeopardy.

“We all try to be progressive in how we do things,” Maring says. Sustainable production is something new and the “learning curve can be a little uncomfortable,” just like learning to utilize fuel management systems on tractors.

But, he says, the line between organic farming and sustainable farming can be blurred. Del Mar does not produce organic products.

“The move to green may not be economically feasible in many crops. Now, there is a new term called ‘blue,’ which means to do reasonable things to produce food at a reasonable price.

“I think the organic frame of mind is carrying it too far,” Maring says. “I think using IPM and things like that in a sustainable point system is the way. It sort of meets in the middle to create a good food value that is very safe and sanitary.

“You can get frustrated with new technology and new issues like sustainability, but if you don’t learn how to utilize it, it will cost you money.”

Drip irrigation is another example. Maring first tried it in the mid 1980s. “It was miserable — we had root intrusion, we had problems installing and removing the lines.”

Today drip and micro-irrigation are standard in Del Mar’s farming operation because new drip technology has been introduced, and farmers have learned how to maximize the advantages of drip.

“GPS has made drip even better,” Maring says. “It allows us to fieldwork the crop and beds with semi-conventional tillage because we know exactly where the lines are and how deep they are because they were installed using GPS. We can cultivate across the top of the beds and still not disturb the drip lines.”

“You have to look around every corner for new things — and solar is part of that.”