Butler County farmer makes statement with solar-powered flour mill

Mary Ann Thomas
| Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, 5:14 p.m.

On a an impossibly beautiful fall day, Middlesex Township farmer T. Lyle Ferderber took to his fields and predictably planted some wheat for his thriving organic foods and milled grains business.

But he was doing something else that was not so evident but quite productive: Making electricity.

Saturday's full-throttle sunshine allowed Ferderber's solar panels on his barn roof to produce more energy than he needed, kicking the surplus to a power grid feeding the needs of everything from nearby businesses to home coffee makers.

No, Ferderber is not looking to be the next energy mogul.

However, he and his family farm business have become the world's first solar-powered flour mill, according to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.

As he has owned and operated one of the state's two oldest organic farms for 33 years, Ferderber wants to make a statement and to make money for his Ferderber Farm and Frankferd Farms Milling in Middlesex and Frankferd Farms Foods in Clinton.

His farm and store were featured on Saturday for the 2012 Pittsburgh Solar Tour that included 16 open houses in the city as well as stops in Cranberry, Washington, Westmoreland, Beaver and Fayette counties.

Why go solar?

“Because we could,” said Ferderber, 55.

“We had the money, and we saw the benefit of this long-term investment,” he said.

Also, the farm has a barn perfectly situated with a southern exposure for optimal sun.

“We also wanted to help the energy debate,” he said.

Ferderber doesn't expect solar to take care of all of his needs — he sees it as one source of energy to use along with other sources.

“As a farmer, I know that diversity in nature is good — and diversity in energy is also good,” he said.

Ferderber and his wife, Betty, had solar panels installed at their farm and mill last year as well as their store.

The cost for the solar technology at their farm, mill and home was about $60,000, but an energy tax credit and a state grant covered half of the cost.

According to Ferderber's calculations, he will get free solar power in 12 years after he pays off the value of the system, which is expected to last 25-30 years.

Overall, the solar electricity produced at the farm meets about half of his energy needs.

And there's a lot happening at the 80-acre farm, where his value-added business goes like this: He and his family raise, plant and mill the seeds, and mix the flour — 40 kinds of flours to consumers and wholesalers.

The Ferderbers' businesses produce organic, local, bulk and specialty foods for dozens of food stores, co-ops, bakeries and restaurants, and offers 4,000 products to 2,500 customers in seven states.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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