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Energy

Solar Energy Gives Important Boost to Small-scale Farmers in Chile

Myriam Miller and Freddy Vargas stand next to one of the three greenhouses on their farm, where tomatoes are growing, anticipating an optimal harvest this year. The couple uses no chemical fertilizers to ensure the healthy development of thousands of plants on their farm in Mostazal, a municipality in central Chile. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Myriam Miller and Freddy Vargas stand next to one of the three greenhouses on their farm, where tomatoes are growing, anticipating an optimal harvest this year. The couple uses no chemical fertilizers to ensure the healthy development of thousands of plants on their farm in Mostazal, a municipality in central Chile. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

MOSTAZAL, Chile , Feb 2 2024 (IPS) - The installation of photovoltaic panels to use solar energy to irrigate small farms is expanding quickly in Chile because it lowers costs and optimizes the use of scarce water resources.

This long, narrow South American country that stretches from the northern Atacama Desert to the southern Patagonia region and from the Andes Mountains to the Pacific Ocean is extremely rich in renewable energies, especially solar and wind power.

"Solar panels have made an immensely important contribution to our energy expenditure. Without them we would consume a lot of electricity." -- Myriam Miller

Last year, 36.6 percent of Chile’s electricity mix was made up of Non-Conventional Renewable Energies (NCREs), whose generation in May 2023 totaled 2392 gigawatt hours (GWh), including 1190 GWh of solar power.

This boom in the development of alternative energies has been mainly led by large companies that have installed solar panels throughout the country, including the desert. The phenomenon has also reached small farmers throughout this South American country who use solar energy.

In family farming, solar energy converted into electricity is installed with the help of resources from the government’s Agricultural Development Institute (Indap), which promotes sustainable production of healthy food among small farmers, incorporating new irrigation techniques.

In 2020 alone, the last year for which the institute provides data, Indap promoted 206 new irrigation projects that incorporated NCREs with an investment of more than 2.1 million dollars.

That year, of the projects financed and implemented, 182 formed part of the Intra-predial Irrigation Program, 17 of the Minor Works Irrigation Program and seven of the Associative Irrigation Program. The investment includes solar panels for irrigation systems.

Within this framework, 2025 photovoltaic panels with an installed capacity of 668 kilowatts were installed, producing 1002 megawatt hours and preventing the emission of 234 tons of carbon dioxide.

The six solar panels installed on the small farm of Myriam Miller and Freddy Vargas, in the municipality of Mostazal, south of Santiago, Chile, allow them to pump water to their three greenhouses with thousands of tomato plants and to their vegetable garden. They also drastically reduced their electric energy expenditure. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

The six solar panels installed on the small farm of Myriam Miller and Freddy Vargas, in the municipality of Mostazal, south of Santiago, Chile, allow them to pump water to their three greenhouses with thousands of tomato plants and to their vegetable garden. They also drastically reduced their electric energy expenditure. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

An experience in Mostazal

“Solar panels have made an immensely important contribution to our energy expenditure. Without them we would consume a lot of electricity,” 50-year-old farmer Myriam Miller told IPS at her farm in the municipality of Mostazal, 66 km south of Santiago, where some 54,000 people live in different communities.

Miller has half a hectare of land, with a small portion set aside for three greenhouses with nearly 1,500 tomato plants. Other tomato plants grow in rows outdoors, including heirloom varieties whose seeds she works to preserve, such as oxheart and pink tomatoes.

Indap provided 7780 dollars in financing to install the solar panels on her land. Meanwhile, she and her husband, Freddy Vargas, 51, who run their farm together, contributed 10 percent of the total cost.

In 2023, Miller and Vargas built a third greenhouse to increase their production, which they sell on their own land.

“We’re producing around 8,000 kilos of tomatoes per season. This year we will exceed that goal. We’re happy because we’re moving ahead little by little and improving our production year,” Miller said as she picked tomatoes.

On the land next to the tomato plants, the couple grows vegetables, mainly lettuce, some 7,000 heads a year. They also have fruit trees.

Vargas told IPS that they needed electricity to irrigate the greenhouses because “it’s not easy to do it by hand.”

Freddy Vargas turns the soil on his farm in the municipality of Mostazal, south of Santiago, Chile. Lettuce is his star vegetable, with thousands of heads sold on the farm. The farmer plans to buy a mini-tractor to alleviate the work of plowing the land. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Freddy Vargas turns the soil on his farm in the municipality of Mostazal, south of Santiago, Chile. Lettuce is his star vegetable, with thousands of heads sold on the farm. The farmer plans to buy a mini-tractor to alleviate the work of plowing the land. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

The farm has two wells that hold about 30,000 liters of water that arrives once a week from a dam located two kilometers away. This is the water they use to power the pumps to irrigate the greenhouses.

“We have water rights and Indap provided us with solar panels and tools to automate irrigation. They gave us four panels and we made an additional investment, with our own funds, and installed six,” Vargas explained.

The couple consumes between 250 and 300 kilowatts per month and the surplus energy they generate is injected into the household grid.

“We don’t have storage batteries, which are more expensive. Every month the electric company sends us a bill detailing the total we have injected into the grid and what we have consumed. They calculate it and we pay the difference,” Vargas said.

The average savings in the cost of consumption is 80 percent.

“I haven’t paid anything in the (southern hemisphere) summer for years. In the winter I spend 30,000 to 40,000 pesos (between 33 and 44 dollars) but I only pay between 5,000 and 10,000 pesos a month (5.5 to 11 dollars) thanks to the energy I generate,” the farmer said.

Above and beyond the savings, Miller stressed the “personal growth and social contribution we make with our products that go to households that need healthier food. We feel good about contributing to the environment.”

“We have a network, still small, of agroecological producers. There is a lack of information among the public about what people eat,” she added.

Their tomatoes are highly prized. “People come to buy them because of their flavor and because they are very juicy. Once people taste them, they come back and recommend them by word of mouth,” Miller said.

She is optimistic and believes that in the municipalities of Mostazal and nearby Codegua, young people are more and more interested in contributing to the planet, producing their own food and selling the surplus.

“We just need a little support and more interest in youth projects in agriculture to raise awareness that just as we take care of the land, it also gives to us,” she said.

Valentina Martínez stands on her father's small plot of land in the municipality of María Pinto, north of Santiago, Chile. The fruit trees provide the shade needed to keep the planted vegetables from being scorched by the strong southern hemisphere summer sun in central Chile. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Valentina Martínez stands on her father’s small plot of land in the municipality of María Pinto, north of Santiago, Chile. The fruit trees provide the shade needed to keep the planted vegetables from being scorched by the strong southern hemisphere summer sun in central Chile. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

A pesticide-free new generation

Valentina Martínez, 32, is an environmental engineer. Together with her father, Simón, 75, they work as small farmers in the municipality of María Pinto, 60 kilometers north of Santiago. She has a 0.45 hectare plot and her father has a 0.35 hectare plot.

Both have just obtained funding from the Transition to Sustainable Agriculture (TAS) project, which operates within Indap, and they are excited about production without chemical fertilizers and are trying to meet the goal of securing another larger loan that would enable them to build a greenhouse and expand fruit and vegetable production on the two farms.

“It’s a two-year program. In the first year you apply and they give you an incentive of 450,000 pesos (500 dollars) focused on buying technology. I’ve invested in plants, fruit trees, worms, and containers for making preserves,” Valentina told IPS.

In the second year, depending on the results of the first year, they will apply for a fund of 3900 dollars for each plot, to invest in their production.

“This year my father and I will apply for solar panels to improve irrigation,” said Valentina, who is currently dedicated to producing seedlings.

“My father liked the idea of producing without agrochemicals to combat pests,” she said about Simón, who has a fruit tree orchard and also grows vegetables.

In María Pinto there are 380 small farmers on the census, but the real number is estimated at about 500. Another 300 are medium-sized farmers.

Simón Martínez, 75, proudly shows some of the citrus fruits harvested on his farm where he practices agroecology and does not use agrochemicals. He and his daughter Valentina won a contest to continue improving the sustainability of their farming practices on their adjoining plots, located outside the Chilean town of María Pinto. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Simón Martínez, 75, proudly shows some of the citrus fruits harvested on his farm where he practices agroecology and does not use agrochemicals. He and his daughter Valentina won a contest to continue improving the sustainability of their farming practices on their adjoining plots, located outside the Chilean town of María Pinto. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

The rest of the area is monopolized by large agricultural companies dedicated to monocultures for export. Most of them have citrus, avocado, cherry and peach trees, as well as some walnut trees, and they all make intensive use of chemical fertilizers.

Chile exports mainly copper, followed by iron. But it also stands out for its sales of fish, cellulose pulp and fruit. In 2023, it exported 2.3 million tons of fruit, produced by large farms and bringing in 5.04 billion dollars. Agriculture represents 4.3 percent of the country’s GDP.

Family farming consists of some 260,000 small farms, which account for 98 percent of the country’s farms, according to the government’s Office of Agrarian Studies and Policies (Odepa).

Family farms produce 40 percent of annual crops and 22 percent of total agricultural production, which is key to feeding the country’s 19.7 million people.

Valentina is excited about TAS and the meetings she has had with other young farmers.

“It’s fun. We’re all on the same page and interested in what each other is doing. We start in December and January and it lasts all year. The young people are learning about sustainable agriculture and that there are more projects to apply for,” she explained.

She said that 15 young people in María Pinto have projects with pistachio trees, fruit trees, greenhouse gardens, outdoor gardens, animal husbandry and orchards. They are all different and receive group and individual training.

The training is provided by Indap and the Local Development Program (Prodesal), its regional representatives and the Foundation for the Promotion and Development of Women (Prodemu).

“The idea is that more people can learn about and realize the benefits of sustainable agriculture for their own health and for their land, which in a few years will be impossible due to the spraying of monocultures,” Valentina said.

It targets large entrepreneurs who produce avocado and broccoli in up to four harvests a year, both water-intensive crops, even on high hillsides.

“We need to come together, do things properly and recruit more people to create a legal group to reach other places and be able to organize projects. When you exist as an organization, you can also reach other places and say I am no longer one person, we are 15, we are 20, 100 and we need this,” she said.

 
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