When a Family Farmer Decides to Saddle the Sun for a Shining Future

February 01, 2022

Sullivan County Democrat – “A Sustainable Tomorrow”, A Quarterly Publication of DRS
By Kathy Daley

For farmer Peter Hofstee, harnessing nature was not outside the ordinary. After all, his parents and their forebears hailed from the
Netherlands, the land of windmills. “I’m surprised it took us this long,” said Hofstee wryly.

Hofstee of Bethel, N.Y. comes from a long line of men and women farmers, with wind-powered mills playing a critical role. As early as the eighth century, the Dutch windmills – looking almost like lighthouses with propellers — drained water in flooded areas so that land could be used for wheat, maize, vegetables and flowers. Now the windmills of the Netherlands continue to pump out water and grind grain.
So for Hofstee to have said “yes” to happily leasing 28 acres of his 102-acre spread for the largest community solar project in the mid-Hudson region – well, perhaps it was in the bloodstream.

Parents Edward and Johanna Hofstee began farming on Route 17B in Bethel in 1967. Some 15 years earlier, they had left World War II-battered Holland for life in the U.S. “It was a poor time for Holland,” said Hofstee. First, Edward found work on a large Sussex,
N.J. farm and Johanna labored in a nearby factory. Meanwhile, his brother was already farming in the Port Jervis, N.Y. area, and after more than a decade, Edward found his own land in Sullivan County.

“As soon as I could walk, he put me right to work,” said Peter Hofstee with a grin. The Hofstee farm, by the way, was practically
within shouting distance of the vaunted Woodstock Music Festival of 1969. “Nobody could sleep that weekend, but my mother let the kids
use the bathroom and make phone calls,” said Peter. For about two years, Edward Hofstee milked by hand before turning to automatic suction milking machines. The milk was then piped into bulk tanks and trucked away by a New Jersey milk marketer. Farming, family and church were the pillars of life, which included sister Jannetta, who lives now in Liberty, N.Y.

Peter worked alongside his father for years and took over the farm when Edward died in 2013. By that time, dairy farms were losing thousands of dollars each year due to poor federal milk prices and skyrocketing costs of feed, repair, taxes and more. Eventually Peter decided to give up the dairy herd. “I had to look for a different way,” said Hofstee. “There had to be another solution.”

Seven years ago, Peter began looking into leasing some of his land for an array of solar panels. “People were talking about it,” Hofstee said, and his longtime partner Christine Vitale was all for it. “It’s about taking care of the environment, too,” she said.

At the local college, SUNY Sullivan, Hofstee attended solar energy seminars. Then Delaware River Solar actually approached him. DRS project developer John Schmauch explained what the company looks for in a potential solar farm. “We first research the three-phase (electric distribution) lines in the area and their respective substations,” Schmauch said. “Once that’s done we look for properties that touch those lines and are viable for solar.”

“Pete’s farm was perfect for an array,” said Schmauch, “not only from a utility and connection standpoint, but from a land standpoint as
well – flat, open, and great regarding any viewshed issues. I reached out to Pete, made introductions and went from there.” The two men clicked: “He educated me a lot,” said Hofstee. “I felt comfortable with him. He kept me informed.” “We always want the landowner to be aware of what to expect,” Schmauch said. “Whether it’s the approval process, engineering, layout design or the construction phase, this is their land and we don’t want them to ever have to deal with any surprises.”

It was heartening, too, for Hofstee to learn that DRS was launched by Rich Winter, a Callicoon, N.Y. beef farmer. “He knows how hard
farming is,” Hofstee said. After approvals came from the Town of Bethel and from Sullivan County – and with $1 million from the New York State Energy for Research and Development Authority – construction began. “Once permits are acquired, the actual construction takes three to five months, depending on the system size,” said Schmauch.

The solar array on Pete’s property, up and running since this past summer, generates 6.1 megawatts of energy, or 7.8 million kilowatthours of solar energy annually. That’s large enough to power 1,000 homes. But this solar array is fully subscribed with 129 homes, small businesses and non-profits.

“We signed up a number of small businesses, non-profits and municipalities that took a lot of power,” said Schmauch, noting that community solar, as is DRS, is not strictly for residents but also for small businesses and municipalities. Meanwhile, Hofstee receives a check from DRS every month, funds that represent his future. “I’m never going to sell this farm,” Hofstee said. “I love farming. I love being out there in the fields, not behind a desk – even though farming is not easy and mother nature can be tough.” He’s now raising 60 head of white and black Holsteins as replacement heifers to sell to other farmers. He also keeps 50 brown and white Herefords to sell for beef. “If you want to get with the times, you have to be creative,” Hofstee said. “I highly recommend solar to every farmer. You don’t have to kill yourself. Let the sun do the work.”