New solar energy panels for Helene’s Hilltop Orchard

Renewable Energy for America Program Grant helps fund the project

Helene’s Hilltop Orchard, LLC, a family destination and small business in Merrill, was recently selected as a recipient of a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Renewable Energy for America Program Grant which will be used to help lower the energy costs of running their rural business.

Helene and Dave Pagoria will use the $19,750 grant from USDA Rural Development to help purchase a photovoltaic system on their 30 year old eco-apple orchard in rural Lincoln County. The estimated energy production from the new solar panels is 40 percent of the total energy consumption of the orchard’s operations.

“I would like to commend Hilltop Orchard and the Pagoria family on the strength of their application. Their initiative is an investment in the future and takes us a step closer to energy self-reliance. If we want a healthier environment and a sustainable future economically, it is critical that we get beyond fossil fuels. The Renewable Energy for America Program has provided the incentive, the Pagoria’s have provided the leadership,” said USDA Rural Development State Director, Stan Gruszynski.

Helene’s Hilltop Orchard is celebrating their 19th year of operation as a U-pick Apple Orchard and Family Attraction. The orchard, sitting on the original 1919 dairy farm owned by Helene’s grandparents, includes 20 acres of dwarf size apple trees perfect for picking and 10 acres of pumpkins.

Each year from Sept. 18 through Halloween, the orchard is open to the public and sells fresh baked goods, their own “solar” apple cider, U-pick and pre-picked apples, pumpkins, and fall decor items. In addition there is a corn maze, a barnyard play area for children, and hayrides available for guests and families during their visit to the orchard. Helene’s Hilltop Orchard is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

The remainder of the year the orchard sells their produce and other products at the Wausau Farmer’s Market.

“Like our apples, our demand is growing, and to meet those demands, our business needs to grow too,” said Helene Pagoria. “This is one way we can, by improving our energy costs.”

The grant funds were awarded through USDA Rural Development’s Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) which provides loan guarantees and grants for renewable energy systems, energy efficiency improvements, feasibility studies, and energy audits. A popular use of the program has been for producers who have installed new more energy-efficient grain drying systems on their farm. Other uses have included geothermal systems, wind turbines, as well as adding insulation, improving lighting, or other projects that will improve a building’s energy efficiency.

So far in 2010, over 45 businesses and producers across Wisconsin have received more than $2 million in loans and grants through REAP funding for energy efficiency improvements and new renewable energy systems.

USDA Rural Development’s mission is to deliver programs in a way that will support increasing economic opportunity and improve the quality of life of rural residents. As the lead federal agency for rural needs, USDA Rural Development administered nearly $744 million dollars this past year to rural Wisconsin communities. Funds are used to finance and foster growth in homeownership, business development, and critical community and technological infrastructures. For more information on USDA Rural Development programs visit USDA’s web site at

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