Neal St. Anthony
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Dustin Vanasse, a Minnesota farm boy turned chef for 15 years, owns a small Twin Cities outfit called Bare Honey.

He was attracting attention like bees on honey last week at the big Winter Fancy Food trade show in San Francisco.

Vanasse, 38, is a few years into a cutting-edge trend: making and bottling honey from bee colonies raised on restored, pollinator-friendly habitat also used for solar energy farms in rural Minnesota and elsewhere.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has noted that pollinator-based products, from lip balm to honey-infused beer, is a fast-growing trend. Meanwhile, the state is on track to increase from 2% to 5% or more the next few years the amount of power generated from solar energy, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association.

That’s a lot of acres on what often was marginal land. And it’s another derivative benefit of Minnesota’s fast-growing renewable-energy industry.

“The solar developer contracts with the farmer to build a solar array,” Vanasse said. “Bare Honey reaches out and says we can add hives, if you are interested. We work with the solar-energy developer, such as IPS Solar. We plant native plants and provide pollinator education. We put our own bees on the solar field, or I contract with one of our affiliated beekeepers. We provide the contract to the solar-energy developer.

Bare Honey generates and cares for the hives. At harvest season, the landowner gets paid per negotiated pollination contracts.

“It promotes their planting of the land in native habitat. It’s also good for the renewable-energy industry. It’s a ‘multi-stacking’ of environmental benefits,” Vanasse said. “We reduce reliance of fossil fuels while adding acres of native pollinator habitat. Bees, wasps, birds and bats.”

Vanasse also has a date to speak at the upcoming national conference of Pheasants Forever, no small group, that also is interested in increasing natural habitat and conservation.

He sees a great opportunity with other stakeholders, and he already employs about 20, including contractors, to make a buck while tapping the demand for renewable energy, saving bees and cleaning often-polluted topsoil with native plants.

The Minnesota Agriculture Department recently highlighted two foods in which Minnesota is emerging a national leader. One is the perennial grain called Kernza. The other is honey harvested from flowering solar farms.

Industry supporters see the national, solar-honey market growing from 250,000 acres today to 3 million within the decade.

Advocates said there’s a triple-bottom line: restoration of the bee population and other pollinators, devastated by pesticides and other chemicals over the years; production of solar energy that has environmental and financial benefits; and the growth of the solar-honey industry.

And this pollination business is serious. It’s estimated that pollinators produced $16 billion worth of edible crops in the United States annually.

Two years ago, the state acknowledged that honeybees and monarch butterflies, the flagship pollinator species, are in big trouble. Minnesota has seen “unsustainable” bee-colony losses over the last decade.

“Solar honey” can be part of the solution.

Fresh Energy, the Twin Cities-based renewable-energy advocacy group, predicts a huge expansion of the estimated 4,000-plus acres of “pollinator-friendly” solar planted in Minnesota.

“Turf grass doesn’t provide much pollinator value,” said Rob Davis of Fresh Energy. “You have to mow it. In Minnesota, we’ve said let’s put panels up at waist height because of the snow, but it also gives an opportunity to plant diverse, flowering plants, native grasses … and we’ve created the nation’s first vegetation standard for pollinator-friendly solar farms.

“Bare Honey is saying, ‘Wow, there’s all these flowering acres of solar landscape paid for by solar panels.’ And more and more farmers are leasing land for solar arrays. Bare Honey and its customers love it. Beverage makers love it.”

For example, Bare Honey provided the Clif Family Winery in California with tons of honey last year from flowering solar-farm hives; about half its production.

In addition to wine, Clif sells jars of solar-grown honey, harvested and packaged by Bare Honey, and other products that can be found online for $5 to $25, as well as on Bare Honey’s website.

Bare Honey expects to produce up to 30 tons of “Solar Grown honey” from Minnesota farms this year through its own and affiliated beekeeper operations.

Minnesota honey last fall yielded a price to beekeepers of around $3.50 per pound, or about $7,000 per ton, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Other clients include Lush Cosmetics. And Minneapolis-based 56 Brewing created two beers that tap Bare Honey. They are Solarama Crush and Kernza Harvest Lager, which includes solar-farm honey and Kernza from Cascadian Farm cereals.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.