U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack samples Monarch Pilsner in the brewing room at Snake River Brewery and Restaurant in Jackson on Wednesday as brewing director Chris Erickson demonstrates a perfect pour. Vilsack announced a $13,810 grant that will enable the establishment to install a solar power system and save $2,000 a year. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack sipped Zonker Stout at the Snake River Brewery and Restaurant in Jackson on Wednesday while announcing a $13,810 grant for a solar power system there.

Vilsack’s agency awarded the grant through its Rural Energy for America Program. The grant, and another to a Campbell County rancher, illustrated the government’s commitment to rural community development, he said.

“It’s also about jobs,” Vilsack said, ticking off various tradesmen needed to install the solar panels. “Over time they will also save resources. It means less emissions.”

The brewery and restaurant has sought for years to install solar panels, said Chris Erickson, director of brewing. Until now the project never quite made financial sense.

That changed with the grant, which will cover a quarter of the project cost.

“We’re down to an 8-year payback,” Erickson said. “Now it’s a no-brainer.”

The installation is expected to produce 5 percent of the building’s energy. Vilsack quizzed Erickson, other employees and owner Ted Staryk for about a half an hour as the he trailed past the kitchen, through the bar and restaurant and into a refrigerated tank farm, canning operation and warehouse.

At three different stations, Vilsack tasted about six different beers Erickson offered, including Pako’s India Pale Ale, Zonker Stout, Snow King Pale Ale and Monarch Pilsner. “That is really good,” he said of the Zonker, asking how it’s used in the restaurant’s award-winning chili.

The solar installment will produce 21,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year and cut greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 21.6 metric tons, the agency said in a statement. Creative Energies will oversee the project and Energy Conservation Works contributed to the effort.

Department of Rural Development

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is better known as the home of the U.S. Forest Service, but it also is an agency that’s keen on rural development and aid, Vilsack said. “This grant is government,” he said. He said his agency has either financed or backed the purchase of 8,200 homes in Wyoming while he has been in office. “Without USDA involvement, none of those people would be homeowners,” he said.

Vilsack touted other rural programs in Wyoming. “We need to do a better job of marketing,” he said. “We are a Department of Rural Development.”

Campbell County rancher Byron F. Oedekoven got two agency grants — $5,825 for lighting upgrades and $17,681 to transition from propane to geothermal energy, the agency said.

Turning to the U.S. Forest Service, Vilsack criticized Congress for not agreeing to treat some wildfires as emergencies that would be fought with funds coming through FEMA and other accounts rather than the agency’s operating budget. It’s likely firefighting costs will exceed what Congress has allocated for the task this summer, he said. Other U.S. Forest Service programs will suffer, as they have in the past, he predicted.

“There’s a very good chance we will have to borrow from these restoration and resiliency accounts,” he said. Without better emergency funding “you can’t do the work everybody wants us to do.”

Wyoming is the 50th state Vilsack has visited as Secretary of Agriculture, a post he assumed in 2009.

See related story — Vilsack: U.S. will keep federal lands

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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