By Caroline Feeney
Chickens saunter across the road in front of Prairie Home General Store. Inside, antique shelves hold juice, freshly roasted coffee and locally made soap. The century-old brick building with vintage windows looks like a scene from an old-fashioned postcard, but an eagle’s-eye-view reveals a modern twist to their tale –– including the roof lined with solar panels.
When Tom and Jenna Moran bought the building in June 2011, they worried about the cost of lighting and heating the old structure. They later installed a 10-kilowatt photovoltaic solar system, and they’ve barely paid electric utilities for the past two months.
Less than 1 percent of the United States’ energy comes from solar power. Few Missouri homes and businesses are fueled by sustainable energy, but both the Moran’s home and business fall into that tiny percentage. The sun has powered their straw-bale, cozy one-room house since 2004.
The Morans wanted to be responsible and forward-thinking in starting the business. The solar power system cost $56,000, which rebates and incentives reduced to about $13,000. Jenna’s grandfather lent them the money they couldn’t immediately spend on the system. However, the system will pay for itself quickly. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Missourians pay an average of $3,000 per person each year for energy. Tommy Cleveland, a solar engineer at the North Carolina Solar Center (an organization that administers the government solar incentive database) says the price of installations has dropped roughly 50 percent during the past three years. However, the upfront cost remains a barrier.
For the Morans, the solar panels represent more than just a good business move. “I was very concerned about having that monthly bill and getting away from what, to me, is important,” says Jenna, who married Tom in 2007 by the small creek that runs behind their home. “Now I can feel better about the store. We’re still living out the way we want the future to look like.”
Since he was about 16 years old, Tom wanted to run an old-fashioned general store after walking into one in the small town of Rosebud, Ill. “There’s something about a place where you can go in and buy your grape soda, and they’d make you a sandwich,” he says. “If you believe in previous lives, then I probably had a store back in the 1800s.”
The shop brings in about $1,000 per week in sales, enough to break even with expenses. Jenna does customized gardening, and Tom has a home-improvement operation, which makes up most of their income. They also sell their own honey and grass-fed beef from their small farm. Even so, the Morans remain in the lowest income bracket. “When you realize that you can still live well on so much less, it’s freeing,” Jenna says.
Tom agrees. “There’s nothing like being part of the 1 percent,” he says. “Right at the very bottom. You don’t have to worry about anything.”
The store is a place where people can stop and chat or sit down with a cup of coffee by the pellet stove. On the table by the window rests Wendell Berry’s book about the industrialized farming crisis, titled The Unsettling of America, which the Morans have read many times. The book inspires them to keep going, even when the health food distributors won’t call them back because their business is so small.
Many community members have yet to stop by the store, but neighbors appreciate the effort. Anna Dick, 69, doesn’t have to catch a ride to Boonville for groceries anymore. “If you tell Tom you want something, he’ll try to get it for you,” Anna says. “I wish more people would give them a chance.”
The Morans’ hope is to preserve the environment for future generations, especially their two boys, Westley, 4, and Orion, 2. Westley already knows the names of trees, and Orion loves trips to the creek with his dad.
“It’s about our children, the future and their lives,” Jenna says. “I love the environment, but I love it because it’s where we live.”
“We live in the best place in the known universe,” Tom says.
“And I don’t want to ruin it,” Jenna adds.