At some solar farms in New York State, sheep act as landscapers, grazing among solar panels to manage vegetation. It’s a way to run solar panels on an industrial scale without using fossil fuel-powered equipment like lawn mowers, and it offers local farmers the opportunity to make money by outsourcing their crops. sheep. It could also stimulate the creation of a business cooperative to coordinate between shepherds and solar companies.
The rise of renewables means reserving more and more land for solar panels, and it is often farmland that is shifted to solar production. To some, this expansion looks like a loss of farmland, but to others, it is a new opportunity for farmers. “The developers have to maintain the land, and it seems a little ironic to me that we are developing land for renewables and then, because you have to manage that plant growth to keep it from shading the panels, bring mowers that work. on fossil fuels, or spray herbicides to control that, ”says Todd Schmit, associate professor at Cornell University who focuses on agricultural economics and cooperatives, and leader of a new project (in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture) which explores the economic benefits that could come from partnerships with farmers and solar energy suppliers. “There is another opportunity that supports both the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the use of fuels while also benefiting agriculture. “
There is also an opportunity not only for farmers to make money by outsourcing their sheep to graze solar panels, but also to reduce our dependence on imported lamb. Americans eat less lamb per capita than other countries, but more than half of the meat that is consumed here is imported from Australia and New Zealand. “Here is an opportunity to somehow reduce dependence on imports if we can actually increase domestic production,” says Schmit, and it also means that there could be new marketing opportunities, like the creation of ‘a label for “sheep grazed with solar energy”.
But before farmers can find these economic or business opportunities, they must start negotiating logistics with the big solar companies in charge of these panels. Cornell has already researched examining how solar grazing reduces greenhouse gas emissions and the opportunities and benefits of solar grazing partnerships. But a sheep farmer friend of Schmit explained to him some of the challenges of the system.
For individual farmers, coordinating with large multinational industrial solar companies can be daunting. “While we were having this conversation, I said, ‘Looks like you need a co-op,’” he says. Cooperatives, or cooperatives, are member-owned organizations that work to meet common economic (and in some cases social) needs. Rather than having individual farmers negotiating pastures or figuring out the logistics related to transportation, timing, insurance, and all the infrastructure needed to get their sheep to solar panels, these details could be worked out collectively. , for the benefit of all farmers in the region. region wishing to forge such partnerships.
The Cornell Project and USDA (which will also collaborate with the American Solar Grazing Association) is a three-year $ 500,000 venture on how to develop these solar grazing opportunities through a farmer-owned organization and then, based on the interests of the farmers involved, what marketing opportunities might come from the expansion of sheep cattle in this way. Based solely on New York State’s energy goals, Schmit states that “there aren’t enough sheep in New York State to graze all those acres” of solar panels. money but for new farmers to enter this space.
The project will focus on the Northeast, with farmers in New York, Pennsylvania and New England states, and will begin with what Schmit calls “Co-op Development 101,” including talking to potential members. , by determining their needs and desires from such an organization and the definition of a collective vision of this type of company. From there it could be negotiating contracts with solar developers or collectively buying equipment in a more profitable way, or then determining the market for that livestock and even building their own processing plant. .
Although this project focuses on the northeast, Schmit hopes it can become a guide for sheep farmers across the country, so that they can form their own regional cooperatives without having to start from scratch. These co-ops may be different – the average Colorado sheep farm is different from the one in New York – but they could look to the models and regulations that this project sets out, and some of the USDA funding will go towards developing these co-ops. . kind of tools, for financial analysis or just the process of starting a co-op, that others can use.