Solar power is a new cash crop for farmers – when the price is right

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To his surprise, Ely Valdez has become a full-time solar grazer. In 2015, the Texas resident was working in the oil industry, but the jobs were precarious. He was raising sheep as a hobby and noticed that his neighbor across the street had started to develop a 100 acre solar project. Realizing that the land could serve as pasture in two ways, he made an agreement with the landowner to raise sheep to graze around the solar panels.

Today, the Valdez family owns nearly 900 sheep that graze over 1,000 acres at three sites. It has also diversified its activity to include site maintenance around large-scale solar projects. “We call it sheep paradise,” he says. “They have food and shade all day.”

Why we wrote this

The transition to renewable energy is creating a new kind of demand for rural land. Small farmers hope this will be a win-win trend – good for the environment and their own safety.

His experience parallels a growing number of American farmers growing solar power alongside crops or ranching. This is a very promising idea at a time of increasing emphasis on climate change and the need to move away from fossil fuels.

For Gregory Sigue, who owns farmland in New Iberia, Louisiana, a solar installation is a goal that could bring new income. “There hasn’t been such a lucrative opportunity,” he says, “since they started drilling for oil and gas in Louisiana.”

New Iberia, La.

Gregory Sigue can feel the sun behind his back as he points to a soy pasture behind his house. Although he had only been out in the Louisiana heat for a few minutes as he inspected his family’s 300 acres that he rents out to local farmers, loops of sweat began to accumulate around the Mr. Sigue’s tanned neck.

Mr. Sigue’s family has lived on the property in his part of southern Louisiana since his great-grandfather’s generation. In his youth, alongside his brothers and sisters, he helped to work the land.

“It taught me values,” he says.

Why we wrote this

The transition to renewable energy is creating a new kind of demand for rural land. Small farmers hope this will be a win-win trend – good for the environment and their own safety.

A winding career path included time in California as a blacksmith and later working on several green energy projects in that state. It was there, says Mr. Sigue, that a flash of inspiration came. He had always planned to return to southern Louisiana with the intention of retaining his family’s land. Why not develop a large-scale solar project on the family’s cropland?

He is now pursuing his dream, in parallel with a growing number of American farmers who are opening their reflection on the cultivation of solar energy in parallel with crops. This is a very promising idea at a time of increasing emphasis on climate change and the need to move away from fossil fuels. But Mr Sigue’s account also points to the challenges some farmers face. So far, the energy companies he has spoken with as possible partners are not offering as much money as he can get to lease land to other local farmers.

But for many farmers, a land use revolution is already underway.

“In some areas there is enormous excitement for many landowners with the possibility of having a solar project on their land as it gives them some sort of guaranteed source of income” which often beats their traditional income per acre. , explains Jordan Macknick. , the senior energy, water and land analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Gregory Sigue stands outside one of his family’s pastures in New Iberia, Louisiana on August 9, 2021. The family has worked the land for generations. Today, she rents the land from local farmers. Mr. Sigue hopes to convert part of his family’s 300 acres into a solar farm.

States creating incentives

Local policies and the growing demand from energy companies who need spaces to build are stimulating it. States such as Massachusetts, Michigan, Colorado, California, Maine, Illinois and Virginia have changed zoning laws for solar projects on cropland, and have offered tax breaks in some cases.

“Farmland is an almost perfect location for solar developers who want to develop these utility scale ground-based solar projects,” says Dr. Macknick. “Farms are flat; farms have access roads; farms have access to electricity transmission lines. They are an ideal setting.

Such projects often come in one of two forms: solar and agrivoltaic installations.

An example of a solar installation would be similar to what Mr Sigue is trying to develop on his property, with solar panels mounted on the ground, and only gravel or grass in between. Meanwhile, other landowners are moving to agro-voltaics, which involves agriculture, including integrated pollinator habitats, sheep grazing, and planting crops under solar panels.

A recent study by researchers at Oregon State University found that if American farmers could share just 1% of their farmland for clean energy – roughly 13,000 square miles – they could produce up to 20% of the country’s electricity, in a renewable manner.

Ely Valdez worked in the oil and gas industry before deciding to try his hand at a “solar grazing” business at sites near San Antonio. He partnered with a neighboring landowner who recently had a solar farm installed on his land. Their agreement allows Mr. Valdez to graze his sheep on the property.

In the minds of many farmers, the benefits of such solar projects are hard to ignore.

Where sheep can graze safely

Ely Valdez, founder and CEO of EVA Ranch and Solar Farm Services in San Antonio, is one of them. In 2015, Mr. Valdez and his family started raising sheep as a hobby. Their herd was small at first. Mr. Valdez was working in the oil and petroleum industry at the time, but his job security fluctuated with the price of a barrel.

Like Mr. Sigue, Mr. Valdez had an idea when he noticed that his neighbor across the street had started to develop a 100-acre solar project. He told the landowner that he had seen sheep grazing solar farmland on social media and offered to do the same. Mr Valdez named his price, realizing there was a profit to be made in the business, and then he and the neighboring landowner set out to place 27 sheep on the property.

It was six years ago. Today, the Valdez family owns nearly 900 sheep that graze over 1,000 acres at three sites – three in San Antonio and one in nearby Somerset, Texas. It has also branched out to include ground maintenance for large-scale solar sites across Texas, including washing solar panels and repairing roads leading to the property.

“It’s gone from a ‘what if’ idea to a small family business,” says Valdez.

Today, to his surprise, Mr. Valdez considers himself a full-time farmer and solar rancher.

“We are not landowners; we’re just providing the service, but I think it’s a win-win for both parties, ”Mr. Valdez said of their operation. “We call it the sheep paradise. They have food and shade all day.

Sell ​​or lease the land?

For some small-scale farmers, the opportunity to pair their land with solar power is ideal as they also head into retirement. The average age of the country’s farmers has increased by about a decade since 1978. Today, about a third of America’s 3.4 million farmers are at least 65 years old, according to data compiled annually by the US Department. of Agriculture.

And projects like the one Mr Sigue is trying to install on his family’s land could potentially serve as an economic lifeline for small-scale farmers struggling to compete in an increasingly consolidated industry. Today, only 36% of all cropland in the United States is operated by medium-sized farms (100 to 999 acres), up from 57% in 1982, according to USDA data.

Mr Sigue says an energy company offered only $ 400 an acre to lease and build a solar project – the same offer the company offered to neighboring landowners, he later learned, but well below the $ 650 per acre he earns renting it from local farmers. From there, every company he approached gave him an ultimatum if they were to work together: lease the land below market price, or sell it to the company for its own solar development.

Mr. Sigue hesitated at the idea. In no case did he intend to hand over his family’s assets after their lifelong investment. He knows that it is an achievement for a black Creole family from the South, like his, to keep their land for as long as they have it. By some estimates, black Americans lost about 80% of land acquired during the post-Civil War reconstruction period due to a predatory federal loan system and other forms of discrimination, including racist violence.

Income is not the only obstacle for farmers. The neighboring landowners sometimes denounce the aesthetic changes on the land. With overall farm area declining due to factors such as rising operating costs, falling crop prices and water shortages, some argue for caution in transforming land use.

“The last thing you want to do is have solar power and agriculture compete, even in a country like the United States where about two-thirds of our land is agricultural,” says Oscar Serpell, researcher at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. “Avoiding this competition is going to be essential both to preserve food production and to promote solar and wind development, and any other type of renewable development. ”

“It’s about creating this wealth here”

For his part, Mr. Sigue sees the opportunity for clean energy, cropland and jobs to happily coexist. He remembers the heyday of his family’s farming lifestyle. Their families worked hard and were pillars of the community, he said. When their farm was doing well, the people of New Iberia took advantage.

It’s about keeping Louisianans ‘money in Louisianans’ pockets, says Sigue. He fears that if big companies start developing their own solar projects on cropland, then the money that is desperately needed in a low-income state like Louisiana will be exported elsewhere.

“If you’re giving Louisianans an opportunity first, then guess what?” It is about creating this wealth here and the cartwheel of the various effects that can result from it, ”says Mr. Sigue. “There hasn’t been such a lucrative opportunity since they started drilling for oil and gas in Louisiana.”

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