Here Comes the Sun

As solar panels crop up on prime agricultural land, farmers and regulators respond.

Photo of Seth Gardner’s solar panels courtesy of UVM Extension.

Written By

Suzanne Podhaizer

Written on

February 22 , 2017

Driving around Vermont, people are treated to all kinds of pastoral views. There are acres of cornfields, apple orchards with boughs bending under the weight of ripe fruit, and Holsteins looking as placid as the ones on a Ben & Jerry’s label.

But while the photographs they make are charming, those tassle-topped corn plants might have been sprayed with Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, and it’s possible that manure from that picturesque Holstein herd could be leaching into Lake Champlain.

In farming, as in the rest of life, “pretty” is not always synonymous with “ethical,” “well-managed,” or “thoughtful.” And on the flip side, sometimes the best-managed pieces of land—ones on which the owners are committed to feeding the soil, building community, and producing nutrient-dense products—don’t happen to look uniformly quaint or charming.

On a stretch of Route 7 in New Haven, Anna and Ben Freund of Open View Farm make maple syrup and run a diversified livestock operation. On the 180 acres of land they lease, there’s also a 17-acre spread of a novel crop—solar panels.

From an aesthetic perspective, the panels don’t match the bucolic vision of the Green Mountains to the east. But those who take a closer look might notice something surprising: beneath the silicon cells, which glisten in the light, is a herd of sheep.

The animals, mainly Tunis-Dorset crosses, are being raised to sell as organic lamb. The wooly creatures graze the land beneath the panels, keeping the grasses and clovers from growing up around the installation. In addition, the array—owned by Cross Pollination, Inc., which also owns the farm—provides the sheep with much-needed shelter from the sun.

It’s a modern, and increasingly common, symbiosis. As energy costs rise, along with concerns about climate change, more farms are turning to renewable sources to power their own operations. Some convert used cooking oil into biodiesel, some put up a wind turbine or two, and some tack solar panels onto the south-facing roof of an existing building.

When there’s no appropriate building for solar panels—or if the farmer desires to make some extra cash by selling excess energy to the grid—the panels might be erected in fields that before were used for growing crops, pasturing animals, or making hay. If the farmers are leasing land—as in the case of Anna and Ben at Open View—they might need to adapt to a landowner’s wish to establish solar on the property.

In some parts of the country, farmers are simply leasing out large swaths of land directly to solar companies, and making significantly more than they could growing food. In a 2016 article by Bloomberg’s Joe Ryan, entitled “Solar Power More Lucrative than Crops at Some US Farms,” the author talks of a grower in North Carolina who swapped out crops on 34 of his 530 acres and is earning more from that parcel than ever before.

But putting solar panels on agricultural land can be controversial: after all, with a growing world population, and concerns about the cost of food for animals and humans alike, taking land out of agricultural production may seem like a no-no. And in Vermont, there is the chance that many of the bucolic landscapes beloved by tourists will be seen as “marred” by solar panels (just as there is concern that some of our mountain ranges are being aesthetically spoiled by wind turbines).

Some find the trend very concerning. Lisa Kaiman, owner of Jersey Girls Dairy in Chester, is a big fan of solar—she has a newly installed array on her barn, which will soon provide all of the power her farm needs. But she is skeptical about planting the panels in fields. When people do this, she posits, they aren’t thinking ahead. Even pastures that aren’t prime agricultural land can be very valuable for farming, especially for the production of hay. Lisa notes that if land is taken out of pasture production in favor of solar, it could ultimately lead to feed shortages and force farmers to purchase fodder that is lower in quality or comes from further afield, to their detriment and that of their customers.

In November 2016, based on concerns about Vermont meadows being converted to seas of solar panels, the Vermont Public Service Board created some new rules for net metering—the process by which people are paid for putting electricity back into the grid. These rules, which went into effect on January 1 of this year, are intended to deter people from putting panels on ag land by favoring installations on rooftops, landfills, and gravel pits. Those who choose “previously disturbed sites” will receive extra money for their solar energy, while those who put medium-scale arrays on “non-preferred sites”—such as prime farmland, productive forests, or necessary wildlife habitats—will be financially penalized. The Board will not allow the building of larger arrays—those that generate between 150 and 500 kilowatts—on such “non-preferred sites.”

These rules could prevent people from rushing into solar in order to make a quick buck at the expense of farming or the environment. For years, Green Mountain Power had awarded a premium to people who generated solar on their land and sold it to the grid, regardless of where the panels were sited. Now, unless the location meets the rules, that will no longer be the case.

The new guidelines—and the lower power net metering payments that have resulted—may dampen people’s enthusiasm enough for them to make prudent decisions for the future of their farmland.

However, for those with suitable sites to work with, there’s a hot-off-the-press resource. The “Guide to Farming-Friendly Solar,” written by Kimberly Hagen of UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Alex DePillis of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, and Chris Sargent of Two Rivers Ottoqueechee Regional Planning Commission, was created to provide farmers with a range of information as they consider adding solar panels to their buildings or land.

In the six-page document, the authors address the cost savings that ag operations can garner by generating their own power through a variety of methods, or by installing energy-saving equipment. (This may be particularly crucial for dairy farms, which have a substantial need for electricity to power coolers, milking machines, barn ventilators, and more.) The report also examines some of the ways in which Vermont farmers have added solar power to their operations without making deep cuts in their graze-able land.

At McKnight Farm in East Montpelier, for instance, Seth Gardner has to maintain a buffer zone between his organic fields and his neighbor’s conventional ones, in order to safeguard the integrity of his organic crop. By putting solar panels in that buffer, which is fortunately located near power lines, he was able to convert unused land into something beneficial.

Things are a little different at Maple Ridge Meats in Benson, where Greg Hathaway converted his family’s old dairy businesses into a beef operation. During calving season, he has pregnant cows graze around the panels and keeps yearlings there, too. He receives a monthly fee from the solar company.

For farmers, who historically struggle to make a living, any occasion to add value to their land, especially when there’s an opportunity for dual use—such as having pigs romp around in fruit orchards snacking on the drops or stationing mushroom logs near an irrigation pond—can be compelling.

The upshot of the solar panel report is that, while all of the farmers interviewed approached solar with a great deal of circumspection, all of them found ways to fold the panels into their farming operations. The pamphlet’s overall tone is cautiously optimistic, but encourages eager farmers to consider the land first.

As report author Kimberly Hagen notes, “It takes a lot of consideration and thought when good farmland is concerned, and that all options [that don’t involve the use of] prime farmland are thoroughly considered.”

The “Guide to Farming-Friendly Solar” can be found on the UVM Extension website.


About the Author

Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne Podhaizer is a cooking coach, food writer, chef, and dancer living in Burlington. She owns Farm-to-Table Consulting, a business that aims to help farmers sell more food by teaching people what to do with it once they bring it home.

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Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape ties into larger questions of sustainability and the future of our food supply.