At a time when per acre farm revenue is down, development pressure on farmland is up and hundreds of family farms are lost each year, a growing number of farmers and rural communities are discovering that solar provides a surprising and welcome boost to the increasingly challenging economics of agribusiness.
There are few effective tools for farm preservation apart from larger government farm preservation payments or increased tax breaks for farmers, which take a bite out of local and state tax revenues. But Solar on farmland under a 25-year lease can pay farmers four or five times more per acre than corn, beans or other crops, and preserve farmland. By leasing acreage to a solar project, farmers generate extra revenue to keep the farm in the family for the next generation and rural communities save on preservation payments and gain tax revenues.
The benefits of solar for agricultural communities go beyond providing an additional revenue stream. In the face of challenging rural economics, solar is a comprehensive tool for both preserving and improving farmland in both the short- and long-term. The catch? Solar developers must use well-developed sustainable land-use techniques throughout project development.
Solar growth meets agricultural challenges
There are roughly 1,350 square miles of agricultural land near existing and planned utility-scale solar projects in the U.S. That number is bound to increase as more farmers turn to renewable energy projects for additional sources of income. At the same time, agricultural communities are facing severe challenges like topsoil degradation and diminishing pollinator populations – U.S. topsoil is eroding ten times faster than it can be replaced, and last winter, beekeepers reported a 40% loss in bee colonies.
As solar and agriculture continue to intersect, project developers can encourage farmers to adopt solar by showing how solar can not only provide a new revenue stream, but also be the solution to many of these challenges. By implementing sustainable land-use best practices during development, solar developers and contractors can help farmers protect their crops, communities and livelihoods.
From the ground up
An IPCC report warns that current levels of global soil degradation present a threat to humanity’s ability to feed itself. As 95% of the world’s food is grown in the uppermost layer of soil, it’s clear topsoil is one of the most critical factors in sustainable agriculture. Not only that, but topsoil provides other incalculable services for cropland health such as water filtration.
Following existing ground contours without grading or topsoil removal is the first aspect of farmland solar that uniquely works for long-term agricultural land preservation. Avoiding concrete collars around the array posts and opting for posts driven into the undisturbed soil as familiar to farmers as fence posts pounded in from the back of pickup track allows the topsoil to remain. Finally, unlike many other farm facilities, solar development can offer decommissioning bonds to remove solar equipment and pull up posts at the end of the project’s lifespan to return fertile farmland to the owner.
Leaving surrounding vegetation intact and planting deep-rooted, grass and ground cover under arrays can also prevent topsoil erosion by allowing the underlying root system to stabilize soil layers. The land underneath the solar arrays is then able to lie fallow and undisturbed for the duration of the project, while the organic content of the soil builds year-by-year from ground cover, which restore the nutrients in the soil for future use and not only preserves but improves its value as farmland.
The economic benefits of letting land lay fallow has a ripple effect throughout the community. Federal and state agricultural programs pay hundreds of millions each year to keep farmland out of production to improve soil health and prevent erosion. But leasing land for projects is much more profitable for farmers and accomplishes the same thing without the government payments, allowing states to put that money back into local schools, parks and the economy.
Seeding the future
Sustainable land-use tactics can address another pressing challenge for farmers: declining pollinator populations. About 23% of agricultural production in the U.S. is dependent on pollination. Through their vital role in agriculture, pollinators create about $24 billion in economic growth annually. Solar developers can help farmers recoup the value that pollinators bring to surrounding farmland using sustainable land-use development practices.
A 2.6 megawatt (MW) solar farm at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania is outfitted with pollinator-friendly seeding that blooms all year to provide year-round habitat and beehives containing over 60,000 honey bees. Because a single honey bee can forage five miles in each direction, the project promotes up to 100 square miles of pollinator health in a dense farming region of Pennsylvania.
Retaining overgrown brush is another inexpensive and simple sustainable land-use practice solar developers can use to provide habitat for native pollinators, which can be up to ten times more effective at pollinating crops than honey bees. Due to habitat loss, some farmers are tasked with importing commercial honey bees to pollinate their crops, which can cost up to $200 per hive. By safeguarding overgrown shrubbery around the project site, solar developers can support native pollinator habitats and cut costs for farmers.
Adding solar to the community toolshed
Agricultural communities are witnessing how the benefits of solar development extend beyond the farm’s property lines to their surrounding communities. At a time when rural counties are feeling the financial pinch, particularly where “green” or “farmland” assessments are costly, solar development can boost tax revenues without adding costs for roads, sewer, water or police. Unlike any public program or land development option, solar development, with sustainable land-use best practice development tactics, offers both preservation of farmland and sound rural community economics for a guaranteed 25 years.
Wide-scale incorporation of sustainable land-use best practices is key to unlocking opportunities for solar development within agricultural communities. By using solar as a tool to not only generate revenue but also support land preservation and crop health, developers can help farmers recognize that solar and agribusiness go hand-in-hand. Sustainable land-use is necessary for the continued growth of the solar industry, as well as the health of agricultural communities and everyone who depends on their crops.
Written by Brent Alderfer, CEO and co-founder of Community Energy, Inc.