The Rush for Solar Farms Could Make It Harder for Young Farmers to Access Land | Young Farmers Are Competing With Solar Farms for Land

The Rush for Solar Farms Could Make It Harder for Young Farmers to Access Land

Millions of acres of solar panels are needed to reach renewable energy goals. With established farmers being offered big bucks to turn ag into energy, will the next generation of farmers face another hurdle and be priced out?

Sheep grazing under an agrivoltaic solar panel system. (Photo courtesy of Julie Bishop, Solar Sheep LLC)

Sheep grazing under an agrivoltaic solar panel system. (Photo courtesy of Julie Bishop, Solar Sheep LLC)

The front windows of Mindy Ward’s southeastern Minnesota home look out on farmland that is “flat, flat,” she says, “completely flat.” On the day we speak, the ground is frosted in snow, blinding white under the bright afternoon sun. She says the orderly, square parcels that stretch over most of Dodge County are “ideal for growing corn and soybeans” and are “beautiful” in their bounty and vastness.

A few years ago, that wide, flat land caught the attention of a San Diego-based solar developer, EDF Renewables. A handful of Ward’s neighbors agreed to lease their land so EDF could build a $256 million utility-scale solar project on 1,800 acres.

The Byron Solar project, as it’s known, will be Minnesota’s second-largest solar farm and will produce 200 megawatts of electricity, enough to annually power more than 30,000 homes, ultimately helping Minnesota achieve its goal of 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2040.

“Are we really understanding what we trade off when we put solar panels on farmland? We should be asking those questions.”

As the world braces itself for the 1.5-degrees Celsius warming mark and climate messages from the science community grow increasingly dire, many states have similar plans to shed reliance on fossil fuels, and President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act funnels billions toward achieving net-zero emissions in the next 30 years. To reach that target, a 2021 U.S. Department of Energy study indicated that as many as 10 million acres of land will have to provide solar generation. American Farmland Trust (AFT) estimates 83 percent of new solar built in the next few decades would likely be sited on agricultural acreage.

While Ward supports a clean energy transition, she is upset that steel and aluminum solar panels will replace bucolic fields in her community. “We need to put this on marginal land,” she says, “land that is not ideal for food production or purposes related to agriculture.”

She is even more frustrated that such a large project was planned and executed privately, with little input from the farmers and other rural residents who are proud of the region’s agricultural heritage. We’re completely breaking the cycle of rural America by doing this,” she says, adding that the long-term contracts—often binding for as many as 30 years—with solar developers disrupts “the cycle of transferring land to the next generation.” (EDF did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, nor did other prominent utility-scale solar developers.)

No one will feel that disruption more than young farmers. “Land access is the No. 1 challenge they are facing, and this challenge is even greater for farmers of color,” says Holly Rippon-Butler, land campaign director for the National Young Farmers Coalition. There’s only so much land available, and solar developers can offer far more money than farmers can. “Are we really understanding what we trade off when we put solar panels on farmland? We should be asking those questions,” says Rippon-Butler.

She, along with organizations including The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and AFT, want solar developers to better engage with communities so that locals can help identify top-notch acreage that should be set aside for future farmers, or, perhaps, site both solar and agriculture. This isn’t an easy proposition, though, as land owners will likely have the ultimate say.

Half of all U.S. farmland is expected to change hands in the next 15 years, according to AFT. Farmers are increasingly aging out of the work, and leasing to a solar company can be financially rewarding and provide peace of mind, knowing the land will continue to produce a valuable resource.

At a recent conference hosted by the National Farmers Union, one Montana farmer boasted of the “nice retirement plan” he has in place after signing a contract with a solar developer, while a Michigan farmer grew emotional when he shared that he was considering leasing his land for solar rather than transferring it to his son to farm. He said the decision was “tearing my guts out.”

The Michigan farmer’s son, however, had described the decision as a “no-brainer” and encouraged him to lease the land. The agreement would secure about $1,200 per acre per year with escalating payments over 35 years. For comparison, a young farmer who rents the land might be able to offer $300 per acre.

One farmer shouted from the crowd: “Do it!”

Crops grow next to solar panels in an agrivoltaic system. (Photo credit: Jason Whalen, Fauna Creative)

Crops grow next to solar panels in an agrivoltaic system. (Photo credit: Jason Whalen, Fauna Creative)

Farmers Outbid

At that same meeting, a few farmers suggested to the Michigan farmer that he could always go find other land if he didn’t want to give up farming. Sounds easy. It’s typically not, especially if you’re a newcomer.

There are many competing interests for land, far beyond solar: Foreign investors and private equity firms can easily outbid farmers. And while many farmers inherit land, Rippon-Butler says 78 percent of today’s young farmers didn’t grow up in farming. “[They] struggle to break into this grower network,” she says. “That can have particular consequences in terms of racial equity, in that 98 percent of agricultural land is owned by white landowners.”

The Young Farmers Coalition is advocating for a $2.5 billion, 10-year investment in the 2023 Farm Bill that would go toward securing 1 million acres of land for young farmers, with an emphasis on “making sure underserved producers are the priority,” says Rippon-Butler.

While that could help with land access, the renewable energy transition may take millions of acres out of production. Several people interviewed for this story described how solar developers will often approach landowners by visiting their farms or sending letters offering lucrative deals that are shielded by nondisclosure agreements. (In advertisements in agricultural trade magazines, one solar company entices landowners with $800 to $1,500 per acre per year with incremental increases.)

“We know that solar developers tend to favor prime farmland that is near existing interconnection and infrastructure . . . because it is flat, sunny, and clear,” says Samantha Levy, AFT’s conservation and climate policy manager. “If they have to do anything related to grading, making sure that everything is level, or clearing, then it just increases their costs.”

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Levy says the current build-out of solar energy tends to be “market driven,” i.e., what can be accomplished without a lot of upfront investment, rather than driven by where communities might like to place the projects.

Cutting Into ‘Prime Farmland’

The terms “prime farmland” and “marginal farmland” are often repeated in discussions about where to place new solar panels. One has a relatively clear definition. The other, not so much.

Prime farmland, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is land that has the best “physical and chemical characteristics” for growing crops. Marginal farmland is less defined, however—it may be hilly, it may have poor soil—and classifying it as such can be a fairly subjective decision.

Ward, in Dodge County, is among a chorus of farmers and conservationists arguing that solar projects should go on “marginal land” or, better yet, in polluted lands known as brownfields and other nonproductive spaces.

“The lack of planning of these projects is going to alienate people who consider themselves blue in red America. These decisions are being made by people who have no knowledge of agriculture or agricultural business.”

So much land in the Midwest and Northeast, and in Ward’s area of Minnesota, is considered prime, however, that developers have found workarounds when confronted with the argument that solar expansion stands to decrease the availability of prime land. For instance, the Byron Solar project was able to get an exemption from regulators by arguing that 1,800 acres was a very small percentage of the prime farmland in Dodge County.

It’s also worth noting that the 10 million acres that could soon host renewable energy projects totals only about 3 percent of total U.S. agricultural acreage. Anna Dirkswager, the Midwest regional director of climate and energy at TNC, says that may sound inconsequential, but if a lot of those acres “are in your backyard, then that’s going to matter, right?”

Agricultural communities, are, after all, little ecosystems, and they include a range of other businesses, including seed suppliers, machine shops, and trucking companies. If a sizable chunk of business disappears, the whole system wobbles. Also, with less land availability, land prices may go up, putting it even further out of reach for up-and-coming farmers.

Ward, who hopes her nephew and children might follow the family farming tradition, worries that if projects continue to lack meaningful engagement with communities it could sour an increasingly rare slice of America.

The lack of planning of these projects is going to alienate people who consider themselves blue in red America,” she says. “These decisions are being made by people who have no knowledge of agriculture or agricultural business. And there is a perception that everyone who lives in rural America doesn’t think there’s a benefit to renewable energy. I don’t think that’s the case at all. There are others who believe, as I do, that there are benefits.”

An overhead view of solar panels installed in a farm field. (Photo credit: Fauna Creative)

An overhead view of solar panels installed in a farm field. (Photo credit: Fauna Creative)

Community Pushback

Potential political shifts aside, Dirkswager of TNC says developers who seek out project sites solely based on how close land is to transmission lines, rather than factoring in whole communities, are more likely to face community pushback. “That’s a big deal,” she says, especially with ambitious renewable energy goals looming in the near future.

Last year, TNC released a report called “Power of Place—West,” which identified how Western states could achieve a rapid buildup of clean energy while taking into account the priorities of agriculture, as well as Indigenous and other rural communities. Dirkswager says TNC, in partnership with AFT, is doing a similar analysis for the rest of the country, with the hopes of figuring out if nationwide net-zero emissions can be achieved while protecting the most productive farmland.

Levy, with ATF, says when agriculture and solar developers work together, fewer “speed bumps” arise, and there are more potential benefits to the wider community. These proactive meetings could, perhaps, look at community ownership of the project, something many farmers expressed interest in during the National Farmers Union panel.

Some local governments, though, are trying to get out ahead of solar projects before they even arrive. For instance, after a growing number of local bans on renewable energy projects were passed in Illinois, last month Governor J.B. Pritzker signed legislation preventing counties from enacting those preemptive local ordinances and nullifying the ones already in place. In Iowa, “setback” laws that require wind and solar projects to be built far back from roads have also popped up. And in upstate New York, a small city mulled banning all solar projects on prime farmland.

Dirkswager says in some communities, the tension around solar development creates a space for misinformation that can malign the projects. “The type of information that’s spreading—like, ‘If you live near a wind turbine, you’re likely to have cancer’—is not factual,” she says, “and it stirs fear.”

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Furthermore, Dirkswager adds, outright bans on renewables can prohibit older farmers from accessing money that they need to retire. “And for young farmers, if we put these ordinances [in place] without thinking about how to do these agreements in the first place, we’re not giving people a chance to have autonomy over their lands,” she says.

Of course, if they’re given the choice, some of those farmers may take advantage of models that combine solar and agriculture on the same land.

Rise of Agrivoltaics

On a recent afternoon, Julie Bishop commuted around south New Jersey refreshing the water source for sheep at one solar farm and checking on another site to gauge whether vegetation was tall enough for the sheep to graze there. (Not quite yet.) Bishop created Solar Sheep in 2014 to offer vegetation management around the growing number of small, community-based solar arrays, and she also sells the animals as pets and for their meat.

This is one example of “agrivoltaics,” a strategic combination of photovoltaic solar arrays and agriculture that tends to involve either traditional crops grown alongside panels, or livestock grazing around them.

Bishop says sheep and solar are “well suited” to sharing the same land. While cattle can be clumsy and goats will chew through wiring and jump on panels, sheep just mosey and eat, and there’s no need to even raise the height of the panels as is sometimes required for cattle.

Bishop, who is on the advisory board of the American Solar Grazers Association (ASGA), says interest in matching sheep with solar arrays has grown tremendously in recent years. ASGA’s membership soared from under 10 to 500 in five years, with about 25 percent of the members representing solar development. Still, the sheep industry is small and contributes to less than 1 percent of U.S. livestock industry sales, so it’s not realistic to think millions of acres can generate clean energy while hosting flocks of sheep. At least not yet.

Rippon-Butler, with the National Young Farmers Coalition, says while agrivoltaics may be of interest for the next generation of farmers, land access remains the persistent hurdle.

“Many young farmers don’t own land and they certainly don’t own land that’s large enough to be attractive to solar projects,” she says.

Her organization supports a clean energy future, but the group’s core priority is ensuring that young farmers gain access to land. “You can’t eat a solar panel,” Rippon-Butler says with a laugh.

And if part of the climate solution includes regenerative farming practices and more local, low-carbon food systems, the young farmers of today will have to help build that framework. Solar leases that lock in land for 30 years, she worries, which may only make that harder.

Anne Marshall-Chalmers is an investigative journalist at The War Horse and a former staff reporter with Civil Eats. A California native, she spent several years working as a reporter, writer, and audio producer in Tennessee and Kentucky before returning to the Bay Area to earn a master’s degree from the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Atlas Obscura, USA Today, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, NPR, CalMatters, Inside Climate News, and Louisville Magazine. She reports on climate change, agriculture, public health, and the spaces where these topics intersect. Read more >

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  1. rick
    this was a great report, more people should see this land has always been the most important assets we have. i am concerned when i hear major corp. and farmers buy land. since it is obviously not wanted for farming. people who love money must have the mentality of kindergartners. i have no idea how they manage to run big business. only my opinion.. .
  2. Craig Sams
    Has anyone compared the profitability (and the total carbon footprint) of using land to grow soy or corn for biodiesel or ethanol fuel to solar? Which delivers the best return of 20 years? Growing soybeans for truck fuel is hard work. Leasing land to harvest sunshine frees the farmer up for other activity less wasteful than growing food for burning
  3. . gepetto
    What makes agricultural land expensive is not wind or solar farms but the lavish agricultural subsidies in the Farm Bill, which are capitalized into land prices. Remove those subsidies and agricultural land would become much more affordable for young potential farmers. Blaming renewable energy is just hypocrisy.
    • Walter
      What are the lavish current subsidies to which you refer? Please be specific. The only subsidy available that I know about are discounts for certain types of crop insurance. Of course much depends on what type of commodity you grow. Thanks
  4. Parke
    Solar energy is a big part of any climate-friendly energy strategy. The "10 million acres" for solar sounds big at first, but that includes non-agricultural land. The USA has about 890 million acres of agricultural land, of which I think only 250 million acres are crops. The article focuses on crop land under threat from solar development, but most solar development is elsewhere. What percentage of crop land really is under thread from solar development? Even the American Farmland Trust link seems more balanced about solar. Does Civil Eats seem quite negative about solar in this article?
  5. Colleen Hollinger
    In 2022, over 4 million acres of farm land were subsidized by us in CRP set-aside, per the fsa.usda, The bigger subsidy monster is our US ethanol requirement, where 41% of field corn goes into making supposed "cleaner fuels" and inflating ag land prices The site where the Byron MN solar is planned is prime prairie land. That's what was there first and a permitting requirement of this site is that the land be restored back to native prairie habitat. The plant labeled as a crop in photo #2, the common milkweed, would indeed be called that by our Monarchs. Just because we're here now doesn't mean we were first and only.
  6. Sarah
    In Greene County, NY, big Solar Companies are on a quest to clear cut the entire region and turn what is the State's bread basket into an industrial wasteland of eyesores and depressed property. Beautiful rural communities are getting deforested and displaced. Species are getting pushed to the brink. Imagine you have your dream home that you worked your whole life for, great neighbors, on the edge of pristine forest with a healthy ecosystem, streams and all. Then, these companies come in, clear cut it all up to your property line, ruining not only your quality of life and the ecosystem (also, the animals leave but the ticks stay!) but in turn destroying the value of your home making it unsellable. Contaminating your well water, causing flooding and ironically, contributing to the rise of greenhouse gases (and electric bills) by the mass deforestation. There is absolutely nothing positive about these solar farms. Keep them in depressed industrial areas or over parking lots where they belong. NOTHING good will come out of uprooting communities with these nightmares. Palms are certainly getting greased to make these things happen. No one wants them! We have a supreme court judge who just gave the green light to decimate an entire neighborhood in Athens, NY. It's despicable.
    We NEED to get away from fossil fuels by creating clean energy solutions. And younger farmers ALREADY have trouble accessing land and that is a problem. But there ARE solutions! In particular farmers without land can make grazing arrangements with these solar farms. Some already do! The farms need to keep the vegetation low enough that it does not shade the panels. There are ways to deal with vegetation that are harmful to the environment (herbicides, tillage, mowing low to the ground). Managed grazing can provide a regenerative solution that increases the climate benefits of solar farming AND provides access to land for ranchers at the same time. The ones I know of get paid to provide this service to solar farms and also from selling the meat, wool, and other products.

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