An Electric Debate Surrounds Solar’s Emergence in Rural America

“There’s a force afoot that I hear almost no discussion of in agriculture,” said Bill Boehm, former Curious Plot advisor.

“Ten miles down the road from me, 1,200 acres of what was farmland is now a solar field, and it’s happening all around the country with little or no public discussion. Every energy company in the country is trying to figure out how it can get into alternative energy production, and the footprint for solar versus the footprint for wind is enormously different,” said Boehm.

As a former senior vice president with The Kroger Company and current member of the Neogen Corporation, GLK Foods and American Farmland Trust boards, Boehm often surfaces rising trends and insights in the food and ag industry during Curious Plot Board of Advisor roundtable discussions. This time, it was bringing to light a newly emerging competitor for land: solar farms.

In 2020, solar power accounted for 3% of the total electricity production in the United States. The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently predicted that figure will rise to 20% by 2050.

With that amount of growth, this is an interesting topic to dig into. On one hand, you have farmland owners making more money from energy companies by installing solar panels than if they had used the land for crops.

On the other hand, you have  communities digging in to keep these large-scale industrial solar farms out of their area. Residents see the potential for declining property values and the loss of available farmland as threats to their livelihoods and legacy of their family businesses. These solar installations pose a perceived threat to wildlife preservation, soil health and drainage issues.

Not many farmers want to look out and see thousands of acres of solar panels, and their rural communities may not have proper fire and disaster recovery plans in place for such infrastructure to be added to the land.

David Parker, Curious Plot executive vice president and Board of Advisors member, highlighted another specific concern of farmers: If one farmer gets that much money, think about the position they will be in to purchase future land and the possibility it would be used for the installation of more solar panels.

“Who is going to tell a farmer he can’t sell his ground for two to three times the normal price per acre?” asked Parker.

Some see this as a lifeline to farmers who are grasping for ways to keep their family farming legacy alive. Supporters of such projects are adamant that such renewable energy efforts are critical to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and they will provide an income source to landowners and rural communities.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the next two to three years. European farmers have embraced this, and now 10% of the total energy produced in the European Union is derived through solar power.

There are some instances where specialty crop growers have solar panels and crops co-existing in the same fields. A lot of thinking and work remains to be done on if or how this would be possible for farmers with large row crop operations.

It has become increasingly clear that farmers and the land they steward are faced with the difficult challenge of balancing the needs of providing sources of food, feed, fiber and fuel. The agriculture industry’s grappling with how to strike the right balance of a limited and shrinking supply of land with the demands for these essentials that will continue to be a large and strategic undertaking.

As with most issues facing food and agriculture, I expect an impassioned debate with strong arguments from both sides will persist for years to come. It was not too long ago when wind turbines were popping up across the Corn Belt like volunteer corn in a field with no pre-herbicide. Now, its solar’s turn to heat up the conversation, and farmers across the country will be watching closely as the race for renewables heats up in rural America.

Read more insights from our Board of Advisors.