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

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)

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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