Farmers across North America and the world are more concerned with crop diversification than ever.

Commodity markets have been incredibly volatile in recent years. If weather was not already enough to keep farmers and investors guessing, global markets and worldwide politics seem to have as much—or even more—of an impact on commodity prices. Often farmland has been in a family for a century or more and, as farmers age, it can be difficult to hold onto land that they want to pass on to future generations that is unproductive and not generating revenue. Not to mention that switching up crops is good for the soil.

According to BigAg there are many benefits gained by diversifying crops, such as warding off pests, improving soil structure and reducing erosion, among others. In addition, due to the volatility of commodity markets, farmers are looking to alternate crops and land uses to reduce or spread out their overall risk. Farmers hoping to keep land that is unproductive—or that they are currently unable to farm for a variety of reason—in the family have few viable options.

Solar provides a great option to add in the crop diversification mix.

Solar farms can be constructed on difficult-to-farm or unproductive farm plots, providing an alternate “crop” that adds to a farmer’s diverse portfolio of income.

Benefits include:

Stability – Solar is not subject to commodity market volatility. While it is affected by the weather (it requires sunshine) it is staggering the amount of electricity that can be generated by a solar array.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists:

The amount of energy from the sun that reaches Earth each day is enormous. All the energy stored in Earth’s reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas is equal to the energy from only 20 days of sunshine. While desert areas such as Arizona and Nevada get more sun than other parts of the United States, most areas receive enough sunshine to make solar energy practical.

Electricity to power the farm – Electricity generated by a solar array can power energy intensive farm operations such as drying equipment, well pumps, electric fences, and others. Reducing electricity costs can be a big benefit to improve revenue for farmers. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Solar power is often less expensive than extending power lines.”

Produces Diversified “Yield” Through Land Rental Payments — Land that is not being farmed for a variety of reasons—whether difficult and costly to farm due to shape of plot, slope of plot—or in situations where farmers are unsure of which crop will yield returns in a certain political or financial climate, can chose solar as a viable option. Rental payments to lease the land for solar can provide income for many years.

And solar can be a very lucrative “crop”. According to Greenbiz, in North Carolina in 2015, “the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association explained that solar companies are paying almost triple the state’s average rent for crop and pasture land.”

Preserves land for future generations — Solar provides an ideal way to utilize land while keeping it productive and generating revenue. Solar can also help land regenerate by reducing soil erosion and enhancing soil conditioning through the planting of ground cover. In some regions, crops are grown among solar arrays. Pollinator gardens can also be planted among solar arrays to improve the production in nearby crops.

According to Southeast Energy News, which argues solar and agriculture are complementary and not competing, in North Carolina where farmers hope to pass their farms on to their families:

“… solar is good for farmers, providing an economic boost, restoring wildlife habitat, and helping to ensure land that’s been in the family for generations doesn’t get sold to development.”

According to Dawson Singletary, a farmer who raises cattle, peanuts and other crops there and leased several acres of his land to a solar developer,

“If this thing ties up the land for 35 years, that’s going to bypass our children, where they can’t sell this land,’ he said. ‘That’s going to carry on to our grandchildren.”

Return to farmland – Solar farms can be easily returned to farmland, requiring no special equipment and causing no pollution or lasting damage to the land. Furthermore, metals and solar panels and other components have value on the secondary market.

Doesn’t require huge amounts of land – A solar farm can be constructed on small, difficult to farm plots of as little as 20 acres. And since there are no input costs, the “crop” will add immediately to the bottom line.

It’s important for farmers and landowners, however, to understand the risks associated with developing in agricultural environments, so they can protect their agricultural assets.  Choosing the right development partner is a must.

According to AgWeb (Farm Journal) citing a report from the Unites States Department of Agriculture, the average price per acre of land in the Midwest and Corn Belt region is around $6,350 per acre (2015). Any development must not compromise these valuable assets in any way.

Some things to consider unique to agriculture include:

Drain tiles – Especially critical in the Midwest where rain and melting is plentiful in the spring, along with extremely flat terrain, field drain tiles have become a necessity. They allow farmers to get into fields earlier in the spring for planting and control the amount of moisture that soaks plants roots at critical times.

According to an article from Successful Farming, field tiling can improve yields by fifty percent—reducing soil compaction, plant stress and disease, among other benefits.

According to Agriculture.com, drain tile systems can cost around $500-$600 per acre. Keeping drain tile systems in place without damaging them is essential to farm operations.

Soil concerns – Soil composition is paramount and any operation that compromises topsoil has the ability to greatly damage it for years to come. Any tilling of the land or other development must take into account topsoil preservation and stratification of nutrients.

Impact on land – As farmers consider alternate uses for the land, they must consider what kind future impact it will have on the land. How can they generate revenue today, but ensure they will be able to redeploy it to agriculture in the future? In addition to soil concerns mentioned above, farmers must consider the impact on adjacent land for access and maintenance that will be required for the land and its assets.

Decommissioning – Farmers and landowners in agricultural areas have a unique set of concerns around the decommissioning of the land back into agricultural use. As food is grown on the land, or livestock use it for grazing, landowners will want to be sure the land is not polluted and can be quickly and easily brought back to its natural state.

Those considering a solar development project in agricultural areas must choose a partner who understands the risks unique to these environments. Sunrise Energy Ventures of Minnesota is that partner. We are a team of industry experts who understand agricultural goals and can help clients achieve them through our own proven solar development best practices. We know how to find ideal land for solar projects and can work with local communities and authorities to bring projects to fruition—creating win-win solutions. We help clients create agreements that address the many concerns discussed above, so landowners and stake holders can feel good about their sustainable solar development project which can provide diversification to their operations, stable revenue, and safe use of land for years to come, preserving it for future generations.

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