As a result of dropping crop prices, farmers in the United States are turning to solar energy as another means of income. The trade war between the U.S. and China and the ensuing tariffs has caused a reduced demand in American crops. Revenue on traditional cash crops such as soybeans and corn have dropped by almost 30% for some farmers. To make things worse, record rainfall prevented them from planting a decent crop.
In some cases, solar companies are stepping in. For a pair of farmers in the northern state of Minnesota, this helps them to make up for the shortfall. A local utility company has agreed to pay them roughly US$14,000 annually for the next 22 years to operate solar panels on 15 acres of their land. There are two options for farmers to add solar power on their land: they can lease land for energy companies to direct electricity to the grid; alternatively, they can install their own solar panels to lower their electricity bills. According to farmers and renewable energy advocates, either method can earn over US$1,000 a month in improved margins.
Rob Davis, a director with Fresh Energy, a nonprofit that has worked with farmers to add solar power to their operations, said that there is a growing interest among farmers to improve their income streams. Despite the benefits, though, some farmers are wary of signing over their land to power companies, as they would usually have to agree to lease the land for years at a time. For example, in the case that crop prices rebound, rent from power companies could fall behind what they could be growing crops on that land. Faced with the worst downturn in decades, however, many farmers are willing to take the risk. Statistics from the American Farm Bureau Federation indicate that farm bankruptcies increased by 13% in the first half of this year to the highest level since 2012.
Renewable energy is becoming an effective way to diversify income in an unstable economy. In the past decade, energy companies sought to install wind turbines on farms, and this has paved the way for the advance of solar installations across the Farm Belt. Of the roughly two million U.S. farms, about 15,000 of them contained wind turbines in 2017, based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; that’s a significant increase from about 9,054 in 2012.
On a smaller scale, plenty of farms are using smaller installations of solar power to heat buildings or power equipment. The same USDA data showed that roughly 9,000 farms used solar equipment as of 2017.
Renewable energy proves to be more than just another environmentally-conscious option to power the planet. For American farmers, solar power provides an opportunity for diverse income streams during a volatile economy. Like the wave of wind energy that preceded the solar power sweep, it’s interesting to see that green energy in the United States often finds its home on farms.