by Emma Foehringer Merchant
August 19, 2019

Across the country, from California to Minnesota and North Carolina, farmers are mulling the benefits of adding solar to their land. 

The Department of Energy now provides a “Farmer’s Guide to Going Solar” on its website, answering common questions, and the Department of Agriculture offers grants for agricultural producers and rural small businesses to install renewable energy or energy efficiency systems. 

While land-use clashes between communities and renewable energy developers are still around, they seem to have mellowed. Instead, many farmers are getting in on the investment, and solar has proved to be a valuable crop.

$500 per acre

The main reason solar is already proliferating on agricultural lands is because it can provide a steady and lucrative stream of additional income for farmers.   

Chester Barnhill, a blueberry farmer in North Carolina, is working on leasing about 550 acres to solar developer Cypress Creek Renewables. When completed in 2021, the 78-megawatt project will take up a small fraction of the 3,000 to 4,000 acres Barnhill owns.

“I don’t know what else I can make this kind of money on. Maybe blueberries, but there’s a lot of risk, dealing with Mother Nature and a lot of hard work,” said Barnhill. “To me, it’s easier…to let them pay me money on this land.”

Solar leases offer farms significantly higher payouts than agriculture alone, according to a 2017 report from the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association. The organization said solar companies typically pay $500+ per acre in annual rent, while rent for pasture and crop land are typically in the range of approximately $27 to $102 per acre in the state. Based on those calculations, Barnhill would earn $275,000 per year. Cypress Creek confirmed that number is “generally in the ballpark” of what it will pay to lease the land.   

“Frequently what we’re paying in lease rates can make up — even for a small [distributed generation] project for a large farm — a meaningful augmentation of the farm’s revenue,” said Noah Hyte, executive vice president of development at Cypress Creek. “[It also] provides a little bit more stability, because it isolates them from pure exposure to soy, dairy, corn and other agricultural commodity prices, and it also provides passive income.”


As solar cordons off land on more and more farms, developers are also working to make the installations less intrusive.

Last year Cypress Creek launched an initiative to include pollinator habitats at all of its solar sites in New York state. Cornell University is working with the developer to study the habitat benefits.     

Pro-pollinator efforts have also cropped up in states such as Ohio, with Denison University studying pollinator-friendly solar, and Minnesota, where Xcel Energy is requiring all solar projects received through requests for proposals to provide details on planned vegetation. The utility wants to assess whether plants will be amenable to bees. 

In addition to pollinator habitats, projects located in Wisconsin, developed by OneEnergy Renewables and BluEarth Renewables and serving the food producer Organic Valley, include grazing areas. So does a recently completed 280-megawatt First Solar project on a cattle ranch in Central California.

Ben Higgins, director of agricultural operations for Hearst, which owns the California ranch, said “near-daily communication” with First Solar helped make sure plans proceeded with responsible land use in mind.   

“We still own this land. We plan to own it for many decades to come — well beyond the lease term. And we wanted to make sure that this was managed and the vegetation controlled in a sustainable way,” Higgins told Greentech Media this summer. 

Hyte said Cypress Creek also works with farmers to minimize impact by locating solar projects on non-prime land.

“Frequently they ask us to site in the least productive areas in their farms, so they can maintain revenue and production out of their farms while also siting solar and overall increasing the financial health of their farms,” he said.

"Deep decarbonization"

The collaboration between the solar industry and agriculture will become even more essential, advocates and developers say, as states work toward ambitious renewable energy goals that will require commensurate land area.

A recent report from the Nature Conservancy and consultancy Energy and Environmental Economics found that carbon-reduction goals in the Western United States will require large swaths of agricultural land to host wind and solar installations by 2050. That’s especially true in solar-rich California, where Erica Brand, the organization’s California energy program director and one of the report’s authors, said as much as one-half of all installed solar may need to be located on agricultural land. 

“Policies, technologies and economics will change,” said Brand. “But we do think it’s helpful to start making visible some of the potential tradeoffs to start off a conversation around how we implement these really critical clean energy standards and climate goals.”

States like California will have to balance their agricultural riches, which raked in $50 billion in cash receipts in 2017 — the most of any state —with its growing solar market, an area in which California also ranks first in the nation.

Brand said that’s achievable: The analysis tested excluding prime farmland and found it was still possible to achieve the clean energy build-out required for “deep decarbonization.”

The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association estimates that solar will take up just 0.57 percent of the state’s cropland by 2030. 

Those analyses point to compromise between solar and agriculture, but some communities remain concerned about renewables encroaching on farmland.

Cypress Creek is currently facing pushback in the community of Chesterfield, Virginia, where it wants to build a 20-megawatt solar project on 324 acres of agricultural land. Residents have expressed concerns about the project’s aesthetics and its possible impact on property value.

Though Cypress Creek argues that solar doesn’t degrade land values, the developer also said the feedback is valuable, part of partnering with a community rather than just foisting solar on it.

To ease the path for more solar being located on farms and to help achieve statewide climate goals, the Nature Conservancy recommends planning and collaboration designed to overcome what its report calls “a mismatch of spatial scales,” otherwise known as conflicts between state energy policies and “local resource values.” 

Both Brand and Hyte said alliances will be key in balancing agriculture land use, community needs and climate goals.   

“We’re saying there’s going to be between 50 and 100 gigawatts of solar deployed across the country in the next five or six years,” said Hyte. “In order to do that, you need a lot of communities that want to site it; you need a lot of landowners who want to work with you; and [you] need really sustainable practices in the way we engage communities, neighbors and, more broadly, regions, about how and where we deploy solar and renewables.”