As Kevin Sullivan slowly rumbled his pickup truck across his 60 acres of property near the Connecticut-Massachusetts border, he leaned in and asked a question: "What’s farmland?"
“You picture the one cow, Farmer Joe, like me,” he said. “'I’m going to tell you a story about my tomaters and my peppers.' ”
But what non-farmers generally don’t picture, he said, is how to pay for it.
“So there’s this whole, you know, what’s farmland? What’s usable farmland? Well, usable farmland is something that can sustain a household,” Sullivan said.
And for a while, Sullivan said one part of his property was pretty unusable. About 15 acres, where the soil was heavy and bad for growing. He tried raising corn and hay, but then a solar developer came along, offering him a lot of money to rent the land, put up solar panels and sell that energy back into the grid. He said the opportunity was too good to pass up.
“The money that comes off that acreage exceeds anything else I could do out there,” Sullivan said.
For solar developers, southern New England is ideal. Tax credits and locked-in contracts with power utilities can help the finances work out. And many New England farms are basically "move-in ready."
“It’s a large tract of land that’s flat and already cleared — and it’s right next to a big transmission system. So it is a perfect place for a solar project,” said Deepwater Wind CEO Jeff Grybowski at a recent meeting to explain his company’s plans to buy up some land outside of Hartford. It wants to put panels on about 156 acres of property, some of which is rented to grow crops.
If built, it could be New England's biggest solar project — powering about 5,000 homes.
Some residents think the project is a waste of agricultural space in a densely populated state. But for farmers like Benjamin Freund, who both own and rent farm land, it's complicated.
“It's one of those issues, you know, call me in 10 minutes and I'll be on the other side of it,” Freund said, who runs a farm in East Canaan, Connecticut.
Freund said he used to just compete against other farmers when looking for land to rent. Now, he's up against deep-pocketed solar developers, too. But for farmers who own property, he thinks land use should remain a personal choice.
“We want to have the ability to use our land for whatever we feel is its best and highest use,” Freund said. “On the other hand, we don't want to have to compete against an industry that's fairly highly subsidized.”
And while some states are working to steer solar to places like old landfills and get more environmental oversight in the siting process, Massachusetts is proposing taking the incentive idea a step further — offering more money for projects where farming and solar co-exist. It's called "dual use."
Johnny Rogers is a livestock farmer who also works with North Carolina State University — educating farmers about pasturing animals. He said he started thinking about dual use three summers ago when he got a call from his landlord telling him he'd agreed to put solar on a portion of the pasture that Rogers was renting.
“We actually live on that same farm. So it did literally hit pretty close to home,” Rogers said.
So Rogers reached out to the solar company, asking if they'd let him keep sheep on the property, munching on the grass to make sure the panels stayed clear of brush. He said he now gets calls from other farmers and solar developers asking about the idea.
“You're harvesting solar energy as electricity. Then you're harvesting solar energy as protein, basically, through the lamb that would be produced,” Rogers said.
Rogers said farmers are resilient. And while he hates to see crops disappearing, he said solar has provided a lifeline to some farm owners in rural parts of his state. Money that he says can stabilize balance sheets — and ensure land stays, in one form or another, farmed.
This segment aired on July 25, 2017.