There Will Be Solar
(Only instead of big oil, our milkshake is being drained by big solar.)
“Here, if you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and I have a straw. There it is, that’s a straw, you see? Watch it. Now, my straw reaches acroooooooss the room and starts to drink your milkshake. I… drink… your… milkshake!” There Will Be Blood
I’ve been waiting for this shoe to drop for a while. The land surrounding us and various properties extending for about two miles have been signed over to become redeveloped as a solar facility that, if built, will be the largest in NY State. The developer formally submitted the application a few days ago. Because of the scale of project, it can be built under the oversight of the State Department of Public Service, bypassing our town’s planning and zoning. Not all the land will be covered in solar panels, but 900 acres of pasture will be leased. I haven’t seen all the lease agreements, but from what I have seen most of this land will be under solar panels until I’m eighty years old. The payments to the landowners will be generous, far more than anyone could make in farming.
I don’t blame folks for signing up. Times are tough for farms around here and I guess the landowners chose the economically sane route. When a project funded by federal and state subsidies elbows into a neighborhood making offers that can’t be refused, how can unsubsidized farms withstand that pressure? A farm trying to be successful on its own merits can’t outmuscle a developer backed by private investment and public grants.
The PR characterizes our neighborhood as “under-productive farmland and pasture.” That sounds pathetic, right? Basically any farmland that doesn’t grow corn and soybeans is “under-productive”. Solar electricity = productive; commodity crops relying on tillage, fertilizer, and herbicide = productive; photosynthesis and carbon capture from deep rooted perennial pasture plants = under-productive.
I can’t predict all the ways this could affect land use. In the best case it would fragment things to such an extent that new grazing lease opportunities open up for us. But I don’t think it will go that way. I’d say our farm’s future in beef cattle is in dire straits. Getting the herd to a size that can support our family will require leasing pasture along with our existing 80 acres of pasture. Between the aggregation of nearby land for a feedlot, the proliferation of subdivided farmland into five acre “country living” lots, and the loss of pastureland due to solar development, the prospects for grazing are dwindling.
It is a bitter disappointment, now that we finally are achieving some momentum in selling our products, to see our prospects for growing to a scale that can support our farm suddenly diminish. As I’ve thought about this project over the last few years as it churned away, I’ve wondered whether we are wise to continue investing in this farm. Should I continue building fences? Should I build the corral? Should I install water lines? Would I be better off going to the solar developer, hat in hand, asking to become part of their system, and use some of the proceeds to put a downpayment on a new farm? Or is my milkshake already slurped up and I just don’t know it?