Op-Ed: Solar, the farmer’s best friend

When it comes to solar farms and farmland, it’s a matter of mutual benefits rather than just peaceful coexistence
Tim Daniels

As noted in several recent columns in NJ Spotlight News, the New Jersey Legislature and the Board of Public Utilities, continue to struggle with balancing the seemingly competing priorities of solar and farmland preservation. Farmland in New Jersey is already subject to pressures from residential and warehouse sprawl. Now the state has mandated that 34% of its electricity must come from in-state solar, requiring thousands of acres of ground-mounted solar arrays. How can these uses coexist in the most densely populated state in the U.S.?

The basic premise that farmland preservation and large-scale solar are competing is incorrect. In fact, large-scale solar is actually a powerful tool for farmland preservation. What’s more, solar generation and agriculture production can occur on the same piece of ground simultaneously. Here’s why and how.

First, in locations around the globe, solar generation and agriculture are being combined on the same piece of land — a practice often termed “agrivoltaics” or “dual-use solar.” For example, sheep have become common on solar farms as a way to continue the agricultural use of the property and avoid expensive grass mowing. In fact, Dakota Power Partners is planning to create the largest sheep-farming operation in New Jersey that will be co-located with a solar farm. Solar farms are also incorporating honey production as yet another agricultural product produced on the same piece of ground. Beyond that, Rutgers University last year formed a working group to study other types of dual-use solar. Early findings suggest there are numerous crops that can flourish under solar panels, including many peppers, mushrooms and leafy vegetables that are tolerant of partial shade. The future of agrivoltaics in New Jersey is bright.

Second, solar improves the long-term viability of New Jersey family-farming operations. Solar is often placed on a portion of family farmers’ land. While crop yields and agricultural commodity prices can fluctuate wildly, solar leases make fixed, predictable payments to farmers that provide their overall operation with increased stability. This income can easily make the difference between a sustainable farm that can be passed on to the next generation and one that must be carved up into residential building lots or sold off to a warehouse developer.

Better for farmers and ratepayers

Take, for example, a dairy farm that grazes cattle on a field. Based on New Jersey Department of Agriculture data, the owner of a dairy farm in New Jersey might expect a profit of $150-$200 per acre from his operations on a good year. Now, let’s say the farmer leases his land for solar, but has an arrangement where the cows can continue to graze under the panels. The solar farm lease revenue could add an additional $800-$1,000 per acre in profit each year, on top of the existing profit from the dairy operations. This farmer has now increased his profits from the leased area by about 500%.

This approach to farm preservation is arguably more effective than the usual approach that New Jersey has taken, in which the state or county makes a large one-time payment to preserve farmland. This helps for a while, but eventually farm operations consume the subsidy, and the farmer is left with the same challenging business model. The dairy farmer with integrated solar, on the other hand, continues to realize healthy profits for at least the 30-year life of the solar project — and at zero cost to taxpayers.

Third, solar can improve crop yields throughout the town where it is located. This may seem like a wild claim, so let’s examine it more closely. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been sounding the alarm, for years, about the decline of bee populations — and wild pollinator species — due to the loss of habitat and the widespread use of pesticides. The impacts on farming are drastic because so many crops depend on pollinators. According to the USDA, New Jersey is one of the top 10 states in the production of crops that depend on wild pollinators, with revenues totaling $360 million annually.

Pollinator-friendly ground cover

Many solar farms today utilize native grasses and pollinator-friendly plants for ground cover under and around the solar panels. Solar farms also do not use pesticides, creating dedicated, pollinator-friendly habitats that are unique in many farm communities. A study from Yale University’s Center for Business and the Environment found that, within a mile radius of a solar farm utilizing pollinator-friendly plants, soybean yields increased by 6.3%. A similar study summarized in a 2013 article in the Journal of Science reported that wild pollinators are twice as effective as managed honeybees for pollinating a range of fruit crops. In other words, a solar farm that uses pollinator-friendly ground cover can benefit farmers throughout an entire community.

Lastly, solar farms help preserve and enhance agricultural soils. The construction of solar projects requires little disturbance to the ground. Once built, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection stormwater regulations, stormwater runoff, which is one of the primary drivers of soil erosion, can be reduced by approximately 50% when solar farms are built. And, as noted by the USDA, planting wild grasses for ground cover can help replenish agricultural soils by restoring nutrients and increasing the soil’s percentage of organic matter. So, once the solar project is removed, a site can return to stand-alone agricultural use and benefit from more fertile soils.