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Can solar farms and agricultural farms coexist?

About half an hour from my childhood home in Tennessee, a new 1,000-acre farm is being established on prime agricultural land. My dad tells me it’s causing quite a bit of concern among folks in the area.

That’s because this farm, which has been in agricultural production as long as anyone can remember, will no longer raise crops or livestock. Rather, it will harvest the power of the sun with an expansive array of 500,000 solar panels. The primary customer? Facebook. When it comes online later this year, the installation will provide “green” energy for the social media giant’s datacenter hub in nearby Huntsville, Ala.

The solar site is one of more than 60 similar projects by Facebook in 18 states and five countries to support its commitment to running on 100% renewable energy—a goal the compa­ny says it reached last April. And it’s not alone. All the big tech companies are in the same race to become more sustainable in their operations.

As the price of solar generation continues to go down and demand for clean energy goes up, more and bigger solar installations are being planted where crops once grew. The National Renewable Energy Labora­tory says that upwards of 2 million acres of American farmland could be converted to solar in the next decade.

Are these solar farms a way to help save the environment and boost the local economy, or are they threaten­ing farmland and food production while cluttering up the landscape?

It’s one of the serious questions facing renewable energy. And it’s a conundrum that some farmers, land­owners and researchers are trying to solve by creating dual-use scenarios in which solar panels and agriculture can work together.

The concept has even spawned a new term, “agrivoltaics,” a blend of agriculture plus photovoltaics (the process of converting electricity from sunlight). Typical large-scale solar arrays are placed close to the ground with gravel underneath. While these generate a lot of energy, they take the land out of use. In agrivoltaics, panels are positioned higher off the ground and spaced out to provide a mix of shade and sun for plants below.

The idea is still in its experimental phase, but interest is growing. For example, a dual-use farm operated by the University of Massachusetts is producing a variety of veggies below solar panels elevated roughly 7.5 to 9 feet to allow for easier harvesting. An egg cooperative in New York runs its 180 chickens amid solar panels. And the Bancroft Solar Station in Georgia partners with a nearby farm, White Oak Pastures, to graze sheep on site.

There’s even an organization ded­icated to the concept: the American Solar Grazing Association, founded in 2018 specifically to promote grazing sheep on solar farms. Sheep work perfectly for this job, association members say, because they aren’t too big, they don’t climb like goats, and they don’t damage the equipment.

Solar farms can also support native vegetation and pollinator plots. Min­nesota and Maryland have developed certifications to promote planting of pollinator habitat underneath panel arrays. There’s buzz about placing beehives on these sites, too.

There’s no doubt solar power is a good thing and that it can pay. This issue of Today’s Farmer features an article on Parker McCrory Manu­facturing, where MFA’s Herdsman electric fence chargers are made. The company installed 200 solar panels on the roof of its main building in Kansas City last spring and reduced its summer electricity bill by 53%.

But there are only so many roof­tops suitable for solar. With today’s technology, making a meaningful renewable energy impact requires ground-mounted solar installations. Demand continues to gain momen­tum, supported by climate-change policies, which means land competi­tion will likely intensify. My hope is that the potential for sharing the land will also become more viable. We need to feed a growing world popula­tion, which is expected to reach 8.1 billion by 2025. In that context, using large chunks of farmland solely for solar is disconcerting. Finding ways that energy and agriculture can coexist is a better solution.

Theoretically, land used for solar installations can be converted back to agriculture after the operational life of the panels, about 25 to 30 years. But it’s not guaranteed, said North Carolina Extension Agent Mike Car­roll. Clearing land to farm often takes decades of fertilizing, liming, grading and correcting drainage to become highly productive. Converting solar farms back to agricultural use may result in a similar situation.

If opportunity comes knocking— and it very well may—landowners should carefully weigh the pros and cons of shifting acreage from agri­culture to energy. Yes, in some cases, payments from solar contractors could be more profitable than farming or renting out the ground. However, the immediate and long-term risks and rewards should be evaluated. Consid­er, especially, whether there is a way to share the space, not only generating solar power but also keeping the soil active and productive.

To paraphrase the oft-quoted sen­timent from Mark Twain, God isn’t making any more land. Let’s make the most of what we’ve got.

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