The Van Trump Report

Solar Panels Covering More Prime US Farmland Raises Alarms

More agricultural land across the country is being covered by solar panels as farmers look for ways to lessen the blow dealt by sliding crop prices and high input costs. It’s a trend that’s forecast to continue, also. The American Farmland Trust estimates that 83% of expected future solar development will take place on agricultural soil. This is raising alarms about the impact to US crop production, particularly as renewable energy firms push further into prime Midwest farmland.  

According to the 2022 Census of Agriculture, the number of farms with solar panels increased by nearly +30% between 2017 and 2022. That amounts to more than 116,000 farms that had solar panels in 2022 However, there is no count of what has gone in since the Census was conducted as the data isn’t tracked.

Reuters recently released an analysis federal government data to identify cropland that USDA classified as prime, unique, or of local or statewide importance. It also reviewed more than 2,000 pages of solar-related documents filed at local county recorders’ offices in a small sample of four Midwestern counties – Pulaski, Starke and Jasper counties in Indiana, and Columbia County in Wisconsin.

According to Reuters, the counties represent an area of land slightly bigger than the state of Delaware and are where some of the nation’s largest projects are being developed or built. It also notes the sample is not necessarily representative of the broader United States but gives an idea of the potential impact of solar projects in farm-heavy counties.

The analysis found that the percentage of these counties’ most productive cropland secured by solar and energy companies as of end of 2022 was as follows: 12% in Pulaski, 9% in Starke, 4% in Jasper, and 5% in Columbia.

Agricultural economists and agronomists that were alarmed by Reuters’ findings say the concern is more about the quality of land coming out of production, rather than the total number of acres. According to some, taking even small amounts of the best cropland out of production for solar development and damaging valuable topsoil impacts future crop potential in the United States. The full article is HERE.

Many rural residents have tried to push back against solar installations, to mixed success. Concerns revolve around the loss of productive farmland as well as the negative economic impact to local communities.

U.S. Representative Mike Bost (IL-12) introduced legislation to protect prime farmland in April. The “Securing Our Lands And Resources Act”, or the “SOLAR Act”, would ensure rural communities have a say in the approval process for solar panel projects, while still giving farmers the flexibility to utilize renewable energy on their operations.

The SOLAR Act will also require that funding recipients have soil remediation plans in place and the funding secured to remove the solar panels after the project is completed. The legislation comes after Illinois became one of the first Midwest states in January 2023 to strip zoning authority from local governments in determining if solar panel projects were right for their communities. Learn more HERE.

At the same time, farmers are facing an estimated -26% decline in incomes this year, as crop prices sink and operating expenses remain elevated. For many, solar offers a way to mitigate the steep revenue decline and secure a more stable stream of income.  

Purdue University’s “Ag Economy Barometer” in March found that 54% of respondents were offered a lease rate by solar companies of $1,000 or more per acre and just over one-fourth of respondents (27%) said they were offered a lease rate of $1,250 or more per acre. Those numbers compare to average offers of around $750 an acre in 2021.  (Sources: Reuters, Bloomberg, Purdue University, USDA)

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