Clean Energy Works for Farmers

July 30, 2019 - It’s not an easy time to be a North Carolina farmer. Volatile prices for commodities, variable extreme weather and trade wars make it tough to operate a farming business. That’s why we’re diversifying our harvest to stay viable. On soil that has long supported tobacco, cotton and corn, renewable energy is taking root. Across North Carolina, clean energy — like wind and solar power — now sustains entire supply chains, boosting manufacturing and lifting up some of our most economically depressed rural communities.

The 300-acre farm in Robeson County that my brother and I own has been a part of our family for generations. We were delighted to lease 44 of those acres when approached by a solar farm and were proud to have one of the first solar operations in the area. At the time, farming was not having the difficulties that it has had since about 2013. The challenges of the past few years have made it extremely difficult to make farming profitable. The supplemental, stable income from the solar farm has proved more valuable than we had anticipated.

For our family, the environmental impact of solar was a strong motivation to accept the solar lease. We have enhanced the environmental impact further by managing the undergrowth with sheep farming. At Jimmy Carter’s solar farm in Planes, Georgia, pollinator habitat is used in conjunction with the sheep. We are looking into doing that as well and would certainly encourage other sheep farms to recognize the value of sheep farming over heavy chemicals and equipment in solar farm maintenance. The combination can be more cost effective as well as much more environmentally friendly.

In North Carolina, individual families like mine own nearly 90% of the farms across the state. Adding clean energy grows tax revenues and creates jobs for counties that need it the most. Near Elizabeth City, a $400 million farm on 22,000 acres produces a different cash crop: wind energy. During construction, Avangrid Renewables’ Amazon Wind Farm US East project created more than 500 construction jobs, with $18 million spent locally. Avangrid now pays more taxes than any other company in both Perquimans and Pasquotank counties. This one wind farm puts $1.1 million each year into the pockets of local taxpayers and nearly 60 local landowners, including farmers who profit from leasing some of their land for the project. This wind farm is one of the largest in the Southeast, generating enough energy to power 61,000 homes. Permanent workers there earn good wages, with an average annual salary of $80,000.

The forecast looks terrific for solar power, too. Last year, North Carolina was ranked No. 2 in the nation for solar energy — generating enough power for more than 486,000 homes. As of 2019, the quickest-growing career opportunity in North Carolina is that of a solar panel installer. Much of our flourishing clean economy is clustered here in the eastern part of the state. These days, big corporations like Amazon prioritize states that have space for clean energy nearby when deciding where to invest. Often, it’s farmers like me who rent out the land to make large-scale renewable energy projects possible.

The clean energy economy has been a beacon for us, spurring $14.2 billion in investment and creating 43,000 jobs for the Tar Heel state. Looking even closer, recent reports by RTI and the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association found that some of the most rural and economically-challenged counties in North Carolina were the ones that saw the greatest amount of clean energy investment from 2007-2018. Duplin and Robeson counties each gained more than $600 million in clean energy investment, while Anson, Bladen, Bertie, Catawba, Cumberland, Currituck, Halifax, Nash, Scotland, and Wilson counties all gained more than $300 million. For Robeson County, that also translated to a 2,032 percent increase in property tax revenues the year after 24 solar installations went online.

Farmers have a rich history in North Carolina and are building our future here. Our land gives us not only deep purpose but also a way to feed our families. However, we know that farming today is not the farming of yesterday. For some of us who are still farming, we’re here because clean energy is bringing in new revenue and providing certainty in unpredictable times.

Many of us recognize the South can remain economically competitive by going where the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. North Carolina will always have our coastal breezes and sunny days, and it’s just common sense to make a living from what God has blessed us with. Helen Livingston is a farmer in Robeson County.

Source: The Robesonian

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