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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Wind and solar power can generate vital profits for Texas’ dwindling farms and ranches

By Philip Jankowski Dallas Morning News

GAINESVILLE, Texas — Above a spartan field near the Oklahoma border, scant clouds skate across the North Texas sky.

Hundreds of solar panels slowly track the morning sun’s path for a direct hit from an energy source 94 million miles away. But not the sheep. They’re tracking JR Howard’s gray Ford F-250 — weaving between rows of solar panels as he lays on the horn. It’s feeding time on this April morning.

Howard, owner of Texas Solar Sheep, has found himself part of a burgeoning industry combining Texans’ ranching sensibilities with the ascendancy of solar energy, a booming electricity source.

The sheep here — white Dorpers — are not known for their wool. They’re here for their appetites, chomping away at the vegetation growing alongside the panels. If some get sold for slaughter, all the better.

The pairing of solar energy and sheep ranching is one of several ways renewable energy resources are being integrated into the Texas landscape — providing a second, reliable source of income that can help farmers and ranchers hang on to a threatened way of life. The trick is finding ways to limit energy production’s impact on agricultural land.

Wind turbines are, in many ways, a more natural fit because they have a relatively small effect on farm and ranchland.

Solar power, with an exponentially greater footprint, has struggled to coexist peacefully with agriculture. So far, sheep have proven to be the most natural roommates for photovoltaic cells.

For Howard, it has allowed him to continue doing what he loves: ranching and raising cattle.

“It is the biggest opportunity of my lifetime,” he said.

No goats allowed

Near Denver, Colorado, James McCall has been working for nine years to solve the problem of building solar power projects on agricultural land.

An analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, McCall has researched ways to integrate solar power with community-supported gardens and bee hives.

The research has yet to find a viable way to combine large-scale solar and farming, McCall said.

In Europe, where energy prices are higher and available land is scarce, solar companies are required to have on-site agriculture.

In the U.S., McCall said, some operators of solar arrays plant small gardens between solar panels to raise peppers, tomatoes, kale and other vegetables. Some have experimented with growing pollinating flowers and bee hives alongside solar cells.

So far, sheep are the most widely accepted agricultural use alongside solar arrays in Texas. Cows are too tall. Goats will jump on top of the panels. “And they’ll chew the wires,” McCall said.

Sheep are smaller, nimble and able to maneuver around solar panels without incident. They graze with their heads down, keeping them away from wires while clearing areas beneath solar panels, the American Solar Grazing Association says.

In the Permian Basin, where solar and wind energy have proliferated in recent years alongside oil and gas wells, water is at a premium. This makes growing crops alongside solar power a challenge.

“We can’t be doing things that are going to require water,” McCall said. “Water is this really holistic thing that is needed out in West Texas. We’re hearing that very loud and clear.”

In more fertile areas of Texas, the availability of water presented an unexpected problem for solar power developers: vegetation. Unmanaged growth can prevent access to arrays and block sunlight from reaching the panels.

Raina Tillman Hornaday, co-founder of the Austin-based renewable energy company Caprock Renewables, said mowing 1,000 or more acres can cost more than $1 million annually.

“That’s where the sheep come in,” she said. “Sheep can really be effective in grazing and stomping down and managing the land under solar panels instead of mowing.”

Howard, the owner of Texas Solar Sheep, has sheep grazing on 11 solar sites from the Oklahoma border to Temple, including an 81-megawatt solar array managed by Adapture Renewables about 10 miles south of the Oklahoma border near Interstate 35.

“There were a lot of skeptics three years ago,” said Elora Arana, project development manager for Adapture. “Now every big solar outfit in Texas is examining it.”

Howard, 44, said ranchers were his biggest doubters when he began pairing sheep and solar panels. As he reintroduced sheep to communities, curiosity grew.

“These sheep haven’t been in these areas in 100 years,” Howard said.

According to the American Solar Grazing Association, sheep now live alongside solar farms across the U.S. and graze at about 100 solar arrays in Texas.

Solar’s challenges

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst remains suspicious of the proliferation of solar energy.

Besides the inherent unreliability of a weather-dependent source of electricity, the industry lacks needed oversight, the Brenham Republican said. In 2023, she proposed legislation that would create a state permitting process and environmental reviews for all renewable projects.

Kolkhorst’s proposal drew opposition from renewable developers across the state and, in some cases, pitted environmentalists seeking to transition Texas away from fossil fuels against conservationists who saw wind turbines and solar arrays as threats to Texas’ natural beauty.

Kolkhorst said she filed the legislation in part because of the recent explosion of solar development coupled with reports of large amounts of land being removed from farming and replaced with solar arrays.

“There’s something to taking that out of production,” she said. “When you look at some of these contracts, it’s removing farmland for half a century.”

Wind turbines on farmland

According to the 2022 U.S. Census of Agriculture, Texas lost nearly 18,000 farms and ranches, and more than 1.5 million acres of agricultural land between 2017 and 2022.

Texas Farm Bureau spokesman Gary Joiner said a combination of consolidation and division contributes to many Texans turning away from farming and ranching. As land is passed down from generation to generation, massive swaths of fertile land can be divided into smaller parcels that may not make economic sense to farm. In turn, those smaller parcels can be purchased by large-scale operations, further reducing the number of Texans in the business.

The average farmer is also aging. As younger people turn away from the profession, the median age of a farmer in Texas is just under 60.

Rising costs are another hurdle.

“They’re paying more for energy,” Joiner said. “They’re paying more for seed. They’re paying more for labor, for equipment, for parts — even the interest rates that they’re paying on their operating loan.”

“That profit margin — that unpredictability whether there will be profit at all — when you roll in weather and factors that are way beyond the farmer and rancher’s control, that’s the squeeze, and that’s the economic reality right now for many in modern agriculture,” Joiner added.

Herff Cornelius, a farmer and rancher in Matagorda County whose family began ranching in Southeast Texas in 1917, turned to wind turbines to address some of the financial uncertainty, creating a second income stream on his family’s land.

“It’s hard to make a living every year, and it’s an easy way to get some extra income and still stay in agriculture and keep family members happy,” he said.

Cornelius and his family grow rice and raise cattle and crawfish on roughly 5,000 acres. The crawfish and rice ponds presented challenges for the company that built 21 wind turbines on the farm, but Germany-based RWE is adding five more turbines in the second phase of the company’s Peyton Creek wind farm that spans multiple properties.

Cornelius said neighbors were initially suspicious of the wind turbines. The 500-plus-foot giants towered over the Southeast Texas landscape, leading many to express concerns about how they would affect property values and threaten migratory birds. He said the skepticism faded after the first turbines were built five years ago.

RWE, the third-largest owner and operator of renewable generation sites in the U.S., owns the turbines but leases the land from Cornelius. Farm owners typically earn income through long-term contracts of 20 years or more that pay royalties, including guaranteed minimums, for energy produced on their land.

In exchange, the company builds wind turbines — some as high as 600 feet tall — and covers the cost of building infrastructure, including roads and connections to the power grid.

Construction can be disruptive. Rice and crawfish production has shut down this year on the 5-acre turbine construction site on the Cornelius family farm.

Energy companies also typically cover property tax increases due to the value of the new equipment. Texas law requires companies to enter into agreements that include removing decommissioned equipment.

Hanson Wood, RWE Clean Energy’s head of utility-scale development, estimated turbines disrupt about 2% of the land once operational. The company, which owns and operates the state’s second-largest wind farm about 230 miles west of Dallas, has found relative ease integrating with pretty much every form of farm or ranch, he said.

“The compatibility of wind farms and farming practices is kind of undersung, honestly,” Wood said. “People get more focused on the visual impact, but there’s a very, very real benefit associated with wind farm development.”