Regarding the Jan. 16 news article “Solar panels permanently ‘ruin’ farmland, NC senator says”: As a 10th generation farmer in Franklin County, I’ve seen how farming has changed over the years in North Carolina. Agriculture is still an enormous economic driver for our state’s economy and important to all North Carolinians, but we always need to look for new opportunities to make our agriculture industry even stronger.
For rural North Carolina, the topic of solar projects being built on farmland is often described as an “or” question: solar or farmland? Some elected officials have questioned what impact the growing solar industry could have on farmland and our farmers.
Converting farmland to use for a solar project doesn’t mean that land is lost forever. Not only can this land return to farming, it can remain in farming by using livestock, hay production, pollinator crops and more.
Five years ago, my family established Sun-Raised Farms, which provides developers, landowners and operators of ground-mounted, large-scale solar projects with cost-effective grounds maintenance using sheep instead of mowing, spraying chemicals and laying gravel.
Today, Sun-Raised Farms oversees the ground maintenance of nearly 40 solar projects across North Carolina, which involves approximately 3,000 sheep and more than 15 family farmers on our team. In 2012, we started working with Whole Foods, which now buys this “free range” lamb.
Like N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, I strongly believe that we must keep our state’s agriculture industry strong and maintain its tremendous economic impact. But our rural communities need help. More than ever, they need new income opportunities. Commodity prices are down, and the tobacco program is gone forever, meaning much greater instability for farmers. We must look for new opportunities that will make our farmers even stronger and more competitive in the decades to come.
When confronted with all this uncertainty, some farm owners are forced to sell land, which has been in the family for generations, for housing or commercial development. We cannot allow opportunities for supplemental income to be ignored, or worse, demonized.
Rural North Carolina has to survive and find new ways to thrive. The smallest of the farmers will not make it alone on traditional crops like tobacco or cotton anymore. Our rural communities are not surviving on manufacturing, textiles or furniture industries as they once were.
Solar is one new “tool in the tool shed” that can not only help rural communities by increasing property tax revenues and creating work opportunities but can also help farmers keep their land and keep more land in North Carolina in agriculture through uncertain times.
Solar projects and agriculture are a partnership that, for many farmers, is a lifeline to remain in farming. It is important for our communities, especially farmland owners, to ask questions of the folks they are dealing with. If there are concerns, let’s address them.
The length limit was waived to permit a fuller response to the news article.