Amanda Wilson and her husband Brady Kirwan walk down a grassy slope on their farm, making their way to their herd of sheep.
Aside from the distant chirp of birds, it’s quiet — until they get closer to a seven acre plot where their sheep graze.
As soon as the sheep see Kirwan and Wilson, they curiously get closer and start to baa. About 120 of them fenced in; the couple also have 70 more of the animals down the road at a friend’s farm.
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Kirwan and Wilson run Old Dutch Hops in Highland County just outside Hillsboro, Ohio. At first they grew hops and had some sheep to manage weeds.
“They did pretty well at that. The hop plants didn’t end up doing very well. Overall, I think we’re too low of an altitude for that,” Kirwan said. “But we just fell in love with having sheep around here, they’re very charming.”
So in 2017, they switched to raising lamb to sell at the stockyards, and within the past few years they’ve been steadily growing the herd.
“Last year this time we had about 60 sheep total,” WIlson said. “So once we got this contract to graze solar, then we realized we need a lot more sheep more quickly than we could grow naturally, so that’s why we started buying.”
That contract Wilson is referring to is an agreement to graze a 150-acre, 28 megawatt solar farm in Warren County to power the Cincinnati Zoo.
It’s currently under construction, as are over two-dozen other utility-scale solar projects across Ohio. Some of those projects range from hundreds to thousands of acres. Just a few minutes down the road from Kirwan and Wilson, a nearly 1,500 acre solar project is in the works.
Potential of solar grazing
Ohio ranks fourth in the nation for anticipated renewable energy development in 2023. This year alone the state has approved over two dozen utility-scale solar farms, according to the Ohio Power Siting Board — the state agency tasked with approving these types of projects. As more projects go in, some solar companies and livestock farmers are looking to work together.
That’s because the solar companies that own those large scale solar farms need a plan to manage weeds and shrubs. Mowing equipment might be too big to fit between or under the solar panels. It also can be expensive, and mowers can release tons of carbon emissions.
But sheep fit just fine and they eat just about any type of grass. It’s called solar grazing and it’s a variation of agrivoltaics — the use of land for both food and solar energy production. It’s partly why farmers like Kirwan and Wilson see potential here.
“As these solar farms just started coming in, we started thinking that was probably going to be the future of farming in our area,” Kirwan said.
It’s especially significant for them too because it means they can expand without having to take on too much debt at a time when the average price per acre for farmland in Ohio is at $8,200.
“It will allow us to continue growing the herd in a sort of organic way, because here we’re out of grass,” Wilson said.
Kirwan added raising sheep economically when land rent is at $250 per acre is nearly impossible.
“And we certainly can’t buy land. Buying land is a pipe dream in this area. It’s just impossible,” Kirwan said.
Utility-scale solar projects face challenges
Some utility-scale solar projects face several headwinds in Ohio and a lot of unknowns remain, said Nick Armentrout, president of the American Solar Grazing Association.
“When those sites are developed on some of that farmland, it’s a really difficult sell to the community,” he said. “It’s hard to get community acceptance and buy-in on a scale that these utility projects are being suggested.”
Armentrout said a big argument against these projects is they take prime farmland out of commission. Some communities also argue they don’t like how they look.
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That’s part of why at least 10 counties in Ohio have significantly restricted where wind and utility-scale solar projects can go — effectively banning them.
Leasing land to solar is more lucrative than renting it to farmers who grow soy or corn, Armentrout said, and that could make fields scarcer and leasing them more expensive.
“That’s legit. I get that. We see that, too,” Armentrout said. “But the other side of that coin is when you’ve got younger, new beginning or marginalized farmers that say, ‘Hey, we’re not afraid to try to farm under solar because hell, right now we don’t have any land access.’”
Another issue is the U.S. lamb and wool industries have lagged behind beef, chicken and pork for years, he said. There’s also a lack of local meat processing plants that can handle large amounts of livestock, including Ohio. It’s why the Biden administration has invested millions of dollars to strengthen rural food supply chains.
“We don’t have enough animal processing infrastructure,” Armentrout said.
“And it would be fantastic if this segment of the market grows where we start to see reinvestment in the critical processing infrastructure.”
As for Kirwan and Wilson, they know solar grazing is still a fledgling industry in Ohio, and some rural communities, including some of their neighbors, are resistant to change.
Kirwan believes as more projects go in, they’ll eventually gain more acceptance. That’s because it will allow more farmers a chance they otherwise wouldn’t have, keeping Ohio farm land producing food while adding a new crop — solar.
“And as we try to promote doing agriculture on these industrial sites instead of simply mowing, I think that sells itself. I don’t think people have a problem with that,” Kirwan said. “These sites are coming in. Whether the community opposes them or not, for the most part.”
Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.