Farmers across the United States have struggled in recent years due to low commodity prices as well as the repercussions of trade disputes between the U.S. and countries including China and Mexico.
So, like any business owner, many farmers are looking to diversify. That’s brought a number of them to an industry expected to boom over the next few years: Solar power.
CGTN’s Dan Williams has more.
Illinois has some of the most fertile soil in the world. But in the near future, farmers are expected to dedicate more land to solar energy farms.
Eighteen months ago, Randy DeBaillie installed solar panels to provide power to his farm in Orion, Illinois.
Now, like many other farmers in Illinois, he wants to dedicate much more of his land to solar, leasing it out to power companies for a hefty profit.
“We are trying to put in 15 acres of less-than-desirable farmland that we farm. It is an extremely wet piece but we farm it every year and it generates on average $150 to $200 an acre profit. If we can get into this solar farm, it will generate roughly $1,000 an acre in profit,” said DeBaillie.
Given the recent struggles for U.S. farmers, DeBaillie feels solar could provide a timely boost.
“Absolutely. When you are talking three to four times the net income on your acres – absolutely, it is huge.”
The push for renewable energy in Illinois has surged thanks to state incentives meant to promote clean energy and create jobs.
Authorities have been so inundated with requests that a lottery will now be used to determine who will be awarded contracts.
“It didn’t surprise me, maybe the scale of it is even larger than I expected. This is a particularly large boom in terms of a huge number of projects that are under consideration,” said Anthony Star, the Director of the Illinois Power Agency.
The appetite for renewable energy in Illinois has given farmers a new potential option. But not everyone is convinced. In the western state of Washington, one county banned the construction of new solar plants on farms because of fears it would take valuable agricultural land out of production.
Robert Rhykerd is the chairman of the Department of Agriculture at Illinois State University. Although he echoes the excitement around solar, he believes the process needs careful consideration.
“I think we just need to be very strategic and planful as to the acres we are putting them on. So if we are putting them on acres that have low productivity to begin with or that are not in production, sure, that is not a problem. If we are putting them on our most productive acres, I think that will come back to haunt us,” he said.
There are many farmers across Illinois who are hopeful that solar will become the next money crop.
But like most things with farming, it could come at a price.