Emerging Practices

Grazing livestock and growing pollinator-friendly plants add value to solar farms

March 2021

A multi-dimensional approach to farming

Farmers are innovative folks. They are serious practitioners in multi-dimensional thinking. Daily considerations range from crops at the surface, soil conditions below, the weather above, local market prices, and global market trends, just to name a few.

This multi-dimensional approach applies to land use as well. Farmers know how to benefit from fertile soil for abundant crop production and value-added ethanol sales. Some realize financial value in the wind blowing across their fields by way of wind turbine leases. Farmers even know how to profit by the sale of manure as fertilizer or turning manure into biogas.

This same multi-dimensional mindset applies equally to solar farms. Farmers in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and even in Minnesota are grazing sheep under solar farms and making honey for sale on the side. Research out of Cornell University Extension’s Atkinson Center for Sustainability in 2018 points to solar grazing as a financially-viable and environmentally-beneficial practice.

Solar project operators save operational costs by contracting with sheep farmers to graze the grass and undergrowth in a managed plan. This avoids landscaping costs and the risk of damage to solar equipment by lawnmowers. In turn, sheep farmers are paid on a per-acre basis to graze their sheep and negotiate temporary fencing and water access where necessary.

Photos: Sheep graze under solar panels that are part of the Aurora Solar Project in Minnesota. Photo here and below taken by Jake Janski with Minnesota Native Landscapes, courtesy Enel Green Power.

This “graze for pay” model enables some sheep farmers to expand their herd count or grow crops on lands their sheep no longer need to graze. And of course, the landowners hosting the solar farm can also become sheep farmers themselves if they wish.

Recently, the American Solar Grazing Association, Ernst Conservation Seed Company, and Cornell University Extension teamed up to develop a “Fuzz and Buzz” seed mix, an ideal combination of soft grasses, clover, and flower species that suit sheep grazing, pollinators, and honey-making perfectly.

This grazing-friendly mix of soft grasses and flowering plants is distinct from the tougher pollinator-friendly native prairie plantings that have been established under and around many Minnesota solar farms.

Aurora Solar

Solar grazing experiments in Minnesota

Here at home, Minnesota Native Landscapes and Enel Green Power already conduct managed grazing of sheep on a solar farm in Albany, MN, one of the 16 sites of the 100 megawatt Aurora Solar Project. Additionally, the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center constructed a 30 kilowatt solar array as cattle shade for comfort and to power their milk parlor. More intelligent solar design for horticultural farms has already happened at the University of Arizona and University of Massachusetts-Amherst, as well.

Where local solar rules follow best practices for development, farmers are able to innovate and benefit from this multi-dimensional approach that can deliver a better and more profitable solution all together.

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