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The Incompatibility of Wind and Crop ‘Farming’

“Absentee landowners may be gaining financially from [wind power] development, but the idea that ‘wind farming’ is a compatible agriculture use is more myth than reality in Illinois…. In fact, those Illinois farmers who have leveraged their operations conservatively tell us that they’re not interested in the ‘windfall’ of wind farming.”

The wind industry continues to claim that wind “farming” and agriculture are compatible land uses. Here it is again in a recent letter in the Wall Street Journal by the American Wind Energy Association defending the economics of wind power.

For years, politicians and urban/suburbanites have been treated to heaping doses of win-win business tales of family farmers leasing sections of their crop land for wind development, while working the soil right up to the towers and earning extra revenue to keep the land open. But like so much Big Wind hype, there’s an ugly reality that has gone untold.

Turbine Roads, Soil Compaction, and Reduced Crop Yields

Back in 2007, Windaction.org posted “What have I done?” a true story about a farmer in Northeast Fond du Lac County (Wisconsin) who agreed to lease a portion of his land for wind development. He said:

I watched stakes being driven in the fields and men using GPS monitors to place markers here and there. When the cats and graders started tearing 22 foot wide roads into my fields, the physical changes started to impact not only me and my family, but unfortunately, my dear friends and neighbors….

Other turbine hosts also complained about their fields being subdivided or multi cable trenches requiring more lands. Roads were cut in using anywhere from 1000 feet to over a ½ mile of land to connect necessary locations. We soon realized that the company places roads and trenches where they will benefit the company most, not the land owner.

The Wisconsin farmer’s experience [1] is not unique.

Illinois has some of the best farming soil in the world with McLean County rated #1 for the darkest, blackest most productive soil in the world.

But after extensive land moving and excavation needed to build roads and erect the turbines, farmers tell us that the ground is never the same afterward. The fertile soil around the towers is mixed with subsurface clay and compacted resulting in lower crop yields. Depending on the lease terms, developers may compensate landowners for crop reductions but payments are often not passed on to tenant farmers who suffer the actual losses.

Since compaction is assumed to be a construction-related impact, crop-loss payments are often time-limited up to five years. However, turbine maintenance could require the massive cranes be brought back to the site making compaction an ongoing concern throughout the life of the project. And it’s not limited to existing roads or turbine pads. Complaints have been reported of turbine maintenance crews crawling across fields — flattening crops and ground — for quicker access to turbines needing service.

If drainage tiles are cut or damaged during construction, you’re apt to see farmers working around ponds that were previously nonexistent. Or worse, adjacent fields not under lease can flood.

Aerial Spraying and Crop Health

Soil compaction and drainage issues are serious concerns, but some might argue their effects are localized, and thus manageable. But that cannot be said about the impact of wind turbines on aerial spraying — a subject that gets very little exposure.

The ability to secure aerial spraying services can be curtailed in areas where turbines are standing.

The message on the Illinois Agricultural Aviation Association (IAAA) website is clear: “farmers with wind generators may lose the option of aerial application of farm protection products, seed, fertilizers, etc. on their farm ground. … The fact is, it is dangerous to fly within the confines of a wind generator farm.”

As more and more towers go up, so do the risks of aerial applications. Helicopters may be recommended because they travel at slower speeds and can work in more confined spaces but they can’t carry the same loads meaning more trips at higher costs. There are far fewer helicopters in the business so timely availability is a critical issue.

Some farmers try ground applicators but aircraft can cover crops faster and more efficiently than any ground rig. In cases of Asian soybean rust, farmers could experience an 80-100% yield loss if not treated within a week. Aphids or spiders mites can destroy a field within days. If infestations occur during wet years, ground equipment on wet soil will cause compaction or ruts and lead to erosion.

As more wind farms are permitted, the cumulative effect will lead to fewer and fewer fields that can be sprayed, making total crop loss a real possibility. Since crop insurance will not cover farmers in cases of insects or plant disease where damage is due to insufficient or improper application of pest or disease control measures, crop loss could lead to significant financial losses for farmers.

Cash Renting and Wind Farming

Illinois’ landowners and the farmers who work the land are not always the same. Illinois is second only to Connecticut for the highest number of absentee landowners (58.6%) representing 64.48% of the acres. While farmers own some land, most need to cash rent or share crop additional land to make their operations viable.

Illinois’ absentee landownership, in large part, is the reason for the prevalence of wind energy development in the state (over 3500 megawatts today). Most properties leased for wind development are owned by out-of-area landowners who are disconnected from the land and have turned to low-risk, high-cash land renters rather than share-crop tenant farmers, to work the soil.

Cash rent farmers offer fixed payments to landowners for use of the land, buildings and other facilities while the landowners have no real involvement in the farming operation beyond paying property taxes and liability insurance. Share-crop tenant farmers, on the other hand, enjoy longer term partnerships with their landowners. Operating decisions of the farm are shared by both landowner and tenant farmer and each holds a vested interest in the productivity of the land since their incomes are derived from the farm’s gross earnings.

It’s not unusual for cash renters to come from outside the area and to have limited experience with the soil types. They may be farming thousands of acres and barely know the condition of their crops until they return in late summer and fall for the harvest. Farmers tell us that there’s a striking visual difference between farms managed by local tenant farmers and those worked by outside cash renters which, over time, could impact the environmental sustainability of the land.

Tenant farmers have no rights when a wind lease is negotiated. If they complain about having to farm around the turbines, damaged drainage tiles or low crop yields due to soil compaction they risk losing their farms altogether. Competition for rentable farmland is fierce, and absentee landowners may view their tenant farmers as more trouble than they’re worth, so tenants learn to be silent.

Absentee landowners see cash rents and wind leases as equal revenue opportunities.

Conclusion

The idea that “wind farming” is helping farmers to keep and maintain their farms is not representative of what’s happening in Illinois. In fact, those Illinois farmers who have leveraged their operations conservatively tell us that they’re not interested in the “wind fall” of wind farming.

Absentee landowners may be gaining financially from wind power development, but the idea that “wind farming” is a compatible agriculture use is more myth than reality in Illinois.


[1] This Iberdrola lease, Section 8.1, ensures the wind developer has the final say on all siting decisions.

8 comments

1 Dave LaMora { 07.01.13 at 6:51 am }

Lisa,it would behoove the anti-wind movement in general, and The Master Resource in particular,which is a valuable source for objective viewpoints, to cease referring to industrial wind generating complexes as “farms” It is completely misleading and inaccurate.As you know the term is utilized by the industry to enhance the public appeal of mining the wind for energy, but it has no relevance to farming or agricultural endeavors. I have made similar appeals to the Sierra Club, The American Bird Conservancy, and numerous of my government representatives to refrain from inadvertently bolstering the image of industrial wind development ,with the use of this mischaracterizing moniker.

Lets call them what they are -industrial energy generating plants, or wind mines.

2 johana { 07.01.13 at 9:48 am }

Right on!, Dave.
This is almost exactly what I said when I first encountered Industrial Wind Turbines [IWTs] in 2004 on the north shore of Lake Erie, Norfolk Cty, Ontario.

3 Lisa Linowes { 07.01.13 at 10:39 am }

Dave, thanks for your comment. The purpose of the piece is to show how misleading and irresponsible the claims are that wind energy is just another agriculture ‘crop’. It’s for this reason that I am using the term. In any other context, terms such as the one you suggested are much more accurate.

4 Colette McLean { 07.01.13 at 1:05 pm }

The most nefarious consequences from signing on with wind leases, I believe are the clauses within the contracts such as first-rights-of-refusal and postponement of mortgages. These create a very real threat in the future, over ownership of ag. land. There is also the fact that these lease agreements are often registered to the deeds of the land, making it very difficult to discharge when it comes time for the farmer to transfer ownership of the land.

5 Michael Rizzo { 07.02.13 at 7:16 pm }

Incredibly, if you replace “wind” with “fracking” this is almost boilerplate for arguments that “fracktivists” use to promote their anti-gas development agenda. In fact, a student volunteer from NYPIRG knocked on my door last night and his second argument (after misleadingly arguing that fracking pollutes groundwater) was that gas companies steamroll farmers into leasing land and then destroying it in the name of rights of way and access to the fracking site.

6 Mary Kay Barton { 07.11.13 at 11:14 am }

Here in Wyoming County of Western New York State — where we already have 250 industrial wind turbines sprawling throughout several Towns, with another 59 going up this summer — we have witnessed firsthand the circumstances described within Lisa Linowes report.

Neighbors were lied to by wind developers in order to try and get them to sign on – saying things like, “Your neighbor has already signed on, so you might as well, too” — when in fact, the neighbors had not signed. Farmers find out in a big hurry when the Big Wind LLC starts digging up their property, that they have no control over where that Big Wind LLC decides they want to place the access roads.

Because citizen activists were keeping an eye on the Big Wind LLCs throughout the construction phase of projects here in Wyoming County, it was discovered that Brownfield slag from the old Lackawanna Bethlehem Steel plant was being used as fill in the access roads right in the middle of crop lands (Better hope you’re not drinking that guy’s cows’ milk!)

I was in attendance at a Wyoming County IDA public hearing in consideration of whether to extend another PILOT agreement to Invenergy for their substation. A farmer who had leases with the company in one of the neighboring towns testified that his home’s drywall had been damaged during blasting for construction, and his drainage tiles had all been broken, but these damages still had NOT been repaired by the Big Wind LLC – despite his continuous complaints to the company. Not surprisingly, this farmer was at the Public Hearing because he did not think that a company who did not hold up their end of the bargain should be granted any further PILOT agreements. As a matter of fact, ALL the citizens in attendance at that hearing were there to OPPOSE the PILOT agreement the Big Wind LLC was applying for. Unfortunately (as usual), the Wyoming County IDA granted it to them anyway. Elected officials & bureaucrats are clearly serving Big Corporate, rather than the people they were put in office to serve.

Regarding Mr. Rizzo’s comment — Sir, are you inferring that the folks who understand that wind is an energy boondoggle that will take us nowhere, and that the Big Wind LLCs that do damage to the communities and the land that they invade, are no different than “fracktivists”? I would heartily disagree. “Fracktivists” argue about things they worry might happen. We are reporting things that HAVE HAPPENED, and continue to happen, wherever this ‘green’ energy boondoggle — “The Wind Farm Scam” (available at Amazon.com) — is being perpetrated on communities and citizens. BIG difference!

Industrial wind factories were never intended to be placed within rural/residential areas – be it Illinois, NY, Ontario, or anywhere people live nearby.

7 Turbines hurt farmland in Illinois | saveourskylineohio { 07.15.13 at 3:40 pm }

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8 April Boggs { 07.15.13 at 7:38 pm }

It saddens me how large the “Wind Farm Scam” has become. I do believe that one day there will be a moratorium placed on all wind complex development in the U.S., but unfortunately it will likely be too little too late. I live in Champaign County, Ohio. Between two approved phases of the Buckeye Wind Project, the majority of the eastern portion of our beautiful county will be peppered with approximately 100 of these 500 ft behemoths, impacting over 1,000 families. These things do not belong in residential areas. Whatever happened to zoning laws? The wind complex developer has met with elected officials, making their arguement to receive the PILOT. So many intervenors are involved in this case, including; the county, city of Urbana & a citizen’s group Union Neighbor United. Our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Public meetings were held where literally 89% of the attendees opposed the project. Nobody wants it, but still it comes. This is the biggest scam of all time. I could be bitter to my “wind farming” neighbors, but in truth, I feel sorry for them. They have no idea what they are getting themselves into.

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