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