Wind energy gives American farmers a new crop to sell in tough times
CLOUD COUNTY, Kan. – Across this central northern county, wind turbine blades slowly slice the cold air over winter-brown fields. The 67 wind turbines of the Meridian Way Wind Farm straddle dozens of farms and ranches, following the contours of the land and the eddies of the wind above it. The turbines are tall enough that their size is hard to gauge from cars driving by.
Their impact on the surrounding landowners is less hard to measure.
“I would say the absence of financial stress has been a real game-changer for me,” said Tom Cunningham, who has three turbines on his land and declined to give his age, saying only he is "retired." “The turbines make up for the (crop) export issues we’ve been facing.”
In an increasingly precarious time for farmers and ranchers, some who live in the nation’s wind belt have a new commodity to sell – access to their wind. Wind turbine leases, generally 30 to 40 years long, provide the landowners with yearly income that, although small, helps make up for economic dips brought by drought, floods, tariffs and the ever-fluctuating price of the crops and livestock they produce.
Each of the landowners whose fields either host turbines or who are near enough to receive a "good neighbor" payment, can earn $3,000 to $7,000 yearly for the small area – about the size of a two-car garage – each turbine takes up.
Cunningham's lease payments allowed him to pay off his farm equipment and other loans. The median income in Cloud County is about $44,000, according to the 2018 U.S. Census.
“Some of the farmers around here refer to the turbines as ‘their second wife.’ That’s because a lot of times, farm wives have to work in town to make ends meet,” he said.
Rural areas across the USA have long experienced population declines, slow employment growth and higher poverty rates than urban areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Things have been especially difficult recently. U.S. farm bankruptcy rates jumped 20% in 2019, to an eight-year high. Wisconsin saw 48 Chapter 12 filings, or family farm bankruptcies, over the 12-month period ending in September, the nation's highest rate. Georgia, Nebraska and Kansas were next, each with 37 filings. Minnesota, California, Texas, Iowa, Pennsylvania and New York rounded out the top 10 states for farm bankruptcies.
A trade war between China and the United States, brutally low prices for commodity crops and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns have all contributed.
"Farm incomes have been down for a couple of years," said John Newton, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
For some, lease payments to a wind farm to put up a turbine increasingly provide a cushion against the harsh economics of farm life.
Across Kansas, wind turbine lease payments are $15 million to $20 million a year, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Nationally, it's $250 million.
The money matters. About 180 miles south of Meridian Way is the Elk River Wind Farm. Pete Ferrell, 67, of unincorporated Butler County, said wind helped save the ranch, just as oil helped save it back in his father’s day.
“Dad allowed oil production here. There was a big drought in the 1950s. He said, ‘In all honesty, it was the money from the oil that got us through,’ ” he said.
To Ferrell, harvesting the almost constantly blowing Kansas wind is another way to make a living out of the land. Elk River's 100 turbines sport enormous blades, each 125 feet long, that sit atop 260-foot towers.