At the American Forage & Grassland Council meeting earlier this year, a series of sessions focused on renewable energy and resources. One of the them was appropriately titled “Farming the Sun.”

Led by Robert W. Hoffman of Roundstone Native Seed Company of Upton, KY, the session looked at “where agriculture, conservation and solar energy meet on the farm.” Providing consulting, sales and design for Roundstone, Hoffman earned a bachelor’s of science in natural resource management from University of Tennessee-Martin and a master’s of science in wildlife ecology and conservation from the University of Florida.

He began by pointing out a big difference in solar and photovoltaic projects – namely, their size. At the smaller end, there is what’s been dubbed “community solar,” which usually covers from three to 30 acres. On the other end are utility scale projects, which can cover anywhere from 500 to 2,500 acres. Most farmers in the Northeast fit into the former category.

But how would those panels fit into a working farm operation? As far as livestock go, Hoffman said, “Sheep are the best option for grazing. Goats eat everything, and cows rub on stuff.”

Additionally, if grazing animals are going to be wandering amid installations, there are two types to consider. Tracker panels follow the sun, moving from east to west as the planet rotates – but these can be difficult to use with livestock. Fixed south-facing panels are sturdier. Either way, wires will run from the panels to inverters to capture the energy. (These are usually slightly below ground or protected in another way.)

Where agriculture, conservation & solar energy meet on the farm

Solar installations – and the space around and beneath them – can have multiple benefits on a farm.

Some good news is the space around and beneath the installations can be triply productive. “You can plant native vegetation for pollinator habitats there,” Hoffman said. “There are different seed mixes based on where they’re planted around the panels.”

Be sure to consider a seed mix’s sun and shade requirements and moisture levels before sowing them, though.

In addition to aiding butterflies and bees, sheep will graze those native plants. Hoffman said he’s seen great response from forbs (herbaceous flowering plants other than grasses) post-grazing, both with just one or from two grazing periods.

The third benefit to planting beneath solar panels is literally helping the earth. “We want to make sure you keep ground cover for erosion control,” Hoffman said.

Installing solar panels doesn’t necessarily mean acreage is taken out of agricultural production – it may simply mean it’s being productive in a different way.

by Courtney Llewellyn