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Published on October 10th, 2016 | by Tina Casey


Wind Turbines To The Rescue, Family Farm Edition

October 10th, 2016 by  

Bloomberg is out with an interesting piece about the impact that income from wind turbines can have on struggling family farms. The article describes how wind leases have enabled farmers to bring in a significant new source of revenue. In addition to the income itself, turbine leases also form a steady, reliable revenue stream that can buffer farms from the vagaries of the commodities markets.

The full impact of new wind turbines on local communities is a bit more mixed than the article represents, but it does underscore how the wind industry is playing a critical role rural economic development — without the high risks and impacts of fossil fuel extraction.


Wind Turbines Spread The Wealth

Aside from the immediate benefit to wind lessors, the new Bloomberg article (by reporter Jennifer Oldham) teases out some important secondary impacts that spread the wealth.

First and foremost, wind farms result in significant new cash infusions for local civic projects such as schools and roads. Oldham cites this contrasting tale of two counties. First, with wind leases:

“This is our financial future,” says Michael Nolte, a farmer who sits on the Franklin County Board of Supervisors in Iowa. This year the board voted to lower property taxes after it paid off a bond used to fund $18 million in road and bridge improvements.

Then, without:

Surrounding counties had recently been forced to close bridges that could no longer support heavy farm machinery, and they lacked the money to fix them. “It’s helping us survive and maintain services,” Nolte says, “whereas other counties have had to make cuts.”

In addition to the potential for lowering property taxes across the board, the low cost of wind power can also exert downward pressure on local utility bills.

Those two points come into sharper focus when you consider that, according to Oldham’s research, about 70% of wind turbines are sited in areas classified as low income.

“One Turbine Has Changed My Life”

The Bloomberg article also indicates a way forward for the US agricultural sector. Rural policy planners have been concerned about rural population depletion and the future of the family farm for generations.

The new leases offer a buffer from one factor that turns future farmers away from the business, and that is the worry over what the fruit of their labor will bring in the commodities market.

One lessor cited by Oldham describes the kind of stress that his wind income has helped to alleviate:

“A few years ago corn was $7 a bushel,” he says. “Now my cost to raise it is $4.20 and [the price] could fall to $2.70. It’s going to break a lot of people.”

The new income could also enable new farmers to get a foothold in the business. One fifth-generation Iowa farmer remarked to Oldham that his lease has enabled him to stop farming and lease out his land to others:

“Before, I raised corn and soybeans and cattle. Now I don’t. I’m a wind farmer.”

The lease income could also provide farm owners with an opportunity to diversify their crops and experiment with new crops and methods, without taking on the full burden of risk if the experiment fails.

In many communities, local farms have become popular destinations for local residents and tourists. Wind income has the potential to sustain these community assets.

Pros And Cons Of Wind Turbines

Do read the full article for more anecdotal evidence about the benefits of wind farms to farmers and their communities.

In the bigger picture, finding sites for new wind turbines — and new wind transmission lines — is not all sweetness and light.

Some of the objection comes from other property owners who fear negative impacts on their own property values. Major energy stakeholders like the Koch brothers have also played a role in tamping down support for new projects.

Both influences were at play in Wisconsin back in 2011, for example, when Koch-supported Governor Scott Walker engineered the takedown of an agreement on siting regulations for new turbines.

That effectively killed off the idea of establishing new wind farms in Wisconsin.

However, the setback appears to be a temporary one. State policymakers have been eyeballing the billions in new investment that the industry is bringing to other midwestern states, and this year a change of heart has been in evidence.

Coincidentally, last year a boiling feud between Walker and the Koch brothers erupted to the surface, so there’s that.

At least four new wind farms are now in the pipeline for Wisconsin, adding up to hundreds of megawatts.

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Photo (cropped): Illinois farm by Tom via flickr.com, creative commons license.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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