Pam McCauley loves her farm.
She loves watching her sister’s kids chase fireflies over the Fourth of July. She loves bottle-feeding calves by hand. She loves the house that her mother built.
More than anything, she doesn’t want to lose it.
“I'm going to be 65,” McCauley said. “I don’t have any heirs. I [had] to find some way that we can keep the family farm.”
For 20 years, she cultivated tobacco by day and worked at Walmart by night to try to pay off the farm. Then she heard about a new crop. So she made a few phone calls to see if it might work for her.
She was in luck. The electric transmission lines that cut across her field, that once made it harder to set tobacco in even rows, now seem like a blessing.
Because McCauley hopes that soon, she will become a solar farmer.
She recently signed a deal that will lease much of her farm to become one section of an industrial-scale solar array. McCauley says that nothing she’s produced in the past – corn, soybeans, tobacco, hay or cattle – could bring in as much money as solar energy.
She is just one among dozens of farmers who have signed up for solar leases in Harrison County, Kentucky, over the past six years. Renewable energy companies began approaching the community as early as 2014, and there are three projects currently in different stages of development. McCauley is in the second wave.
Earlier this year, the first project attained conditional-use permits from the local government. Now that company is waiting on approval for a siting permit from the state.
If they’re approved, area farmers could start cashing in on sunshine as early as this spring.
Solar energy represents a change for a commonwealth whose economic prospects have long been tied to labor-intensive industries like coal and tobacco. But that change is coming, through tax credits, infrastructure deals and climate change incentives. According to Reuters, the Biden administration hopes solar could power 40% of the U.S. by 2035.
To stave off the worst effects of the climate emergency, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates the planet will need 85% of its energy to come from renewable sources by 2050.
That means a massive transition world, nation and region-wide. Community solar projects have been authorized in 19 states, and farmers around the country are making the switch.
On the ground in Harrison County, though, that vision of the future is not yet a reality. And not everyone is on board. As the projects move forward and more people learn about them, questions tend to arise – questions that the solar companies, which do not have a permanent liaison in this rural area, are not always on hand to answer.
That means that education about the purpose and the process often falls to farmers like McCauley. She wants her neighbors to want solar. She’s convinced some of them. Others are more skeptical.
For this community, the solar future is more personal than money or energy. No one wants to lose the land where they’ve invested their lives.
That includes Pam’s longtime neighbor, Tom Cook.
Older vs. younger
Cook and his wife built their house for its perfect sunrise view. He doesn’t want anything getting in the way.
Cook’s 20-acre property shares a fence line with McCauley’s 100-acre farm. Wayne Clifford, McCauley’s cousin who lives directly across from Cook, also has signed a solar lease.
The company says they will plant a berm of trees that will hide the solar panels from sight, and appraisers say the impact on property values will be negligible. But the project will still change the view from Cook’s front porch, which currently overlooks one of Clifford’s hayfields.
The view isn’t the only thing Cook worries about. He has concerns about industry coming to an agricultural area.
“This is farm ground,” he said. “To me, [solar panels are] no different than a coal-fired power plant. They generate energy.”
Cook wasn’t the only one to make the comparison to coal. Others worried about solar also brought up mountaintop removal. They don’t want Kentucky farms to fall victim to another outsider-initiated scramble for resource extraction. Some residents believe that installing solar panels will involve cutting down hillsides or poisoning the ground with chemicals.
Environmental impact studies do not support those claims. Solar farms don’t require bulldozing any ground, and they effectively let the land lie fallow for 20 to 40 years. That means a break for the soil, and for the farmers, especially those who are older and beginning to consider retirement.
What’s more, the company takes care of all the maintenance. There’s no gravel beneath the panels, and they can be installed and removed with little to no impact on the land.
But younger farmers, and even rural residents like Cook who are not full-time farmers, still worry about preserving the pastoral landscape and agricultural lifestyle.
“If the only way you can keep the farm is with solar, you’ve already lost it,” Cook said.
Wayne Clifford understands the sentiment. Clifford, who lives across from Cook and is the president of the Harrison County Cattleman’s Association, has farmed his whole life and says signing a solar lease was a difficult decision.
“I have mixed feelings about taking good land out of production, but I can’t keep chasing cows,” said Clifford, who is 71 and has already started to cut back on cattle. His children will not continue the family business. Clifford says he will farm as long as he is able.
But farming profitably is getting harder. In recent years, farmers in Harrison County have tried everything from hemp to emus to fill the gap left by the declining tobacco industry.
Those projects were always uncertain, and many farmers lost money on hemp. But solar is different. It’s a guaranteed paycheck.
“Mother Nature’s a gamble, but solar isn’t,” said Troy Bradford, who is leasing 200 acres of his farms for solar panels, including prime land on the ‘dream farm’ he just purchased a few years ago. “People who have the opportunity to do this now will be the lucky ones.”
With the financial support of solar, Pam McCauley is excited to take a step back from the labor-intensive work of farming without giving up ownership of any of her land.
And it is her land. McCauley says that regardless of what anyone thinks, she is exercising her personal property rights. “If my neighbors put in a messy hog farm, I may not like it, but that’s their right,” she said. “It’s the same with solar.”
The profits are higher than hogs, and easing their financial burden with solar means she and her husband can travel or go on a hunting trip without having to care for the cows or bale the hay before it rains.
But not everyone who wants the financial safety net of solar can get it.
Those left out
Sylvia Kuster and her husband Skip currently lease most of their nearly 400-acre property to tenant farmers. Skip, who used to do most of the farm work, has started to slow down.
The money they make from leasing to tenants hasn’t been enough to cover the costs of repairs on barns, fences and fields, which Sylvia estimates would cost over a quarter of a million dollars to fix.
So in 2016, Sylvia and Skip signed a contract that would put nearly all of their land – about 350 acres – into solar. The only caveat was that in order to connect to the electrical grid, the lines would have to cross a small piece of their neighbors’ farm.
But as the project progressed and engineers began to examine the site – which the Kusters say may have involved surveyors crossing the bordering farmland without permission – the neighbors began to express resistance to the idea.
Two employees from the solar company approached the neighbors numerous times, but eventually determined that they would be unable to attain the necessary permissions for the deal.
In February, the Kusters received the official notice: they had lost their lease.
“The kind of things you could do to a farm to improve it with that kind of money, and then it's gone in one envelope,” Sylvia said. She believes that without the funds from solar, she and Skip will eventually lose their farm. “It's been a heartbreaker.”
The neighbors did not want to speak on the record about solar, and Doug Schulte, one of the representatives who has since retired from the solar company, did not want to comment on this specific incident. Still, Sylvia says she understands why the neighbors would have been angry about trespassing. She also believes Schulte, whom she and Skip consider a friend, did his best to advocate for their family – until he retired from the company.
When asked how an energy company evaluates whether to terminate a lease, Schulte said that the company would “try multiple avenues to resolve those issues.” But “after what people consider a substantial enough effort,” he said, eventually the company decides to walk away.
He did not provide specifics as to the decision-making process, but said that it is a company-based decision not left to any one individual. BayWa, a West Coast-based LLC that acquired the original company the Kusters signed with, declined multiple requests for comment.
At least two other farm owners experienced the same issue as the Kusters – they signed a lease, then discovered they would be unable to persuade the neighbors to allow them access to the grid.
One of them, Susan Dycus, said she has never met the neighbors who blocked her out of the deal. Dycus, who is not a farmer, said that she felt excluded from the other farmers’ discussions.
“They didn't invite me to come to their meeting and present our opinions, they just decided our fate all by themselves,” she said. “I don't know what I could have done about it.”
Companies and communities
Cook, too, feels that the decisions about solar in the county have already been made.
“I don't think that they're asking people what they think,” said Cook. “I feel like it was kind of shoved down everybody's throats before you got to say, ‘hey, this is great’ or ‘this is not.’”
In late August, the solar company McCauley signed with held an information session for the community. It was a Wednesday night, a night also known as church night here. Most in attendance were landowners who had already signed solar leases.
Instead of a presentation, this event was meant to be an informal conversation. Company representatives and engineers stood by poster boards on easels.
Pam McCauley stood by one of the easels, pointing out area landmarks. Though they were not marked on the map, she could point out every barn, field and property owner.
Most of the company representatives are working on over a dozen projects across the country simultaneously. McCauley knows this one front to back.
A few neighbors of landowners showed up who had found out only the day before that there was a solar project planned for the county. One, Marsha Dance, came with a printed list of questions. She handed out extra copies.
“Who owns the Renewable Energy Tax Credits (REC)?” she wrote. “And please explain like I’m 5 years old – What are RECs?”
Those tax credits are just one way residents are unsure whether solar will really benefit their community. Because the government is encouraging companies to invest in clean energy by giving them dollars in exchange for funding wind and solar projects, lenders are incentivized to get projects off the ground as fast as possible.
That approach can limit how much companies are involved in individual communities, especially when they are juggling many projects at once.
Some in attendance also wanted to know how their electricity bills would be affected. (They won’t. The power goes to the grid, not directly to Harrison County residents). They wanted to know about jobs (Something like 200 during the year of construction, then 10-12 permanent jobs that the company described as requiring technical labor from outside the community).
Others expressed frustration at what they perceived as a lack of transparency. The company had sent out mailers, but only neighbors directly bordering the proposed project had received them. Anyone on the opposite side of the street had not.
Despite the fact that it was a public meeting, company representatives from Recurrent Energy said they did not want to be quoted for this story.
Anthony Koch, who asked 30 minutes of questions at the planning and zoning meeting in May, came back again this time. He realizes that many farmers are excited about solar, and said that he felt significantly outnumbered at the last meeting. But he also wants to know whether anyone besides landowners in leases would see a benefit from the energy companies’ arrival.
“I don’t want any big company taking advantage of [rural Kentucky],” Koch said.
Part of what complicates the solar rollout, then, is that linking the land together is highly dependent on a community network – and the perception of that network.
“Initially I wasn’t really for it because I didn’t think the neighbors would be for it. As it turned out, they were all already signed up or really interested in it,” said Jim Wilson, another farmer who has signed a solar lease.
Until the solar companies begin construction, farmers who have signed leases are able to continue working the land. McCauley is excited for the day when the panels finally arrive.
But in the interim, neighbors like McCauley and Cook coexist. When Cook lost track of one of his calves in late August, McCauley helped him look for it.
When asked whether she still had a good relationship with Cook after signing the solar deal, McCauley was surprised.
“Was Tom that mad?” she asked.
For now, these disputes exist at fence lines and over roads. In Harrison County, they have not been enough to mobilize widespread resistance or organized protests against solar. Instead, small fractures appear in relationships between neighbors, friends and family members.
But sometimes, those fractures are enough to create a break.
And that break can mean the difference between keeping the family farm and losing it.