Wind turbines in Blue Creek Township, Ohio. Credit: Nyttend / Wikimedia Commons

Unusually wet weather hurt planting this year and made wind turbine lease payments extra welcome to farmers.

Wind energy advocates say this year’s disappointing growing season in Ohio is a prime example why state lawmakers should be trying to make it easier, not harder, for farmers to put wind turbines on their properties.

Unusually wet weather made it a bad year for many Ohio farmers, but those with wind turbines on their land had a welcome and predictable source of additional income to make up for some of the losses.

About a sixth of Ohio’s farm acreage couldn’t be planted, according to data released this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. Statewide, that came to more than 1.5 million acres, with the heaviest losses for areas where farmers otherwise would have planted corn and soybeans. 

Dale Arnold, director of energy policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said farmers can anticipate that perhaps one of every 10 years will have adverse weather, although that ballpark figure is by no means a constant. Nor can farmers count on it.

“The severity of climate change is increasing, meaning more and more unpredictable weather conditions for our farming community,” said Miranda Leppla, vice president of energy policy and lead energy counsel for the Ohio Environmental Council. In her view, that makes the ability for Ohio farmers to diversify their source of income more and more important.

It’s unclear exactly how many Ohio farmers are benefiting from wind energy, but the figure is well into the hundreds. The 152-turbine, 304-megawatt Blue Creek wind farm in Van Wert and Paulding counties has 250 participating landowners and farmers, according to Jeffrey Reinkemeyer. As director of eastern renewables development for Avangrid Renewables, he testified before the Ohio House Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May. 

As of July, Ohio had 738 megawatts of wind capacity installed. That’s less than Michigan and Indiana, largely due to property line setbacks that were tripled in 2014. Nonetheless, farmers who can lease land for turbines often welcome the chance to earn extra guaranteed income.

“It’s amazing the number of farmers who are working with a lot of different types of energy service providers and developers,” Arnold said. In addition to leasing land for wind energy, some farm businesses are now leasing land for solar energy. Meanwhile, farmers in parts of the state have a long history of leasing land for oil and gas exploration and drilling.

“If you’re a farmer, you think about anything that shines down on the land, blows across the land, flows across the land, grows up from the land,” said Ernie Shea, president of Solutions from the Land, which advocates environmentally responsible agricultural practices that can benefit farmers, the public and the planet. Shea spoke at a panel on agriculture and climate change at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual meeting in Fort Collins, Colorado, earlier this month. In his view, “wind is a great example of something that can be deployed on agricultural landscapes.”

Not just in bad years

Wind and other energy-related leasing can help farmers in good years as well. “Many of them are taking that money and investing it in retirement or investing it in other things on the farm,” Arnold said.

Many of Ohio’s farms are multigenerational, with grandparents, parents and adult offspring all working in the family business. Each generation often has different goals — saving for retirement, doing necessary repair and upkeep, making capital improvements, or investing in educational opportunities. Families can often benefit from strategic planning and counseling to set priorities for how they will use income from wind turbines or other energy leasing, Arnold noted.

Farmers also need to plan ahead if they hope to have energy-related lease income when it’s most needed. It can take three to four years from the time where a farmer first meets with a company representative until a project is up and running, Arnold said. So, farmers “have to look several years into the future.”

Farmers also need to think about long-term planning. Farmers who lease land for wind turbines can often continue to work their acreage up to the base of a turbine. Solar installations often have a much larger footprint, but in some cases the lease payments can range up to three times as much as the net income farmers could earn from keeping that acreage in agriculture, Arnold said.

“What is this going to do across the generations?” he asked. Farm families need to consider the impacts of those issues across generations. And “they’re negotiating very carefully [about] when the solar farm is decommissioned, what steps are going to be done to bring this ground back into agriculture.”

Overall, wind farms in Ohio pay an estimated $1 million to $5 million a year to landowners, said spokesperson Evan Vaughan at the American Wind Energy Association. Precise figures vary from place to place, but average annual lease payments are around $3,000 to $6,000 per megawatt of wind energy installed. The capacity of most turbines installed last year was between 2 and 3 megawatts per turbine, Vaughan said. In a good location, farms can host multiple turbines.

The income doesn’t replace farm income, but it can provide an important supplement, Vaughan said. “For many families, this supplemental income is the difference between continuing a multi-generational farming tradition and ending a way of life.”

‘A bit of pushback’

“In addition to land lease payments, wind farms bring good careers and new revenue for communities that host them,” Vaughan continued. “Wind farms contribute over $7 million each year to state and local taxes in Ohio, helping fund rural school districts, buy new equipment for emergency services, and fill potholes.”

Since 2014, however, expansion of wind energy in Ohio has been largely stymied by a last-minute budget bill amendment that tripled property line setbacks for projects that had not already gone through the permitting process. Even then, wind energy projects have faced some opposition.

“In a lot of rural areas, there’s concerns and a little bit of pushback around the big wind developments,” said Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, who also spoke at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ meeting.

Debates focus on who gets the benefits from lease payments and whether the community benefits as well, he noted. Pushback also comes from some “neighbors who feel like the character of their community is maybe getting lost, and they may not be getting the benefits,” he said.

“You really need communities to step up … and [say] ‘Okay, how can we do this where we get a wind win-win thing here so everyone benefits,” Lilliston said.

But those discussions have different outcomes from place to place. And the people leading or funding different pressure groups may not always be from the community.

Van Wert County in Ohio welcomed wind energy several years before the state tripled its property line setbacks in 2014. But some county commissioners’ positions have now shifted. Anti-wind groups are active in Seneca County and elsewhere as well. The Checks and Balances Project and the Energy and Policy Institute have noted links between outside advocates who feed anti-wind sentiment and organizations with ties to fossil fuel.

Meanwhile, Paulding County welcomed the Northwest Ohio Wind Farm, which began generating power last year. Residents there also teamed up with the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Coalition and sued to overturn the tripled setbacks. The trial court dismissed the case in August. The plaintiffs did not appeal the decision, said attorney Jon Secrest.

Several bills to fix the tripled property line setbacks have also stalled or been thwarted by current leadership in the Ohio House of Representatives.

“Many setback provisions have been made arbitrarily. They’ve been changed by the government several times,” Arnold said. “We support wind turbine setback requirements that ensure safety and are based on scientific research.”

Meanwhile, Ohio farmers face the risk of more bad years like 2019.

“If we refuse to address climate change in Ohio, we will see this trend continue to hurt our farming community and make it increasingly difficult for our farmers to produce food in one of the richest agricultural regions in the country,” Leppla said.

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.