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Midwest farmers are split on whether to use farmland for big solar plans

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As corporate demand for renewable energy soars, that is creating new tensions in farm country. One issue pitting some neighbors against each other is where to site large solar power developments. Some farmers embrace the steady income they can generate. Others worry about taking farmland out of production. From member station WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Chris Welter reports.

CHRIS WELTER, BYLINE: The Midwest is experiencing a bit of a solar energy boom. Land here is relatively cheap and flat. And with solar panel technology constantly improving, there's enough sun to make it practical and profitable. Add to that big corporate demand for renewable energy. There are now dozens of huge solar developments already online and hundreds more being planned. With that comes increasing tension about where to site the panels. Ohio farmer Lamar Spracklen was surprised by that tension.

LAMAR SPRACKLEN: When I did it, I had no idea there would be so much opposition.

WELTER: You pass a big sign with a sheep on it that says Lamar Spracklen family farm when you drive down the dirt road to his house in Southwest Ohio. It's next to the restored barns where his grandkids raised livestock for the county fair. The Spracklens have lived here for more than half a century, though their family's farming roots go back generations. Over the years, they've grown vegetables for farmers' markets. They've owned a bed and breakfast. To diversify, they've even considered oil and gas leases. A few years ago, Lamar Spracklen leased 60 acres of his land to a solar energy company. On those, he'll earn two to three times more than growing crops.

SPRACKLEN: It's insurance. It's an income. Money will be used to either buy other land or pay my grandkids' way to school.

WELTER: Spracklen says once he signed the lease, people got to talking. Some saw the economic opportunity and a way to fight climate change at the same time. But others, like his neighbors and even his daughter in law, argue that solar panels have no place on productive farmland.

SPRACKLEN: Gal that lives across the road here, she wouldn't speak to me for a while. So I went up to her. I said, well, what's the problem? She said, well, you signed a farm up, and people followed your lead.

WELTER: Brian Ross with the Great Plains Institute has been following this trend for years. He says some oppose solar only because it's on farmland.

BRIAN ROSS: But then there's a separate issue about protecting agricultural practices as an economic base. And then the final kind of issue is really around community character. There is a kind of rural character that some people think that solar has a visual impact that changes the character of the area.

WELTER: Despite that opposition, solar developers like Bill Behling, who's with the company Innergex, are flocking to the Midwest. He's standing next to a humming inverter at the Amazon solar farm in southern Ohio. This solar installation is enormous - well over 1,000 acres with more than 600,000 panels.

BILL BEHLING: So much of this is driven by the corporations and the sustainability goals, what I call the top five, the big five - you know, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple. They're all going 100% renewable energy.

WELTER: Behling's company owns and operates this solar farm, and Amazon buys all the power it produces to offset its fossil fuel usage at its big facilities. That's how Amazon and other big corporations try to meet sustainability goals. Because of that demand, solar developers are seeing huge growth potential in farm country. In fact, the day I interviewed Spracklen at his farm, he had just fielded a call from another developer asking him to lease more of his acreage. He says he hasn't decided what he's going to do yet.

For NPR News, I'm Chris Welter in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.