Green Living: Farming the Sun? by Steve Waller

solar benefits, farming the sun, green living, holistic wellness in MI's Upper Peninsula

Farmers have been harvesting sunlight for millennia. The DNA in each plant combines CO2 from air, H2O (water), and energy from sunlight. Harvesting sunlight drives photosynthesis. Every leaf is a solar panel.

Those simple ingredients miraculously assemble into the crops we eat directly or feed to livestock. That green vegetable, golden grain, tuber, bean, or fruit is a convenient bundle of air, water and solar power (with trace elements from soil). We carry that bundled solar energy home for delicious, nutritious meals that energize our bodies and our thoughts. We are what we eat. What else could our bodies be? We are air, water and sunlight. No other energy source is involved. Our body’s energy is solar energy. Thank the farmers.

Today, some Upper Peninsula farmers have a new green crop available, one they never expected.

A way of farming so new and different that they are cautiously uncertain about it. Technology has now enabled U.P. farmers to economically harvest sunlight directly, feeding our other insatiable appetite—that for clean electricity.

Farmers in sunny locations, near power lines, are being invited to lease much of their land to solar producers who plant solar panels and harvest the electricity to feed our green power hunger. Harvesting this new crop is an opportunity for farmers to escape the uncertainty of market prices, water issues, and unpredictable government subsidies.

Solar power enables farmers to gain significant, reliable, year-round income from land leases (much like seasonal leases many farms already have) instead of just summer or autumn harvests. Solar power is a non-toxic, no-till crop that actually improves land and water by essentially eliminating pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. Space between rows of panels are often deliberately planted with “pollinator species,” flowers that attract bees and other pollinators, benefiting neighboring farms. Solar panels are silent, reliable, work year-round, aren’t labor intensive, and are friendly to wildlife.

Some farmers (and tourists) are not willing to exchange the classic view of cropland or pasture for solar panels. The change seems too radical, too technical versus biological, too non-traditional. Yet, the “traditional farm,” a biological food factory, is by necessity increasingly industrialized, genetically modified, and chemically enhanced. In winter, much of it is barren and unproductive. In spring, it is a sea of black tilled soil, subject to erosion, runoff, and flooding. Wildlife is discouraged.

Being a successful land steward (farmer) is a demanding and highly refined skill, complicated by many risks, pressured by markets, productivity goals, weather, and the economy.

Many farmers are older, with a lifestyle that younger generations either can’t afford or don’t want. Some owners are concerned that they can no longer work their land profitably. Selling land for a housing development might be their only reasonable alternative, but development ends the farm, the drive-by farm views, and permanently turns farmland into another housing subdivision.

Solar energy can enable veteran farmers to remain productive. Solar can help support them for the rest of their lives and their descendants’ lives for generations to come. A solar farm is one that can be kept in the family, even if the descendants are living a different life.

Willingly exchanging a bucolic landscape for a solarscape moves us toward a sustainable future. Solar panels will produce a yield, even as climate change puts conventional crops and farmers at risk. Solar power prevents greenhouse gases, protecting our rural environment and lifestyle. Solar farmers can provide the needs of the many in new ways, just as farmers have done for centuries. What we find aesthetically pleasing is influenced by our values and priorities. A farm crop of solar panels, working silently, cleanly providing for our needs, is beautiful.

Steve Waller’s family lives in a wind- and solar-powered home. He has been involved with conservation and energy issues since the 1970s and frequently teaches about energy. He and a partner own a U.P. wind/solar business called Lean Clean Energy. He can be reached at Steve@UPWallers.net.

Reprinted with permission from the Winter 2019-2020 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. All rights reserved.

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