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From The Editor: A Different Type of Solar Harvesting in the Fields

Robert Schickel on April 9, 2024 - in Articles, Column

Driving through rural Starke County, Ind., in various seasons will provide visitors a varied image of this part of the state. In late February, the land is gray and brown, harvested and barren from the last fall and winter; unless, of course, it’s covered in snow. Occasionally there are herds of cattle and goats and perhaps some horses. You can see for a long distance on either side of the road all the way to the tree line in the distance marking the end of one farmer’s field and the beginning of the next.

As springtime begins, some greening appears in those tree lines, and there’s an increase on the roads in farm-equipment traffic making their way to the fields to begin the season’s planting process. As the growing season progresses, corn, soybeans and mint plants begin to sprout. Soon, the view becomes much narrower as the corn grows tall and creates the impression of driving along a walled, two-lane road. Then the cycle moves to harvest time, bringing increased activity on the roads and in the fields as the crops are delivered and distributed; and the fields become brown again.

The New Crop

During the last couple years, some significant development has occurred. Many of these fields also contain solar panels. The solar farm in Starke County is called the Mammoth Solar project; appropriately named, not only for its size, but also because of the woolly mammoth bones found in the area’s soil. The Mammoth Solar project covers approximately 13,000 acres in Starke and Pulaski counties, and it will provide energy for 75,000 homes—the size of several communities in the area. These solar farms become more visible during the non-growing seasons, and the immensity is stunning.

But the point of this column is only partially about solar power generation. Certainly, converting solar power to energy we can use is extremely important, which is essentially the same process as farming but with a different energy conversion and output. However, I want to talk about the ways in which land used for solar farms is also being used for other purposes.

As you drive past these solar farms, you often have to look beyond a row of trees and shrubs that have been planted to provide a visual buffer. In a few years, these will be like the rows of trees that divide farm fields between owners. In addition, all the ground under and between the rows of panels are planted with various grasses and crops, which make for good pollinators.

Some farmers are raising their herds of sheep with ample grazing ground and providing natural ground care and maintenance. Others are increasing the amount of acreage for growing “solar popcorn” as they call it—no doubt a marketing tool. One of the effects is that farmers are growing more food rather than growing corn for ethanol and soybeans for various uses (only a small percentage of soybean crops are used for human consumption). Solar farms also create large field laboratories for nearby universities such as Purdue University and Ivy Tech Community College to develop methods to make other land uses economical and environmentally sound.

It’s the Law

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 requires multiple use on public lands. According to the Public Lands Council webpage: “This means that every American has a place on public lands—whether a hiker, camper, cattle rancher or energy producer.” Note that energy producer and—I will add—farmer (equivalent to rancher) both are included in the multiple land-use document, so there’s legal precedent for making more land available for multi-usage.

Yes, there are some people who have signs in their yards against solar farms just as there are signs against wind farms. But there are fewer and fewer signs, perhaps because more and more of the local people now are working for these industries. But we, as a community, also realize we need to find alternatives to fossil fuels to satisfy our energy demands. Using the land for multiple uses offers a unique opportunity to create energy and jobs while maintaining a better balance with the environment. 

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About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel was born in New Jersey and received his BS in Civil Engineering degree in 1971 from Valparaiso University in Indiana. His career started as a bridge design engineer and expanded to include design of various transportation facilities, including highways, bridges, rail lines and stations, and airport runways. Mr. Schickel managed engineering offices ranging from 20 to 140 people. He also served as a consultant to a large utility company. Mr. Schickel currently resides in Indiana and serves as Adjunct Professor for the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University. He enjoys his retired life at his lake house, playing golf, listening to music and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

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