Wind and agriculture farming are good for crops, farmers, and beyond
Farmers see up close the effects of climate change every day as droughts and flooding make their livelihoods more precarious and growing seasons shift. A lot of them are doing what they can to both shore up their own positions and aid in the clean energy revolution by installing wind turbines on their farms. Turbines take up only about a half-acre each, and in contrast to the amount of space solar panels take up, farmers can keep growing crops right up to the base of turbines. As Nebraska corn and soybean farmer Mike Zakrzewski told the World Resources Institute, wind and agriculture on his land “was a win-win as far as I was concerned.” Here’s why.
Rich in Resources
You might not be surprised to learn that some of the most productive agricultural land in the U.S. is also where the wind is. The areas in the Plains States and Midwest where most crops are grown are also where average wind speeds tend to be highest. There aren’t many high-rise cities blocking wind, for one thing, but the lack of populous cities has a lot to do with the geography of the places. Sometimes the wind can be too powerful, as the Tornado Alley moniker indicates, but it can also be a tremendous resource. Harvesting wind and agriculture on the same land can help farmers with extra income in case crops fail, providing a reliable source in unpredictable times.
Reinvesting in the Land
Farmers can also reinvest income from wind turbines into their farms, making them more productive and more efficient, as a 2014 University of Michigan survey found. Landowners in the state with wind and agriculture farming on their properties invested twice as much money in their farms over a five-year period as those without wind turbines. There were able to use that money for new and renovated outbuildings, better equipment, and other things that helped improve crop yields.
Zakrzewski found the same thing in Nebraska. “The facts and the economic numbers were on our side,” he told WRI. “Honestly, that’s what sways (other farmers).” Others who didn’t sign up to be part of the Grande Prairie Wind Farm, which has a capacity of 400 megawatts and provides power to Omaha, the state’s largest city, regretted it.
“‘Oh man, I wish I would have thought about this differently when we had the opportunity to sign up,’” Zakrzewski said they told him.
It turns out pairing wind and agriculture farming works out well for the crops, as Iowa State University researchers have found. Led by agronomy professor Gene Takle, the researchers discovered that the turbulence created by wind turbines can keep away pathogens such as mold and fungus and make harvesting faster.
“The biggest changes are at night and that’s because during the day there’s a lot of chaotic turbulence, just because the sun is heating the surface and the wind is gusty,” Takle said. “At night when it gets pretty calm, the crop cools down and if it’s a humid night you start to get dew formation. If you add the turbines, it looks a little more like the daytime. So the dew formation is delayed and it may start to evaporate sooner.”
The turbulence also makes more carbon dioxide and sunlight accessible to plants, enhancing photosynthesis.
“So there are three ways the crop is being ‘fertilized’ from either the air or from the soil or from increased photosynthesis. We measured increased carbon dioxide uptake during the day, but an increased respiration at night,” he said. “But over the course of the day there was more uptake. So as far as the impact of the turbines on the carbon dioxide processes and the photosynthesis process in the near vicinity of the turbines it’s a net gain.”
Rather than taking away from the agricultural productivity, harnessing wind energy on the same land is akin to double-cropping, Takle said.
It’s not just farmers who are reaping the benefits of the marriage of wind and agriculture. While fossil fuel energy jobs are shrinking, clean energy jobs are growing by leaps and bounds. They outnumber fossil fuel jobs in the U.S. 2 to 1, WRI and the New Climate Economy reported. Many of those jobs are in rural areas that have been losing population to cities for decades.
“These jobs are well above the county average in salary,” Zakrzewski said, “and allowed several young men and women the opportunity to return to Holt County for their careers.”
From 2005-17, 41 states grew their economies while reducing their emissions, WRI found. There’s enough wind capacity to produce more electricity than the U.S. uses. The trick is to harness as much of it as possible. Wind and agriculture working together is a great way to start.