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Solar energy is a new cash crop for farmers – when the price is right


Much to his surprise, Ely Valdez has become a full-time solar grazer. Back in 2015, the Texas resident was working in the oil industry, but the jobs were insecure. He was raising sheep as a hobby, and noticed his neighbor across the road had begun developing a 100-acre solar project. Realizing that the land might serve double duty as pasture, he cut a deal with the landowner to raise sheep to graze around the solar panels. 

Now the Valdez family has nearly 900 sheep grazing more than 1,000 acres across three sites. It’s also diversified its business to include site maintenance around large-scale solar projects. “We call it sheep paradise,” he says. “They have food and shade all day.” 

Why We Wrote This

The transition toward renewable energy is creating a new kind of demand for rural land. Small farmers hope it can be a win-win trend – benefiting the environment and their own security.

His experience parallels a rising number of U.S. farmers who are growing solar energy alongside crops or livestock. It’s an idea with big promise at a time of rising focus on climate change and the need to transition away from fossil fuels. 

For Gregory Sigue, who owns some farmland in New Iberia, Louisiana, a solar installation is a goal that could bring new income. “There hasn’t been an opportunity this lucrative,” he says, “since they started drilling for oil and gas in Louisiana.”

New Iberia, La.

Gregory Sigue can feel the sun on his back as he points to a soybean pasture behind his home. Though he’s only been outside in the Louisiana heat for a few minutes while he surveys his family’s 300 acres it leases to local farmers, ringlets of sweat have begun to collect around Mr. Sigue’s tanned neck. 

Mr. Sigue’s family has been on the property in its part of south Louisiana dating back to his great-grandfather’s generation. In his youth alongside his siblings, he helped work the land.

“It taught me values,” he says.  

Why We Wrote This

The transition toward renewable energy is creating a new kind of demand for rural land. Small farmers hope it can be a win-win trend – benefiting the environment and their own security.

A winding career path included time in California as an ironworker and, later, working on several green energy projects in that state. It was there, Mr. Sigue says, that a flash of inspiration came. He had always planned to return to south Louisiana with the intention of maintaining his family’s land. Why not develop a utility-scale solar project on the family’s cropland?

He is now pursuing his dream, in parallel with a rising number of U.S. farmers who are opening their thought to growing solar energy alongside crops. It’s an idea with big promise at a time of rising focus on climate change and the need to transition away from fossil fuels. But Mr. Sigue’s tale also indicates the challenges some farmers face. So far, the energy companies he has talked to as possible partners aren’t offering as much money as he can get leasing land to other local farmers. 



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