Besides growing soybeans and corn, Lake Benton farmer discovers extra revenue stream

Photos by Mike Lamb The above photo shows Lake Benton farmer Conrad Schardin preparing a load of hay to be transported to a customer. The below photo shows a wind turbine towering over the Schardin farm.

LAKE BENTON — “Curse of the wind turns to farmers’ blessing.”

That was the headline on a Nov. 26, 2000, New York Times article on wind turbines that featured Lake Benton farmers who sold their rights to the wind power that blasts through what is called the Buffalo Ridge.

A photo of Lake Benton farmer Conrad Schardin was displayed with the article. His farm sits on top of the ridge.

“Basically, they’re paying me to let the wind blow,” Schardin was quoted in the New York Time article.

Today, Schardin is still reaping the benefits of wind turbines on his land and on the surrounding farms. But just like other Minnesota farmers, he still grows corn and soybeans. The wind turbines, Schardin recently told the Independent, is just one of his “revenue streams.” But the turbines also play well with his philosophy when it comes to farming.

“Mother Nature, she always wins. You can’t fight her. I have always said that,” Schardin said. And when it comes to wind in southwest Minnesota, there’s no sense in fighting it. So Schardin decided to work with the wind.

He started looking into the renewable energy option at the same time he made the decision to get out of livestock, primarily stock cows.

“We got out of livestock in 2000,” Schardin said. That’s about the time he and his wife, Lisa, started a family.

“We kind of focused on them (two boys),” he said. “Livestock wasn’t a great enterprise. We just had commercial cows, so it was kind of easy to get out of it. It gives you a little more free time to get away a little more. Livestock is 24-7. So we got into the wind industry instead.”

Schardin first got involved with a task force that was looking into rules and regulations on wind turbines for the area. He explained that he was hired to put up anemometers on towers to collect wind data.

“I never put them up before, but I figured out it wasn’t too hard. I probably put up seven or eight of them anywhere from down to Lake Wilson and up to Hendricks just to get some wind data for this wind company from California so they could find out if we could possibly put a wind farm here,” Schardin said.

He said it was then that the prospect of wind farming became “real interesting” to him.

“A group of farmers and businessmen — we started Community Wind North. There is a group of seven of us and we put up a 30 megawatt wind project up in Verdi Township. I’m on the Verdi Township board and we put up 12 turbines up in Verdi Township here,” Schardin said.

Schardin said the 30 mega watt wind turbine project cost about $58 million to put up. He said Community Wind North received financial help from an equity partner.

“We got three turbines on land we own,” he said. “We leased the land from other local farmers. We started out with 150 investors and we lost some over deaths over the years. It’s been a good project for the investors and you know they got a good return on their investment. So far it’s been a good deal. It was a risky thing to do.”

Schardin said Community Wind North is now working with its third partner.

“We are just a silent partner and we get X amount of dollars per year,” he said. “It’s been a good deal. I’m the chairman of the board of governors that oversees the project.”

And since the New York Times article, other media outlets have checked out the Lake Benton wind project. He said ABC news was out at his farm to do a video and PBS did a radio “short story.” There has also been coverage in several agriculture publications and even a publication in Germany.

“If they are big enough, they (wind turbines) will generate for a land owner — depends on the contract — anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 a year for revenue. So it’s a good revenue stream and they take up little over an acre of land. There’s not a lot of negative.

“It seems like the people who are against it either don’t have one, or have a turbine close to them and not getting the benefits of it. I know Sioux Falls, Lincoln County and South Dakota, they fought it, and they had a lot of false information.”

Schardin also touts the economic benefits as well. Besides the farmers and the investors, he said, the turbines generate nearly $55,000 in tax income for the township. He said Lincoln County also benefits.

“There are multiple guys that wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the wind industry,” he said. “And it’s been a good job for young guys around here. There are multiple guys that wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the wind industry. And they are permanent jobs.

“It’s a clean renewable resource. I can’t see how it can hurt the environment. There are some aviation studies over bird kill. We haven’t seen any damage from it with all the turbines on the farms. We have done a lot of studies and walks out here to find some dead birds. But rarely do we ever see anything. And you can’t prove the turbine did it anyways.”

Schardin’s investment into wind energy would probably not have happened if he had taken his original career path envisioned by his parents.

“I kind of had an unique situation,” he said. “I went away to a private high school in New Ulm when I was a freshman in high school. My parents wanted me to go into the ministry. And they kind of wanted me to get away from farming. It’s kind of reverse psychiatry. When you tell a young man not to do something, it’s probably the worse thing you can do.

“I always kind of wanted to farm. I came right back after high school in 1980 and helped my dad. Things were going south in a hurry. Interest was so high and that was when the farm crisis hit.”

According to Schardin, the family farm that was originally started by his great-grand father, Theodore Schardin, back in 1885.

“My great grandfather came from Germany and spoke German,” Schardin said. “And there are quite a few Schardins around. He had quite a few brothers around — probably five, six homesteads, which were originally Schardines. We are the only ones left now.”

But the farm crisis took a toll on his father and the farm went back to the bank in 1984. After getting married, Schardin decided to buy the farm back in 1990.

“It was a perfect time to start farming,” he said, despite the farm crisis. “If you didn’t have any assets, you could get an FHA loan and get into farming that way. It didn’t take a lot of money to get in, even with all the high outputs you do now. There are quite a few guys around here my age that started farming when everybody else was getting out. We kind of jumped in. We were younger and didn’t scare at all. It can’t get worse. Most of us have done pretty well. You know farming is a good life.”

Schardin grows soybeans and corn.

“We raise about 1,800, 1,900 acres of corn and beans and we got a little over 200 acres of hay that we put out. What is unique about our hay is that we store everything inside. We put everything inside and it doesn’t get rained on,” he said. “It makes our hay much more valuable.”

Schardin said technology is the biggest change in farming. He uses his iPad to collect data. But he also points to chemicals.

“The biggest thing is that Mother Nature always wins. They always seem to come up with a herbicide and the herbicide is good for so many years and then Mother Nature wins. We are always constantly adapting,” he said.

“When I first started farming in the early ’80s, 100 bushel corn was a good crop of corn. Now it has more than doubled. That’s how we can kind of survive. The price hasn’t gone up. We had a spike for a couple years when we had a good price. It has come back down. What has helped us is the seed technology. It’s just amazing what they can do with that. Less fertilizer, less rain and we can still raise a better crop. That is why seed and chemicals are so expensive because they work.”

Schardin is optimistic about the upcoming crops, despite the dry winter.

“I always said I will take a drought any winter. I never lost a crop from lack of snow. But I would rather have a nice dry spring and timely rains. The biggest thing about farming, you don’t have control over the weather. Every year is different. No two years are the same,” he said/

Schardin is not sure if his two sons will follow him into farming. Learning from his experience with his parents sending him away from the farm to high school, Schardin said he’s not pushing his sons into family farming. One son is in college now, while the other one is finishing high school.

“It’s got its ups and downs, but it’s a good place to raise kids,” Schardin said of farm life. ” I think a guy is blessed to be able to be a farmer. Not everybody gets to be that lucky. I feel lucky I got that chance to do it because it’s not easy to get into. It’s got a lot of rewards. It’s got risk and stuff, but without risk there isn’t much reward either.”