A cash crop is blowing in the wind

I turned onto Highway14 at Lake Benton looking for the Conrad Schardin Farm. And then I saw them. Wind turbines. One after another dotting the now frozen corn and soybean fields.

Schardin told me on the phone he had a few wind turbines, which didn’t surprise me. I recently discovered that some farmers are using renewable energy sources as an extra revenue stream.

My farm tour for the Independent Ag Today 1 section last month took me to Florence where I visited with Alfred Jessen on his farm. He had one small wind turbine next to his barn and some solar panels. Jessen is primarily retired from farming, but still kept his interest for renewable energy going on his farmland.

“I believe in wind and solar,” Jessen told me.

And so does Schardin. His farm was on my second tour for profiles in the Ag Today 2 section that comes out in the March 8 newspaper.

The wind turbines I saw as I drove on Highway 14 were part of a project that was started in 2000 among a group of farmers in Verdi Township. With the help from investors, 12 large turbines were erected. Three of the turbines sit on Schardin’s farmland.

The project was so revolutionary, that it was featured in the New York Times back in 2000.

“Basically, they’re paying me to let the wind blow,” he was quoted in the Times.

Schardin and his partners were taking advantage of the breezes that blow over the 1,000 feet in elevation of the Buffalo Ridge. His farm is at the highest point around Lake Benton. He told a German publication back in 2000, that he usually is the last to plant and the last to harvest and that his farm usually accumulates more snow than anyone else.

The area experiences long periods of wind during the winter because large frontal systems generate intense winds which sweep across the prairies and accelerate as they hit the ridge.

The genie is now out of the bottle. Farming the wind and sun is well worth the investment. Jessen made that small investment and so did Schardin.

According to a study by the Clean Energy Minnesota, renewable energy jobs, most of which are in wind and solar, grew by 16 percent to around 6,200 in Minnesota from 2015 to 2016. The industry-led nonprofit says the wind building boom is expected to continue over the next five years.

Geronimo Energy last week reported to the Murray County Board of Commissioners that its Plum Creek Wind Farm now under development is expected to pour millions of dollars in the region during a 20-year span.

And according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, farmers are in a unique position to benefit from the this growth in the wind industry. That’s because farmers typically own lots of land. That land can be leased to wind developers, use the wind to generate power for their agriculture operations or become wind power producers themselves.

This report stated that farmers who allow developers to install large wind turbines can reap $2,000 to $5,000 per year for each turbine. Schardin said he typically earns $7,000 to $10,000.

And for Schardin, he had an easy trade off. He got out of the labor-intensive livestock business and jumped into the wind turbine project. The tradeoff allows him to spend more time with his family during the winter before he has to get busy with crops in the spring.

Wind turbines or solar is not for every farmer. But for some farmers, it’s an extra revenue stream that possibly can help to offset low commodity prices.

While temperatures and precipitation fluctuate, the winds that blow across the southwest Minnesota plains are pretty consistent.

And farmers can do what they do best — produce: Corn for fuel in the car and electricity for homes.

Both put cash into farmers’ pockets.