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Wisconsin, the dairy state, may someday be known as the solar state too. One of the biggest solar projects in the Midwest is planned for prime dairy land. While solar is a boost for some struggling dairy farmers, others fear the fallout from turning their farm community into a solar production site. Sarah Whites-Koditschek, of Wisconsin Public Radio, reports.
SARAH WHITES-KODITSCHEK, BYLINE: Bob Bishop is a 61-year-old farmer living deep in dairy country in southwest Wisconsin. Today he is helping his two sons pull a downed tree off a fence line.
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WHITES-KODITSCHEK: The Bishops have been in and out of debt since the hog industry tanked in the 1990s. Now, they'll no longer raise milk cows because dairy is in trouble too. And Bishop says automation creates uncertainty for the future of their corn and soybean crops.
BOB BISHOP: You take the farmer off the tractor, that's going to be quite the change. And what markets will be out there, who knows?
WHITES-KODITSCHEK: The Bishops love to farm and are looking to solar to help them stay on the land. They lease about 650 acres, about a third of their land, to what will be one of the Midwest largest solar projects. Twenty-nine-year-old Andrew Bishop wants to raise a family here and have something to pass along.
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ANDREW BISHOP: I'd like my kids to take over running my farm someday. I have to have the financial future in front of them to make it viable.
WHITES-KODITSCHEK: Farmers in the project will earn about three times their typical income for this land, and the county could bring in more than $1 million a year in tax revenue. The Badger Hollow Solar Farm, proposed by renewable energy company Invenergy, will sell at least half of its 300 megawatts of power to Wisconsin's public utilities.
I'm standing at what will be close to the heart of the Badger Hollow Solar Farm, next to a cornfield right now. And I can see windmills in the distance turning. There are cars going by on a main road, where there is a power line.
ALAN JEWELL: To an accountant, it's dirt. To somebody that works with the land and fields, it's a partnership. And so it's not an element to buy or sell. It's an element to respect.
WHITES-KODITSCHEK: Residents like Alan Jewell fear that a utility-scale solar project will destroy the natural beauty and farming legacy here. More than a million 15-foot-tall solar panels and their machinery could dot this rolling farm landscape. Jewell says the state has no citing rules specific to solar. He says the county board didn't fully study the unknowns and rushed to support the project. Jewell says neighbors haven't been promised large enough setbacks or noise controls from the inverters.
JEWELL: Nobody has taken the time to think this through.
WHITES-KODITSCHEK: But Iowa County Board Chairman John Meyers says officials did their homework on this project.
JOHN MEYERS: We've rehashed this for about three months now. We brought it to the county board a month ago, and we sent it back to the committee that initiated it. I think it's been fairly well-vetted in the county.
WHITES-KODITSCHEK: Invenergy project manager Dan Litchfield promises that the panels will be visually unobtrusive.
DAN LITCHFIELD: As far as energy generation technologies go, I think it's as low impact as it gets. There's no water usage other than the bathroom in the maintenance facility. There's no air emissions.
WHITES-KODITSCHEK: And there's another possible upside. If some farmers switched to milking the sun, it could conceivably help bolster dairy prices in Wisconsin for the farmers still milking cows. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Whites-Koditschek.
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