ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A lot of states have big plans to expand solar power. But when solar panels take over large areas of land, especially farmland, it can set off controversy. Now some solar companies are finding ways to have clean energy and farming, too. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: In southern New Jersey, Pilesgrove Township, a company called Dakota Power Partners wants to build a solar power station on 800 acres of land. It's creating lively discussions at the Pilesgrove Township Planning Board.
JIM DAVIS: The carpetbaggers have come south to take up our property, our land, our farms.
CHARLES: Jim Davis lives next door to the proposed solar farm.
DAVIS: I'm going to look out my house, my living room windows and see 16 feet of solar panels.
CHARLES: For a lot of people here, like Cheryl Reardon, the big problem is it'll replace fertile, productive farm fields.
CHERYL REARDON: We're a farming community. We were the first town to adopt a right-to-farm ordinance. Don't forget what your vision is for this township and what it should remain to be.
CHARLES: This is a pretty common reaction according to Zaid Ashai, the CEO of a solar company in Boston called Nexamp.
ZAID ASHAI: When people see projects that changes a way the landscape has looked for potentially a hundred years or more, there's a reflexive reaction. That's human.
CHARLES: But Ashai says farming and solar can actually be friends. Leasing land to solar companies can be a financial lifeline to small farms that are struggling. Farmers can earn a thousand or more dollars per acre per year. The other thing is it is possible to capture the sun and still farm the land. It just has to be a slightly different kind of farming.
JULIE BISHOP: Come on, lemmer lemmers (ph). Come on, girls.
CHARLES: Julie Bishop is calling her sheep, 55 of them off hiding in the middle of 15 acres of solar panels near the town of Vineland, also in southern New Jersey.
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CHARLES: A few years ago, Bishop had just started raising sheep, and she didn't have much pasture for them on her little farm. But then she was driving down the road one day and noticed this grassy field with solar panels.
BISHOP: I thought, that would be a good place for my sheep. It's all fenced in, and I'm sure they're paying somebody to mow the grass.
CHARLES: She figured she could handle that job a lot more easily.
BISHOP: They're just born to weed-whack. Let them do what they're good at, and let people do something that's, you know, not so backbreaking for people.
CHARLES: She got in touch with the solar company, and now they are paying her to graze her sheep here. Bishop renamed her farming operation Solar Sheep. She now has flocks of the animals at three solar sites around New Jersey.
BISHOP: It really does work.
CHARLES: And it could soon expand dramatically. Dakota Power Partners is designing their proposed solar plant in Pilesgrove Township to include a barn for Julie Bishop and her sheep. The company's highlighting this in its efforts to win approval for its project. Zaid Ashai says Nexamp also has sheep at a few of its sites, and it's investigating other ways to combine solar and some version of farming, like beekeeping, even growing vegetables.
ASHAI: We still have not even scratched the surface on how to integrate agriculture and solar power plants more closely.
CHARLES: In fact, construction is about to start on dozens of combined solar and vegetable farms in Massachusetts. The state's kicking in money to make these farms possible. The solar panels will be at least 8 feet off the ground so people can work underneath them. Next summer, if all goes well, that land will produce strawberries, pumpkins and butternut squash.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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