We're frequently reminded that wind energy and agriculture are compatible land uses. Farmers who lease sections of their crop land for wind development can continue working the soil right up to the towers and earn extra revenue for farming expenses. A win-win business opportunity, right? Not so fast. In this two-part series (part 2 here), Windaction.org examines the wind-farming relationship in the State of Illinois and tests the claim that the two are a good fit. As with so many topics involving wind energy, there is another story behind the story.
Back in 2007, Windaction.org posted a document entitled "What have I done?" The piece, written by Don Bangart of Chilton, Wisconsin, was based on a two- hour interview he conducted with a farmer in Northeast Fond du Lac County who agreed to lease a portion of his land for wind development. In the interview, the landowner makes several observations including this about how his land was managed:
"I watched stakes being driven in the fields and men using GPS monitors to place markers here and there. When the cats and graders started tearing 22 foot wide roads into my fields, the physical changes started to impact not only me and my family, but unfortunately, my dear friends and neighbors. Later, a 4 foot deep by 2 foot wide trench started diagonally across my field.
"A field already divided by their road was now being divided again by the cables running to a substation. It was now making one large field into 4 smaller, irregularly shaped plots. ...We soon realized that the company places roads and trenches where they will benefit the company most, not the land owner. ... All of the rocks we labored so hard to pick in our youth were replaced in a few hours by miles of roads packed hard with 10 inches of large breaker rock. Costly tiling we installed to improve drainage had now been cut into pieces by company trenching machines."
The Wisconsin farmer's experience is not unique.
Illinois has some of the best farming soil in the world with McLean County, Illinois rated #1 for the darkest, blackest most productive soil in the world.
But after extensive land moving and excavation needed to build roads and erect the turbines, farmers tell Windaction.org that the ground is never the same afterward. The fertile soil around the towers is mixed with subsurface clay and compacted resulting in lower crop yields. Depending on the lease terms, developers may compensate landowners for crop reductions but payments are often not passed on to tenant farmers who suffer the actual losses.
Since compaction is assumed to be a construction-related impact, crop-loss payments are often time-limited up to five years. However, every time turbines require maintenance, the massive crane is brought back to the site making compaction an ongoing concern throughout the life of the project. And it's not limited to existing roads or turbine pads. Turbine maintenance crews prefer to crawl across fields -- flattening crops and ground -- for quicker access to turbines needing service.
If drainage tiles are cut or damaged during construction, you're apt to see farmers working around ponds that were previously nonexistent. Or worse, adjacent fields not under lease can flood. With competition for rentable farmland so fierce, local tenant farmers risk losing their farms if they complain.
Soil compaction and drainage issues are serious concerns, but some might argue their effects are localized, and thus manageable. But that cannot be said about the impact of wind turbines on aerial spraying -- a subject that gets very little exposure.
The ability to secure aerial spraying services is limited in areas where turbines are standing.
The message on the Illinois Agricultural Aviation Association (IAAA) website is clear:
"...farmers with wind generators may lose the option of aerial application of farm protection products, seed, fertilizers, etc. on their farm ground. Possibly more significant is that their neighbor farmers, who have no wind generator(s) and consequently no income from them, stand to lose that option as well.
"Some proponents of wind farms tend to dismiss this possibility out of hand, with the explanation that "those guys can fly around them with no problem," or "just get a helicopter to do it." Others say that ground application can still be effectively performed so the aerial option is insignificant. Unfortunately, it is just not that simple. Sometimes weather problems and/or timeliness of application dictate an application from the air.
"The fact is, it is dangerous to fly within the confines of a wind generator farm."
As more and more towers go up, less and less fields can be sprayed. Experienced pilots can feel the wake effect of the towers from several miles away. Such turbulence is dangerous to fly through.
Helicopters may be recommended because they travel at slower speeds and can work in more confined spaces but they can't carry the same loads meaning more trips at higher costs. There are far fewer helicopters in the State (under 10 in total) so timely availability is a critical issue.
Some farmers try ground applicators but aircraft can cover crops faster and more efficiently than any ground rig. In cases of Asian soybean rust, farmers could experience an 80-100% yield loss if not treated within a week. Aphids or spiders mites can destroy a field within days. If infestations occur during wet years ground equipment on wet soil will cause compaction or ruts that lead to erosion.
Illinois County Boards tasked with approving new wind development appear willing to accept that aerial applications are still possible but with more difficulty and at a higher cost (most spray policies charge premiums up to 50% above standard costs on fields within a mile of the towers, whether a participating landowner or not). What they do not seem to realize is that as more wind farms are permitted, the cumulative effect will lead to fewer and fewer fields that can be sprayed, making total crop loss a real possibility.
Since crop insurance will not cover the farmer in cases of insects or plant disease where damage is "due to insufficient or improper application of pest control measures or disease control measures", crop loss could lead to significant financial losses for farmers.
Illinois has nearly 1900 megawatts of wind turbines installed across thousands of acres of farm land and thousands more slated for development. Absentee landowners may be gaining financially from the development, but the idea that "wind farming" is a compatible agriculture use is more myth than reality in Illinois.
Special thanks to Rick Reed, president of IAAA, who provided valuable information on aerial spraying.