Talking Large-Scale Solar with Jefferson County’s Farmers
Pastoral landscapes may be easy on the eyes, but farming them is a hard life. Todd Hough of Oakwood Farm has been working the land since he was a child. He and his brother are the fourth generation to run the family farm in the Kabletown District of Jefferson County.
Although the farm is known for its extensive dairy operation, Hough said, “we’re in the middle of closing the dairy business” this fall. “The last few years have been a bumpy hayride. We pay thousands of dollars each week for feed, but take in less from milk sales.” He noted that even though he grows grain himself on a combination of 1400 acres of land he owns and rents, he just can’t make the dairy economics work any more.
Although he’s at the age when most people would be eager to retire, Hough emphasized that he still plans to continue to make a living off of his land. His brother, who recently suffered a stroke, isn’t so lucky and needs to retire.
Hough expects he can continue the grain and cattle operations for a while, but he knows he needs to diversify the income stream, both for his brother as well as himself. “We’re working on putting our home farm into the farmland preservation program which is a one-time deal. The opportunity for solar on a couple hundred acres on another parcel of the farm gives us an ongoing revenue stream. It’s a little more money than just renting the land and it would let me continue working the rest of the farm without struggling.”
Randy Funkhouser of O’Sullivan Farms in the Charles Town District echoed Hough’s concern about older farmers. “If you can no longer farm and you want to keep your land, you need to generate income.” Funkhouser agreed that renting the land to another farmer could be an option for some but he noted, “it doesn’t replace anywhere near the income you make from farming the land yourself.” He provided some estimates that would put rental income at ten to thirty percent of what a farmer might net from active production. He also remarked, “If the County really wants to encourage land to stay in agriculture, it should expand the funding for the Farmland Protection Program.”
Both Hough and Funkhouser expressed a strong preference to see land remain available for agricultural use, rather than be permanently converted for housing development. They shared a sentiment The Observer heard from several other farmers as well — a solar installation is not permanent in the same way that housing is. It’s still farmland.
Funkhouser considers the County’s comprehensive plan — Envision Jefferson 2035 — a good roadmap for locating and guiding the development of large scale solar projects: “If you stay with the ‘2035’ plan, you don’t put it near the villages and if it’s in rural areas it’s not an eyesore. People come to Jefferson County and they drive around the back roads. If you follow a plan you don’t endanger tourism. And you don’t build a lot of houses all over the place that do affect the landscape that people come to enjoy.”
Cam Tabb got out of the dairy business a while ago and now runs a diversified operation on his family’s farm in the Middleway District. He also served on the County’s Planning Commission during the development of the Envision Jefferson 2035 Comprehensive Plan. Tabb said, “it was an extensive process to develop the plan with a lot of discussion and back and forth. We had a few court cases early on. The County won, so after that we knew we had a fair and defensible ordinance that could work to guide development.”
Tabb emphasized that he agrees with all of the reasons that any farmer should be able to make use of the land for solar installations. He explained that his main concern is with the process, particularly the current rush to amend the zoning ordinance. “When the County adopted the comprehensive plan, the Planning Commission had a lot more members and there were a lot of people involved.
What this amendment does is to take away any oversight by the elected County Commissioners or the appointed Planning Commission members. The approval of projects covering hundreds of acres would be solely up to a staff person and with no opportunity for any meaningful public review.” Funkhauser had a similar concern: “this shouldn’t be a rubber-stamp process without any local people being involved. It would just create pandemonium.”
Speaking about the zoning ordinance and the processes for guiding development, Tabb noted that it works because there is trust in the process even if not everyone agrees. “You can hope that everyone involved is working in good faith, but if you have oversight you don’t have to speculate. And you need to make sure you have an enforcement ability if the promises don’t happen.”
He stressed the need to make sure questions get answered so that it’s not just on the back of the individual farmer to hope to negotiate a good deal with no surprises down the road, particularly with the bonding for any remediation. “You want to allow the farmer to pass the land to the next generation, so you want to make sure you don’t pass along a liability too.”