Group: Sheep not a 'bah'd idea for solar sites

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Jun. 5—While a political battle rages in New York state on green energy deadlines put forth by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, local groups have put up steady opposition to renewable energy projects, such as solar farms or wind turbines, in their towns and in their fields. Of all the beliefs that glue these individuals together, the loss of rural agriculture land high on the list.

Put simply: farmland should make food, not electricity.

But to this point, Caleb Scott, owner of Scott Land Yard Group and a founding member, as well as vice president of American Solar Grazing Association, has a proposition.

"The assumption is when you put solar up, you lose that agricultural land, and you don't," Scott said. "We can make that land more productive."

Scott said that because of solar, the land can be made to produce even more than it does now in terms of food production and calories grown on the spot.

"When I was younger, we had the dairy farm," Scott said. "But once I got older, I got into sheep farming and from there we saw the opportunity to expand our business using solar. We started grazing our sheep on solar."

Scott made a serious case in favor of allowing sheep to graze on land that is used for solar energy production. The vegetation diversity under the panels — growing with less direct sunlight — make for a variety of plants that can build a healthy sheep flock and is not available in a traditional pasture. Also, the panels can be used as shelters from the sun when it's too hot or when it's windy or raining, which helps prevent sickness amongst the animals and help them gain more weight.

So far, Scott's company is grazing nine sites in New York state. He started this business while mowing on a piece of land owned by Cornell University, and proposed the idea of sheep grazing, explaining that sheep would work far better than his team of weed whackers and lawn mowers would ever would. The idea was approved in 2013, the first time sheep grazing among solar panels had ever been implemented in the country, Scott said. By 2015, his first large scale sheep grazing operation was placed on Cornell University solar grounds.

Today, Scott said he bids on sites opening up around the country, mostly concentrated around Maryland and Virginia, which he has not been awarded, as well as other sites in New York and specifically the Slayton Settlement site in the Town of Lockport where the San Francisco based company, Renewable Properties, intends to build a 45-acre solar farm.

"I already have an agreement with them (Renewable Properties) to maintain that site and farm it," he said. "They've said, 'We're going to work with you once the site is built."

Scott said that the situation in Western New York is similar to what his family encountered 20 years ago when they were dairy farmers in Ithica. The only difference was there were no solar companies trying to lease land. Those deals would've kept his family farming, he said and noted that the system he was proposing also left room for pollinating vegetation and therefore bees and honey.

Scott wrote to each member of the Town Board of Lockport regarding the solar moratorium they are considering.

"I am aware the decision before you is not an easy one at first glance, especially considering all things which have brought been brought forth recently," he wrote. "However, I would like to share with you a new and exciting perspective. It is a reality that I am living, as a seventh-generation farmer, who had, as a small child, experienced the loss of our family dairy due to economic hardships. I am keenly aware of the struggles the farming community face."

Scott went on to say that his family's livelihood with, "solar and agriculture working together to fundamentally change farming for the best," has swung back around to once again farming land, but now that land also hosts solar panels.

"Lockport is a city steeped innovation, renowned for inventors like the Holly family, home to businesses like General Motors and Yahoo; a town that historically has not viewed controversy and progress as stumbling blocks, but rather as opportunities," he continued. "If the moratorium passes, the decision you make will likely be made by other towns, because they will also fail to see the opportunity for what it is. Agriculture and solar can coexist, and they can do so to the benefit of the community. Let us show you how that is done."

Scott said he would attend the public hearing geared for Wednesday in the Town of Lockport.