There are Many Ways to Solar Graze
In part two of our “Solar Grazing“ series, learn more about the different options for solar grazing and its potential profitability.
Our last article offered a definition of solar grazing and a basic outline of what’s involved. Now we’ll cover a little more detail about different ways to get into solar grazing, including as an independent contractor, leasing out your flock to a solar site manager, or as an employee of a solar company. I’ll also share some numbers to give you a sense of the potential profitability of solar grazing.
My father and I own and operate Fortunate Ewe Farm in New York. We have been solar grazing for three years and we are independent contractors hired by a solar company. For all business matters we communicate directly with the Vice President of Operations. Each year we present them with a projected schedule, along with an estimated cost, and our contract. So far, we have had a great working relationship managing the vegetation, being a presence on the site, and a positive public relations opportunity for the company.
Fortunate Ewe takes out an insurance policy that covers the added liability of grazing off our farm. During the grazing season we send photo updates, along with any concerns about the array to the solar site VP of Operations. In return the company lets us know when their staff or other contractors need access to the site, and we make sure we’re there to open gates or move sheep if needed.
The value of this work is very important! Any landscaper would charge at least $30/hour to cut the grass. We farmers need to keep this in mind. A few years ago, when we started our grazing business, I called Kathy Voth for some advice. She shared the following tips from her experience grazing goats in the 1990’s, and they still hold true today. Below I’ve applied Kathy’s advice to a 15-acre solar site with 50 sheep that rotationally grazed the site for 75 days over the growing season.
- You need to know your daily cost to keep a sheep. On our farm it is about $1 per day per sheep (or $365 per sheep for the year).So for this example, 50 sheep x $1/day x 75 days = $3750
- Decide how much you want to get paid per hour while you are working on-site. I recommend using $25-$50 per hour depending on where you are in the country. Managing your sheep when they’re off-farm is time consuming, so make sure to include all the time you are driving to and from the solar site and the time will take you to manage sheep on the site. Currently we charge $30 per hour x 120 hours over the 75-day season =$3600
- Factor in the cost of equipment you use at the array. I use a walk-behind mower to clear the path for myelectronet. Sometimes I use a string trimmer or a scythe for any weeds the sheep haven’t knocked back. Estimate the replacement cost of this equipment and divide that by how many years of service you would expect to get from it. For our example, this is $3000 / 5 years =$600
- Add in your insurance payment. If you contract with more than one solar company, divide it between them =$400
- Don’t forget your mileage with a trailer to and from the site. You won’t be hauling a trailer on every trip to the site, and obviously this number will change a LOT depending on how far you are from your solar site. Plan on driving there every 3rdday your sheep are there, at a minimum. Even better if you plan for every other day. In 2020, the federal mileage rate is $0.575/mile. For 75 days of driving back and forth to our site, we charge for nearly 700 miles =$400
Our total in this example is $8750, divided by 15 acres = $583.33 per acre (Note, this comes out to $175 per sheep for the growing season in this example, but solar companies usually pay by the acre, and this is preferred by most graziers who want to be able to adjust sheep numbers as needed throughout the season). Keep in mind that this doesn’t represent the whole financial story for our sheep enterprise. We still sell lambs and sometimes breeding stock, and factor in farm overhead and profitability into this bigger picture.
All of the expenses that I have laid out above are included in our contract so there is a comprehensive understanding with the solar company we work with. It can be tricky to price out your grazing services from year to year because of variations in weather and other costs, but I have found this model works for our operation. Knowing your base costs is the first step, and then pricing for a profit is the next. These steps minimize your risk as a producer. The American Solar Grazing Association (ASGA) offers a free template contract on their website to help you get started.
In 2018, ASGA partnered with Cornell University on a survey of solar grazing. See Table 3 extracted from the survey for the numbers reported by respondents, and how they compare with Ashley’s numbers.
Leasing Your Flock
Maybe the scenario above sounds like too much work, and there are no solar sites near enough that you’d be willing to drive to them every couple days to check on your flock. Another option is to lease your sheep to a solar grazier who is responsible for managing them on the solar site. The solar industry is rapidly expanding, as are the few businesses now engaged in solar grazing, and currently there aren’t enough sheep to meet the demand. If your farm has sheep, leasing them out can be a new revenue stream for your farm, with very little of the responsibilities and expenses involved in being an independent contractor.
The tricky part is finding someone who wants to lease your sheep for the season. The American Solar Grazing Association can also help with this. If you become a member, you have access to our forums where you can network with solar graziers and find out what’s happening in your area.
Once you connect with someone interested in leasing your sheep, you need to build a relationship with that person, and discuss how they will manage grazing, health, and handling. You’ll need to agree on who will be responsible for transporting the flock to and from the solar site, and who is responsible in the event of death or injury due to predation or parasites. It’s critical to sign a contract for the grazing season laying out all the terms you’ve discussed.
In this arrangement, you will receive less per sheep than you would as an independent contractor, but your responsibility and expenses are also greatly reduced. Erica Frenay of Shelterbelt Farm in NY leased 25 lambs and 34 ewes out to Agrivoltaics LLC in 2019, and was paid $25 per lamb and $50 per ewe for the whole season, from roughly May to late September. 25 lambs x $25 = $625, and 34 ewes x $50 = $1700, for a total revenue of $2325. Agrivoltaics transported the flock to and from the solar site, and also monitored for parasite load periodically through the season.
Reflecting on this experience, Erica says, “My sheep returned to the farm in late September in great body condition. Having them off-farm over most of the growing season allowed me to interrupt parasite life cycles on the farm, and also stockpile some forage to feed the sheep on pasture later into the dormant season than in past years. Leasing out my flock was a fantastic added-value enterprise that I hope to do again.”
Direct Employment for Farmers in the Solar Industry
If you have some experience with sheep, but don’t currently have a flock and are looking for an exciting employment opportunity, a third option may be perfect for you. As more solar companies are realizing the benefits of using sheep to maintain vegetation at their solar farms, some have started to hire farmers as full-time employees to manage flocks at solar sites. This strategy benefits both the farmer and the solar industry. Experienced livestock managers can gain employment as salaried workers at solar companies that are poised to grow rapidly. Your sheep expertise is valuable! As an employee of a solar firm, you can ensure that the animals are managed well, and help the company scale up to use sheep on all their solar sites.
Perhaps you don’t want a full-time job managing sheep for a solar company. But if you have some available time, your sheep expertise can help solar companies with the design & operation of their solar sites for grazing, and they will pay you as a consultant to do so.
Since most of these arrays operate for a minimum of 25 years, there is good potential for long term employment with either opportunity. On the American Solar Grazing Association website, you can find many resources that will get you started, as well as connection to a fast-growing community of farmers, solar graziers, and solar industry representatives.
We encourage many of you to seize the opportunity to keep the land under solar panels in agriculture by using sheep for vegetation maintenance. It’s a win for everyone involved. And even if you don’t see yourself taking on any of the roles described above, this industry is evolving so rapidly that new ways of getting involved will undoubtedly emerge. Join the American Solar Grazing Association to get more information and help with finding your niche.
Look out for the next installment of this “Solar Grazing” series of articles in the next issue of the Small Farms Quarterly, where we’ll profile some people involved in solar grazing in various capacities.