Shepherding the Sun: Grazing Sheep Under Solar Arrays

Sunlight is a precious resource in Central New York and a new collaboration between farmers and Cornell is looking at ways to harness it using technology that truly puts the soft in software: sheep.

Thousands of acres in New York are being turned into solar farms and many fear that this will displace agricultural land. However, grazing sheep under solar arrays creates synergies that benefit farmers and solar companies. Solar arrays offer shaded pasture for sheep, who in turn act as a fossil-fuel-free way of managing the grounds. The entire state benefits from this source of clean energy that supports agriculture.

The Cornell Small Farms Program’s own livestock specialist, Erica Frenay, is serving as an advisor on the project.

“Grazing sheep under solar arrays is a viable way for farmers to earn revenue from new sources, and there is great potential for scaling up the sheep industry in the Northeast, keeping the land under all those. solar panels in agricultural production while supplying meat to local consumers,” Frenay explained.  

One of the major challenges with this system is that solar companies tend to be large multinational organizations and are used to dealing with other large companies. Sheep operations in New York are small and only 39 of the approximately 2,000 operations have more than 300 heads of sheep. Todd Schmit, associate professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and faculty director of Cornell’s Cooperative Enterprise Program, is spearheading this research and farmer collaboration to explore ways to coordinate logistical services using cooperative or producer-owned organizations. 

Lexie Hain, a farmer in the Finger Lakes region and executive director of the American Solar Grazing Association, is one of those farmer-collaborators. She told the Cornell Chronicle that these cooperative business models can be used to negotiate contracts between farmers and solar companies and can help farmers share some of the production costs, like transportation and processing equipment. Solar contracts create a stable income stream during the off-season, but accessing these contracts requires a prohibitive level of paperwork for farmers. 

“The farm businesses that have gotten these solar grazing contracts have expanded rapidly; oftentimes, they enable farmers to access land and a key new revenue source at once,” Hain told the Cornell Chronicle. “[However], solar companies don’t want to have to deal with 1,000 separate farmers.” Cooperative business models can solve this issue.

Imports from Australia and New Zealand account for more than half of all the lamb and mutton consumed in the United States, making New York shepherds poised to enter an untapped domestic market. With solar, farmers can capitalize on a new revenue stream and potentially expand their grazing land. 

This would stimulate New York’s economy and reduce the environmental impact of sheep grazing. The project hopes to highlight these benefits and is exploring a value-added brand that would allow farmers, individually or as a collective,  to market their products as “sheep produced under solar arrays.” 

“There’s a lot to work out from a marketing perspective, and many good reasons for sheep farmers to work cooperatively to brand and sell their lamb,” Frenay said. “This project will do some of the foundational legwork to move the idea of solar lamb cooperatives forward several steps.” 

Before the project moves forward, researchers will meet with collaborating farmers and advisors in the Northeast to share ideas that will allow this project to be the most beneficial to farmers. 

Read more about the synergies of grazing sheep under solar arrays at the Cornell Chronicle.

Stephen Stresow

Stephen is a junior in CALS studying Plant Sciences with a concentration in Organic Agriculture and minors in Soil Science and Crop Management. He managed a vegetable garden as a Master Gardener in high school and has now scaled up that passion to sustainable vegetable production on small-scale farms. He is interested in improving agroecological practices and making them more accessible to farmers with the overarching goal of creating a more resilient food system. After a primarily virtual semester, Stephen is excited to get his hands dirty at the Research Farm this summer!