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Wind Energy a Lifeline for Drought-Stricken Farms

Posted: 08/29/2012 5:24 pm

The killing of Billy the Kid was still within living memory for some on the stark, wind-swept prairie outside Ft. Sumner, N.M., when Powhatan Carter's grandfather settled there to raise cattle in 1937.

Twelve years later, Pow was born there, where he runs the family cattle business his grandfather began.

After two years of drought, though, Carter's land is so dry that even the durable native grasses in his pasture are dying.

With little grazing land remaining, and the cost of feed sky high, Carter has sold about half of his 450 beef cattle, months before he normally would and at a poor price. Soon, he said, he'll have to sell more.

To rebuild his herd and restore the dead turf will take years, Carter said, adding to the strain of keeping his grandfather's homestead intact.

"It's just hard to keep the land in the family, because most people are land rich and cash poor," Carter said in a telephone interview. "An outside boost makes all the difference."

Fortunately for Carter, he gets such a boost, about $35,000 a year for the electricity produced from the seven wind turbines towering above a series of rocky bluffs at the edge of his pastureland.

Come rain or shine, the winds blow steady, the turbines spin, and the checks come in the mail. And, for Carter, the extra cash means one thing.

"Survival," he said, "able to stay home, where you've always lived."

Watch NRDC's Bob Deans talk about the future of wind power in America:

Welcome in any year, income from wind turbines has become an economic lifeline for thousands of farmers and ranchers like Carter across the country's vast heartland. With more than half the country searing in the worst drought in half a century, much of the nation's corn, wheat and grasslands parched to ruin and cattle ranchers struggling to feed or liquidate their herds, wind turbines are providing back-up income that is helping to keep family farms and ranches alive.

"It's truly a blessing for us," said Carter. "It's kind of like the sky falls with a little more rain."

Windmills have been part of the landscape of the American West for more than a century, harnessing the force of the wind off the plains to pump water from wells or generate electricity for homes long before power lines crisscrossed the country.

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Photo by Melanie Blanding

Modern wind turbines, of course, are much larger in scale, with generators the size of tractor-trailers perched atop steel towers typically 200 feet tall. The power they produce goes into the commercial electric grid, where wind turbines are beginning to make a significant contribution to the nation's energy supply.

Wind provided 4 percent of the nation's electricity during the first four months of this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By the year 2030, the U.S. Energy Department reports, they could produce 20 percent of the country's electricity, as much as nuclear power plants generate now.

More than 98 percent of wind turbines are located on farms, ranches and other private lands. And the industry pays out more than $400 million a year to property owners and local tax collectors, according to the Washington-based trade group, the American Wind Energy Association.

Those payments make up a growing part of a diversified revenue stream for more and more of the nation's farmers.

"It's there every year," said Joe Jury, a fourth-generation wheat and silage farmer on family land near west Kansas town of Ingalls. "It's there to use as you need it, when you need it, and, in years like this, to use it to make up for the crop income that doesn't come in."

The $18,000 Jury receives each year for the nine small wind turbines on his cropland is money he can count on in tough times, "kind of like a rainy day fund," he said.

"It helps cover variable costs, equipment costs and other fixed costs you might have," Jury said in a telephone interview. "It's just additional income that helps you when things are short."

A half hour west of Amarillo, Texas, new wind turbines are going up on the farm where Perry Kirkland raises wheat, sorghum and corn.

"It's definitely welcome revenue, and it couldn't come at a better time," said Kirkland. "It's been very stressful and difficult to make farming stand on its own the past two years because of the drought."

Seasoned farmers and ranchers don't expect an easy time of it earning their living off the land. The money they get from wind turbines, though, provides a bit of a cushion that, in some cases, enables them to continue a way of life they cherish.

"If it's not a lifesaver, it's certainly something that has allowed farmers and ranchers in this area to continue to do what they want to do," said AJ Swope, executive director of Class 4 Winds & Renewables, a non-profit trade association and advocacy organization in Amarillo.

"I don't think people who aren't in this industry understand how fiercely those ranchers hang on to that identity," said Scott White, oral historian with the National Ranching Heritage Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

"They consider themselves caretakers of the land. But, when nature is destroying it, it kind of takes their feet out from under them," said White. "The turbines help, and what the money's mostly going for is repairing fences and barns and supplying feed to cattle."

Similar sentiments are being echoed across the American breadbasket, where the summer drought has meant hard times not just for ranchers and farmers, but for the tractor dealers, grain brokers, lumberyards, hardware stores and myriad other businesses that rise and fall on the fortunes of agriculture.

"If affects everything in rural America," said Jury. "It affects the whole economy. A year like this, everybody kind of goes into survival mode and pulls back. You're just struggling trying to stay afloat."

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Photo by Melanie Blanding


Wind turbines are helping to diversify the rural economy, providing jobs that don't dry up in a drought. Nationwide, some 75,000 Americans make their living building and maintaining wind turbines. A good technician can earn $70,000 a year or more, solid income in most farming communities and attractive to younger people who want to make a living in the communities where they were raised.


"Our enrollment keeps growing," said Andrew Swift, director of the Texas Wind Energy Institute at Texas Tech. About 100 students are enrolled, he said, in the school's bachelors degree program in wind energy. "It's been big, and growing, and keeps us all hopping."


The graduates, some of whom don't see a bright future on the farm, are finding work on the turbines.


"When wind first came, there was a real breaking point around here in terms of the demographics," explained Greg Wortham, mayor of Sweetwater, Texas, a major wind energy hub. After a few tough years in the cotton business, a new generation was coming of age when farming's future looked bleak. "Wind came along at exactly the same time," Wortham said, providing good-paying jobs that helped keep young people in the area. "Wind," he said, "was crucial."


Wind turbines and the transmission lines they rely on have boosted the tax base in scores of rural communities that have been struggling for decades.


"It's an economic developer's dreamland," said Don Allred, judge and chief executive of the Texas panhandle county of Oldham.


A decade of wind development has increased his county's property tax base from $156 million to more than $500 million, he said. As a result, "We were able to give a 10 percent reduction in the taxes, while increasing our revenues by more than 12 percent," he said. "In a small county like ours, that's a tremendous amount."


As often happens when new technologies change the landscape in unfamiliar ways, wind turbines have favored those who are best positioned to take advantage of them, meaning, in large part, owners of large parcels with strong winds.


"Bankers down in Abilene call them their windinaires," said Swift.


For the most part, wind turbines aren't making farmers and ranchers rich. In hard times, though, the cash coming in from wind turbines just might make the difference between keeping the family ranch or farm, or having to find another way of life.


"It's nice to have it if you do need a new truck or something," said Carter, the New Mexico rancher. "But most people just need it to survive."

 
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