Getting to Green: Minnesota's energy future

Sheepish solar symbiosis: Two very different industries work together on the green energy transition

Sheep graze under solar panels
Cannon Valley Graziers sheep graze under solar panels at a U.S. Solar installation in Stacy, Minn., on June 6.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Quick Read

Some Minnesota sheep farmers have found a way to help their bottom line by contracting with solar farms to have flocks tidy up under the panels by eating the undergrowth.

In rural Chisago County, clippers buzz and wool falls like snow as a flock of about 100 sheep gets a haircut. 

These animals, owned by Cannon Valley Graziers, aren’t on a sheep farm. They are visiting a solar farm and — after their date with the shearer — they are here to work. 

Freed from the pen, several ewes congregate under nearby solar arrays, chomping away at weeds and grass. U.S. Solar, which owns multiple sites, contracts with Cannon Valley Graziers, to keep the land tidy.  

This is solar grazing: the practice of using sheep to manage the vegetation on large-scale solar sites. 

Sheep graze under solar panels
Sheep graze under solar panels.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Cannon Valley works with clients to develop site-specific grazing plans. By adjusting the number of sheep per acre and the length of visits, the company is able to meet clients’ specific needs.

It also spins yarn from the fleeces which is then marketed as “solar wool” which is used to make products such as hats and gloves. 

Company co-owner Josie Trople said this arrangement helps feed her animals and brings in a paycheck for her family. 

“By choosing that form of agriculture, choosing that form of grazing, we’ve been able to build a business,” Trople said. “It’d be very difficult for us to build a business where we took out a loan for land and you got into debt for land. We wouldn’t be able to have the impact that we have today.”

A couple pose for a portrait
Arlo C. Hark and Josie Trople, co-owners of Cannon Valley Graziers, with their dog, Frazey.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Originally, Cannon Valley Graziers offered targeted grazing services for ecological management. Then, Trople’s husband and business partner Arlo Hark cold called solar developers to pitch the idea of what became solar grazing. 

Hark said it’s hard to break into agriculture if there’s no land access — especially for new, young and emerging farmers. Acreage prices are high and it’s hard to get a toehold in the business.  

Sheep farmers say their meat sales aren’t as profitable as beef, chicken or pork. Wool adds some income, but not a lot. 

However, Hark said this is an opportunity to generate extra income by offering not just goods, but also a service. 

“Solar grazing adds another farm enterprise to the equation,” he said. “You’re able to generate income from doing what the sheep do best: eat grass.”

So, at solar sites from St. Cloud to northern Iowa, Cannon Valley Graziers gets paid to, essentially, feed their sheep. They also make money selling meat and wool. In addition to paying the bills it may help them buy land in the future. 

Collaboration, not competition

The collaboration also helps with another contentious issue: land use

It will take millions of acres of solar installations to replace all the coal-fired power plants in the U.S. This raised concerns solar and farming would end up competing for land. 

Peter Schmitt, director of project development at U.S. Solar, said working with Cannon Valley Graziers shows rural versus solar doesn’t need to be a “zero-sum” game.

“Instead of looking at it as a challenge to preserving that farmland, I think we need to be re-shifting the conversation to how we can make sure that we are implementing these farm practices,” Schmitt said. “To make sure solar can be hand in glove with the agricultural community.”

Schmitt said conversations between the solar industry and agriculture are ongoing. 

A dog looks on
A sheepdog named Frazey, belonging to Arlo C. Hark and Josie Trople, sits in a vehicle. They use the dog to herd the sheep into the truck moving the animals around solar sites.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“It’s a changing landscape,” he added. “It doesn’t mean we’re trying to threaten the corn and soy community at all. We’re trying to be another complement in a bigger agricultural ecosystem. I think there’s room for all of us here.”

Not all solar developers are on board with solar grazing yet, but it’s a growing sector nationally and there’s interest in learning about the new concept within the solar industry. There’s also potential for helping build support in farming and rural communities receiving solar project proposals to use agricultural land. 

Stacie Peterson is energy program director at the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Montana. The organization helps develop low-cost, energy-saving strategies and sustainable agriculture. Peterson said offering communities opportunities for agrivoltaics, where agriculture and solar both use the same land, offers great possibilities

Finding ways of opening solar sites to local farmers allows them access to usable land while also improving the ecosystem on which the solar sites are built. This includes opening up land to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it. 

“I think that this will happen more and more across the country, particularly at larger-scale solar sites,” she said. “So, that says to me that there’s definitely potential there. It’s gonna require solar wanting to get on board with this. I can’t speak for them, but I certainly see it as a huge potential for anybody that would want to be a grazier.”

Back at the solar site, Arlo Hark said when it comes to solar grazing, he’s hooked. 

“We’re set up to do this for the rest of our lives, I think,” Hark said. “Solar’s not going anywhere and for us, I think this is a lifelong deal. We’re here to stay.”

Their job done here, the sheep are loaded into a truck, ready to head off to their next meal under the sun, or at least the solar panels.

Sheared sheep wait in a container
Sheared sheep wait their turn to board the container truck to move to their next grazing site.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News