Are solar panels the new crop for farmers?

Randy DeBaillie pointed to the power meter on his snow-covered farm: Even on a foggy, monochromatic day, with the sun barely piercing the clouds, the flat black panels planted nearby in two long rows were generating electricity.

“There’s enough energy produced to run the whole complex,” said DeBaillie, 50, who farms 6,500 acres with his brother and cousin. They typically grow corn and soybeans each spring, but this year they want to put more solar panels on 15 acres – and sell the energy.

The earnings, he said, would be about three times what an average harvest would yield there.

Across the flatlands of Illinois, a new “crop” is rising among the traditional waves of grain as farmers increasingly make the same calculation as DeBaillie. Hundreds have applied to host acres of solar panels on their property, a move encouraged by a state law requiring that renewable resources provide 25 percent of Illinois power by 2025.

The shift is controversial, and not just because of how it could alter the pastoral landscape. Taking some of the most fertile soil in the world out of production could have serious consequences for a booming population.

Yet farmers point to the uncertain economics of their lives and the need to have other income. Prices last year for the state’s most prominent crops were far below original projections, with data showing corn 7 percent lower and soybeans 15 percent lower. The Trump administration’s trade war with China triggered the steep drop in soybean prices.

Climate change is also spurring some farmers to rent acreage for solar panels, as a way to help combat global warming. “I like to believe I’ve done a small part in trying to slow that process down,” DeBaillie said.

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