How Harnessing the Sun Saved a Multi-generational Dairy Farm

September 22, 2021

Sullivan County Democrat – “A Sustainable Tomorrow”, A Quarterly Publication of DRS
By Kathy Daley

In 2016 dairy farmer Evan Carpenter hit a brick wall. The inspector from the milk cooperative that paid for his cows’ milk shuttered Carpenter’s dairy business. “They kept telling me ‘your farm is small, you’re old, you should shut down,” said Carpenter, who lives and
farms in Dryden, N.Y., near Ithaca. “But if you’re a farmer, you’re optimistic. You have faith and you hope that things will work out.”
On this particular day, Carpenter and his son Gabriel happened to be assembling a solar water heating system in their dairy barn. The place looked disarranged. The doors of the milk house had been taken off during the installation. Up walks the milk inspector. “You fail,” the inspector said. “Four weeks notice. You’re done.”

Carpenter’s grandfather had farmed the land, as did his father, naming the place Wide Awake Dairy Farm after the nickname for his U.S. Army Corps of Engineer division. “I’m actually fourth generation here,” said Carpenter, age 65, who lives with his wife Brenda in the seven-bedroom farmhouse his dad grew up in. His son Gabriel heads the farm now, with Evan’s accompaniment. But that dark day of doom five years ago shook Carpenter to the core. Incredibly, a solution arose almost immediately. “I still had tears in my eyes,” recalled Carpenter, “when someone from Delaware River Solar (DRS) drove up and down the road looking to see what might work.”

The DRS engineer, it turned out, was searching out a spot for a new solar power plant, also called a solar farm. Carpenter had the land and found himself saying, “yeah, I could be interested.”

That year, New York State’s Public Service Commission had approved the state’s Clean Energy Standard, mandating that, by 2030, the state had to get half of its power from renewable energy. The push was on for solar. But municipalities had nowhere to start. “Dryden did not have a solar law yet,” recounted Carpenter, noting that the only nearby solar facility was on Cornell University property in Ithaca.
Farmer Carpenter helped the Town of Dryden write the law – how it would be taxed and who would be responsible for collecting taxes, what to do with land that might work for a solar farm but was, for example, still pasturing sheep, what happens when the solar farm becomes obsolete, and so on. Carpenter had taken a few law courses at a community college but mostly his knowledge came from farming skills:
understanding weather, seeds and crops, mechanics, accounting, veterinary skills. Not to mention that he and Brenda had raised four kids and foster children as well. “Plus, 40 years of getting kicked around in business,” said Evan with a grin.

Still, as the wheels of progress moved along in terms of the solar installation, Carpenter had to deal with his herd of milkers. He sought out farmers who needed more cows and could “babysit” his. “I told them ‘You can have their milk if you feed them,’” he said. Son Gabriel took the few milkers that still needed homes. “My cows are named, not numbered,” said Carpenter. “I have a lot of sentimental value about them.”

Delaware River Solar began work on land at the Wide Awake Dairy Farm. Up went the large collection of photo-voltaic solar panels that absorb energy from the sun, convert it into electricity and send that electricity to the power grid for distribution and consumption by customers. (The grid is a network that includes generator stations, transmission lines and towers, and individual consumer distribution lines.) By Dec. 31, 2019 two solar installations were up and running – DRS had also built an adjoining solar energy farm on the land. Eventually, that solar farm was sold to another entity. “We are leasing 11 acres (for the one project),” said DRS project developer John Schmauch. “The other project on site is roughly the same size.”

Both solar farms are 1.8 Megawatts (MW) in size, roughly 6,000 panels, said Schmauch. A megawatt is a unit of electrical power equal to one million watts. Both projects lie about 10 acres from the road, he said. Sheep are common grazing animals on solar farms, including the Delaware River Solar array at Evan Carpenter’s farm in Dryden. They specially like the shade given by solar panels and often nap after grazing. Local residents subscribe to the energy produced by the panels “that goes directly into the utility grid, and they receive a discount on their utility bill,” said Schmauch. “Currently we have 150 accounts subscribed: residential, small businesses and municipal customers.” Carpenter was one of those who sold DRS subscriptions to Dryden residents who wished to participate. Simply put, the rent checks from DRS and the neighboring entity have kept his farm going.
“The rental payments are deposited right where the mortgage is,” he said. Come fall, he’ll be at his part-time job as a school bus aide for autistic students. Right now, he’s working the tractor, baling hay, feeding the animals. “I pasture my son’s cattle right up to the fence around the solar panels,” said Carpenter. “Solar saved the farm,” he said. “I’m working the land with my sons and grandsons, keeping the family farm dream alive.”

Evan Carpenter’s farm is one of many across the U.S. that are leasing open land to solar companies, earning money and giving back to the environment. Evan says leasing land to a solar company was a win-win for his family. ‘I don’t think I would have been able to save the farm without income coming in.