CHICAGO (AP) — Solar panels are cropping up alongside corn
on Timothy Ridgely’s Illinois farm. Irrigation equipment powered by the sun is
pumping away on Daniel Chin’s third-generation Oregon potato farm. And manure is
being converted to electricity on an Ohio hog farm.
Across rural America, thousands of farms and small
businesses are turning to renewable energy to cut costs and boost their often
uncertain bottom lines, increasingly with the help of a decade-old federal
program that aimed to hasten change in a part of the economy that had been slow
to embrace it — yet where the electric bill can mean the difference between
hiring a worker or laying one off.
Some were skeptical.
“My wife thought I was crazy,” said Ridgely, who at age 70
recently installed 90 solar panels on the 2,700-acre southeastern Illinois farm
where he grows corn, soybeans and wheat and his son raises beef cattle. Last
year, he said, he cut his $5,500-a-year electric bill by about 40 percent when
he installed a batch of panels.
After installing more panels with help from the Agriculture
Department’s Rural Energy for America Program, he figures he’ll be 100 percent
“It takes a lot of electricity to run the house and barns,
and every little bit helps,” said Ridgely, who also touts the environmental
benefits of solar power.
But the program’s growing popularity could be its undoing.
Some conservative groups have taken aim at the program, which costs up to $300
million over five years, in the congressional debate over a new farm bill,
saying the program unfairly undercuts coal and other traditional energy
“The last thing we need is the federal government injecting
itself into the system,” said Daniel Simmons, a representative of the American
He said his organization doesn’t oppose renewable energy,
but believes the program amounts to a government subsidy.
The program illustrates a conundrum in the increasingly
shrill political debate over how — or whether — government should offer aid to
mold the economy.
Few areas of the country are struggling more than rural
America, where poverty is growing, small businesses are closing and the children
of many farmers are moving away rather than follow in their parents’ footsteps.
Resurgent oil- and gas-drilling is providing some income,
but even conservative states, such as Kansas, are coming up with new tax breaks
and incentives to bolster the rural economy.
In Washington, though, the climate is hostile for any
program without stout political backing and with opposition from other
The House version of the farm bill limits the program’s
funding to $45 million a year and designates it as “discretionary,” meaning the
program might or might not get it.
The Senate version would provide $68 million annually in
mandatory funds with a possible $20 million a year in discretionary money. The
farm bill, which expired at the end of September, remains under discussion in
In the House, “everything took a cut; that’s the nature of
the environment in which we work today,” said Tamara Hinton, a spokeswoman for
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma.
Lucas’ support for farm programs has made him a target for
the conservative Club for Growth, which is seeking a primary opponent to run
If renewable and efficient energy is so economical, farmers
should invest on their own “and don’t need a push from Washington,” said Dan
Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of the
conservative Heritage Foundation.
Dale Moore, director of public policy for the American Farm
Bureau Federation, said getting private loans can be difficult for farmers whose
cash flow is uncertain. The USDA “understands the ag and rural community,” he
said, and offers partial loan guarantees and grants.
Ridgely’s solar panels cost him about $100,000, but he got a
$10,000 state grant for the first 70 and a $13,000 federal grant for this year’s
panels. He figures both systems will eventually pay for themselves.
Since 2003, the federal program has spent nearly $700
million on about 9,000 projects, ranging from energy-efficient grain dryers to
solar panels to windmills.
Doug O’Brien, chief of the USDA’s energy division, said
there has been a conscious effort to diversify the projects.
Recipients include rural electric cooperatives, vineyards,
nurseries, dairies and stores. Gutting the program will make it hard for many
farmers and rural businesses to get started, O’Brien said.
Chin said solar energy is helping him keep his production
costs down. He began installing panels on his irrigation pumps and potato
storage cellar when his electricity bills rose fivefold after the expiration of
a rate agreement with a hydropower company. The federal program helped pay for
three of the 12 solar systems he installed.
“If I wasn’t doing it, I would have to charge you more for
potatoes,” said Chin, 59, whose family has been farming in the Klamath Basin
It’s unclear how hard agricultural interests will fight for
continued funding if it means jeopardizing more important programs, like crop
insurance, said Moore, whose organization has supported both the Senate and
“It’s important but it’s not something we’re going to burn
the barn down over,” he said.
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