Alex Blumberg: Welcome to How to Save a Planet, I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the show where we talk about what we need to do to address climate change, and how to make those things happen.
Alex: Hey, Kendra.
Kendra Pierre-Louis: Hey, Alex.
Alex: So you are an elite member of the crack producing and reporting team here at How to Save a Planet, and you're here to tell us about something that you recently did. You went on your first field reporting trip for the podcast.
Kendra: I did! Literally. I was in a field.
Alex: [laughs] You know that's not what field reporting means, right? Like, it doesn't mean you have to go to a field.
Kendra: Wait, I've been doing it wrong this entire time? [laughs]
Alex: What were you doing field reporting a literal field?
Kendra: I was making friends.
Alex: [laughs] With sheep?
Kendra: Yes, those are sheep.
Kendra: Oh, they're coming. They're, like, running.
Judy St. Leger: Hello. This is Number Five. She was hand raised, so that's her name not her number.
Kendra: So the voice you're hearing—apart from the sheep—is this woman named Judy St. Leger. She's a shepherd. And she tells me the delightful backstory behind Number Five's name.
Judy St. Leger: So this girl was born in 2016. Say baaa.
Number Five: Baaa.
Judy St. Leger: And She was the fifth of a set of quintuplets. Now sheep will commonly have one or two babies, but five was unheard of for us, either before or since. So she's a well-beloved member of the flock.
Alex: I love—like, are you just like surrounded by sheep as you're talking to Judy?
Kendra: I am. And did you hear them breathing? Because they were like, sniffing the microphone. It was great.
Kendra: [laughs] Five and, you know, her kin, they don't really know it but they're all part of this climate solution.
Alex: The sheep are?
Kendra: Yes, the sheep. Baaa!
Alex: [laughs] So you're telling me that sheep are a climate solution?
Kendra: I'm telling you that they can be, and that that's what we're talking about today: how sheep are helping the climate. I'll explain after the break.
Alex: When we're baaaaack?
Kendra: Oh God, Alex!
Alex: Welcome back. So before the break, you were telling me, Kendra, sheep have a role to play in helping address the climate crisis. And we've talked about a lot of climate solutions on this podcast, but for my money this is probably the most adorable solution we've ever discussed. And you're gonna explain how it works.
Kendra: So we'll get back to Judy and the sheep in a minute. But to explain how sheep fit into a climate solution, I have to introduce you to someone else first: Keith Hevnor. He's the communications manager at Nexamp, which is a solar company. And he says that solar companies? They all face a common problem.
Keith Hevnor: You'd be surprised what kind of impact shade can have on the performance of a solar farm.
Alex: Shade! The enemy of the solar farm.
Kendra: It is. You see, a lot of solar arrays are built on fields where plants like grasses, brushes and trees can grow tall and block out the sun. Solar panels are often angled so that the lower edges are about hip height or so. They're low enough to the ground that tall plants and weeds can cast shadows that reduce the amount of power that the panel can create or generate. So operators like Keith's company, Nexamp, they have to constantly cut the grass.
Keith Hevnor: A big part of the civil engineering that goes into designing the site is making sure that the grass and the wildflowers and the weeds don't jump up far enough to obscure any of the sunlight hitting the panels.
Kendra: And maybe the most common way of doing this is with a lawnmower.
Alex: Yup. Heard of it.
Kendra: But lawnmowers have drawbacks. A while ago people hit on a solution. Instead of lawnmowers, we can use sheep.
Keith Hevnor: And for us it was really an issue of okay, we can manage the vegetation at these sites with a fossil fuel-burning fleet of lawnmowers and weed whackers, or we can employ a more sustainable approach with the grazing.
Judy St. Leger: Come on!
Judy St. Leger: We're actually going to walk to our left ...
Kendra: Which brings us back to Judy, who we met at the top with the sheep named Five. She grazes her sheep on solar farms, and she's one of a growing number of shepherds in the world of what they call "Agrivoltaics." Agrivoltaic doesn't really run off the tongue, so I will probably stick to saying "sheep solar" which has the added benefit of making me laugh.
Alex: [laughs] Right. You've been talking about sheep solar the entire time you've been doing this episode.
Kendra: I know it's not professional, but ...
Alex: You'll find any excuse to say sheep solar.
Kendra: So Judy grazes these sheep on these solar farms not too far from her own farm in the beautiful rolling hills of upstate New York. And when I went there this summer, it looked like classic farm country: weathered, wood clapboard farmhouses with grain silos, big fields of hay and grass. It's Amish country, so I passed a man driving a horse and buggy.
Alex: And so this solar farm is, like, right nestled among the farms up there?
Kendra: Yeah, it's on a road, and there's a big chain link fence around the whole property. And on the site sit these solar panels in long rows that are 300 to 600 feet long. A football field by comparison is about 360 feet long. And each row is about 10 feet apart from each other.
Kendra: But Judy doesn't let the sheep just go anywhere. She only wants them grazing on vegetation that's gotten tall.
Judy St. Leger: And the idea is we like to put them on the grass we say when the vegetation and grass is as high as our knee, and we take them off when the vegetation and grass is as high as our ankle.
Alex: Okay, so how does this all work?
Kendra: To keep the sheep from sort of grazing all over the field at once, she uses this lightweight, portable fencing called electric fencing. It sort of sends this uncomfortable current through you. The sheep learn to stay away from it, but it also protects sheep from predators like coyotes.
Kendra: And so to charge the fence, Judy uses a portable solar charger. So it's even more solar on a solar site.
Judy St. Leger: So this is my solar charger. And I'm turning the charger off and disconnecting it from the fence so that we can now bring the sheep through the fence and have them graze the last part of the solar array.
Kendra: Is it hard to move them?
Judy St. Leger: No. Sheep are not so stupid. [laughs] They understand that they're going from less good grazing to fabulous grazing, so they're happy to make the move. Yeah.
Kendra: And they trust you.
Judy St. Leger: Yeah. Why wouldn't they? Yes. Yeah. Our primary job is to make sure that they are happy and healthy. And I like that job.
Kendra: This method of constantly moving the sheep to ungrazed sections of the land, it's called "rotational grazing." And not only does it keep the vegetation low, it actually helps the soil be healthier and sequesters some carbon. This is something we touched on in our episode "Soil: The Dirty Climate Solution."
Alex: And in that episode, we talked about how, like, grazing animals on land, they poop, they sort of prime the soil, and it helps add nutrients that can then sequester carbon. Which is good news because sheep—like cows—they burp methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. So when they're involved in this rotational grazing, that can help offset some of their impact from their methane burps.
Kendra: Exactly. It's better for the planet and it's better for Judy, because it's a way for her to feed her sheep. But not only does she get to feed her sheep, she gets paid for it. The owner of the solar array pays her for the service her sheep are providing.
Alex: That's sweet! Because normally she would have to pay to feed her sheep, right?
Kendra: And Judy says her sheep are a better solution than a fleet of lawnmowers. They're cleaner than lawnmowers in many ways. They're less noisy, or I should say more pleasantly noisy.
Alex: [laughs] Exactly. The noises are way cuter.
Kendra: So cute! And they can get places mowers can't, and conditions that mowers just wouldn't work well in. Like, the day I was there it had rained recently. The ground was super muddy. Judy took one look at my hiking shoes and, like, took me into her barn to get a pair of galoshes. Like, they were not up to the task.
Judy St. Leger: It would have been evil of me to let you wear those in here. Let's go, girls! Come on! Come on! They don't like the mud so much either. You okay?
Kendra: [laughs] Yeah. I just went down, like, feet.
Kendra: This wet ground would have been a problem for a mower, but not for sheep.
Judy St. Leger: The only way you can manage this vegetation is with something like sheep. It's the only way. Come on! These guys, you can see they can easily go under the low edge of the panel. And that's the goal. The goal isn't to make the vegetation look like someone's lawn, the goal is to keep the vegetation below the low end of the panel.
Alex: Okay, so grazing sheep is good for the shepherd—you get paid to graze your sheep. Good for the solar array operator because the sheep, you know, can go to places in conditions that mowers can't. It also just sort of sounds like a sweet gig. Like, was it fun hanging out with Judy?
Kendra: It was so much fun!
Alex: So, like, how does somebody become a shepherd?
Kendra: I asked her that exact question because as I was complaining about how out of shape I was, Judy told me that, you know, it wasn't that long ago that she was in a sort of similar situation. She's actually a veterinary pathologist by training. And, you know, if an animal was sick and they couldn't figure out what was wrong, they called Judy. She did a lot of work at SeaWorld. She worked on sea lions and dolphins and she traveled all over the world.
Kendra: Right? But she knew that as she was getting older and looking towards retirement that she wanted to get into farming, so she bought an old farm in upstate New York.
Judy St. Leger: The quality of the soil on the farm that we own is not terrific. In many places, the pasture is almost down to bedrock.
Kendra: She knew she wanted to do rotational grazing to restore the land, but she just wasn't sure which animal to use.
Judy St. Leger: We literally borrowed six sheep and four goats from one of our Amish neighbors. About 20 minutes after we borrowed them, the four goats had broken loose and ran back home. That day we knew we would be sheep farmers.
Alex: [laughs] Okay, so that was the day she became a sheep farmer.
Alex: How did she become a solar sheep farmer?
Kendra: Over time, she got the hang of raising sheep. Some of the sheep she'd sell for meat, others, the ewes or female sheep, she'd keep for breeding. She was making things work. And then one day, a neighbor—a farmer who lived some 40 miles down the road—asked Judy if she could borrow some sheep.
Kendra: This neighbor had started grazing on a solar site, but didn't have quite the number of sheep she needed. Now Judy doesn't entrust her sheep to just anybody, so before she agreed she got to know the neighbor, her operation, and she got to visit the solar site. And it all made sense to Judy: the economics, the way it fit into Judy's broader understanding of conservation and of sustainable agriculture. And things really started to take off when on that solar site she met Lexie Hain.
Lexie Hain: I got into solar grazing because I had a farm in the Finger Lakes.
Kendra: And like Judy, Lexie was looking for new ways to bring in revenue. She'd heard about sheep solar happening in other places, in Europe, in California. And the idea was intriguing to her. So when she learned about sheep solar happening a bit closer to home in North Carolina, she jumped on the opportunity to learn more. In 2017 or 2018, she called a state extension agent in North Carolina, and he got her into a farmer training program. On the drive down, she decided to do some independent research.
Lexie Hain: And from Google Earth, I could find solar arrays. So on the way to the training, I stopped at a number of solar arrays. I could tell immediately which ones were grazed by sheep and which ones were treated like golf courses, frankly. They looked like lawns. I saw a lot of herbicide use that I wasn't very happy with, and then resulting erosion. And that was another big eye-opener.
Kendra: The way companies get that lawn-like aesthetic is, in part, by using herbicides. You know, those chemicals that kill or stop plants from growing. And in this case, Lexie was looking at solar sites, but it's not just solar sites that do this. Like, a lot of golf courses do this, right?
Kendra: And the problem is, the way those chemicals work and how they are often applied means the plants can't hold on to the soil, so you get erosion.
Alex: Got it. So that's what Lexie was seeing. Like, she could see they looked like lawns, and they had erosion. And the sheep ones didn't.
Lexie Hain: The ones with the sheep? They work. And these were not small. The first one I saw was over 450 acres, and I thought, "Oh, wow!" And also, of course, I liked them better, but they work. You know, it's like, "What is this? This is an interesting concept." And there's a sign on the gate. Like, very clearly with, you know, "Please close the gates," you know? And, "Managed by this farmer." And then there's a picture of a sheep and then a picture of a guardian animal, so there's like a little donkey or a little guardian dog, which are special kinds of dogs that live with the sheep.
Alex: Wait, guardian animals?
Kendra: Yes! The story just keeps getting cuter and cuter.
Kendra: Sheep, as you know, are prey animals.
Kendra: Things like to eat them. And so what you will do is you'll put a guardian animal that will go after the predator if the predator enters the field.
Alex: Got it.
Kendra: And you'll never guess what Judy uses as a guard animal: she uses llamas.
Alex: [laughs] The ferocious beast known as the llama?
Kendra: Yes! Apparently, llamas, if a coyote makes its way into a field, you know, the sheep will run away from it, but the llamas will run towards it.
Alex: Wow! Guard llamas! That's amazing.
Kendra: I would really like some guard llamas for my apartment.
Alex: Okay so back to Lexie, one of the early proponents of sheep solar in the New York region, she was on her way down to North Carolina.
Kendra: And then she gets to the training.
Lexie Hain: They were very kind to me, and I learned all the sort of assessment and evaluation techniques, and thought, "Okay. Well hey, this works." And then I also sort of said, "Hey, if I go back to New York and do this, is this okay with y'all?" And they said, "Sure, we're not planning on, you know, grazing as far north as that." They said, "Maybe Virginia." I said, "Okay, we're good." So there was plenty of room in the market, and very much this evolving, emerging industry.
Kendra: So Lexie makes her way back to New York. And she's excited. And so she starts talking to other shepherds like Judy.
Lexie Hain: What ended up happening is that the few people who were these early emerging solar grazers just started talking to each other. And then we kind of said, "We'll buy a website. We'll buy solargrazing.org." And it was available. "We'll just have a little placeholder there where we keep a couple bullet points so that people know. You know, there could be some best management practices around." And lo and behold, it's become this reasonably, you know, well-known organization.
Kendra: And the organization is called the American Solar Grazing Association. And one of the first things they did was to work with a law clinic at Pace University to build a solar grazing contract. The idea is that shepherds looking to get into solar could download it to set up the terms of agreement between them and solar sites. And since the American Solar Grazing Organization first launched roughly at the start of 2019, they've amassed just under 400 members.
Lexie Hain: I've been doing this for a few years now, and this winter, a new company approached my grazing business and said—you know, the lawyer handed us this contract and said, "What do you think of this?" And I turned to my business partner, Louis, and we giggled. It was our contract.
Kendra: [laughs] That's awesome. At minimum, it was worth it for that.
Lexie Hain: Yeah. It was great. And it was great to see we'd created now a living document, in fact, where this particular company had changed some clauses and added some conditions. Great, great! It's out there. And the industry is, you know, born.
Alex: The birth of an industry. That's really cool.
Kendra: [laughs] Yeah. And do you know what's even cooler?
Kendra: Sheep are not the only thing farmers are mixing with solar panels these days. After the break, we'll hear from a farmer growing all kinds of things beneath his solar panels.
Byron Kominek: Squash, beans, eggplant, kale, kohlrabi, various types of lettuce, hot peppers. Oh, man!
Alex: That's coming up.
Kendra: Welcome back. Before the break, I told you that it wasn't just sheep that farmers are mixing with solar, right?
Kendra: The more I started talking to people about sheep solar and about mixing ag with solar, the more people kept telling me to call this guy: Byron Kominek. He is the proprietor of Jack's Solar Garden in Longmont, Colorado. And Byron is the guy growing that long list of veggies on his solar farm.
Byron Kominek: Squash, beans, eggplant, kale, kohlrabi, various types of lettuce, hot peppers. Oh, man! There's so many more, too.
Kendra: Byron's business is a little bit different from Judy and Lexie's. They take their sheep to a solar farm that already exists. Byron? He put solar panels on his family farm. And the reason he did it was in part money. You see, the farm used to mainly grow hay.
Byron Kominek: The amount of hay that we were producing annually didn't really cover our utilities plus water rights, plus property tax.
Kendra: And nationwide, there are a lot of farmers in Byron's position: unable to profitably farm their land. Between 2011 and 2016, we lost more than 11 million acres of farm and ranchland to development, according to a report by The American Farmland Trust.
Alex: And when you say we lost it to development, that means like ...
Kendra: We built a subdivision.
Alex: Strip malls and subdivisions. Right.
Kendra: [laughs] Yeah. Other farmers were in the position Byron was in, not making much money off of their land, so they sold to a real estate development. But Byron didn't want to do that, so he started looking around for other options.
Byron Kominek: The thing that really resonated with us was the potential of putting a solar array on our property to help out with, you know, putting in more clean energy, seeing how we can help out the climate crisis that way, while also making some additional revenue for our farm.
Kendra: And one of the things that really excites Byron about solar is how it can co-exist with the agriculture on his farm. He's turned his farm into kind of a living laboratory, to figure out all the ways solar and farming and nature can co-exist.
Byron Kominek: We partnered with the Audubon Rockies to install their largest habitat hero in Colorado, around the perimeter of our solar array. It's about an acre of land with 3,000 perennials, mainly shrubs like raspberries, blackberries, hazelnuts, elderberries, gooseberries, sand cherries, wax currant, that create a habitat for birds to live in as well as for insects, snakes and other things that are great to have adjacent to an agricultural activity.
Byron Kominek: We have three different research institutions that are working with us: the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Colorado State University, and the University of Arizona. We also work with a farming organization called Sprout City Farms where they take basically degraded land and turn it into agricultural productions, where they're cultivating food to put back into the community. And to date, they've grown about a ton of food, so 2,000 pounds of food. Donated the vast majority of that to a local food shelter.
Kendra: What Byron is trying to do, if successful over the long term, could have huge implications for rural communities and our food supply. Because right now there is this tension between the growth of solar and the decline of farmland. And that's because ag land is very attractive to solar developers. Ag land is flat. It's already cleared, so they don't have to clear cut a forest or drain a swamp, right? Like, the land is already sort of more or less usable.
Kendra: And ag land tends to have road access, so it's easy to get equipment in and out. And it's generally relatively close to the grid, so they can easily move the power that they’re generating.
Kendra: A recent study out of Cornell University found that in New York state, for example, more than 40 percent of existing solar farms are on ag land. So mixing ag use with solar is one way of not just keeping solar in business, it's a way for more farmers to do what Byron did: to keep ag land as ag land, while also making enough money to stay in business.
Kendra: This summer, I talked to Lily Calderwood. She's an ag extension researcher at the University of Maine, and they're piloting a project to see if they can grow wild blueberries under a solar array. And it's not just blueberries. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts are looking at cranberries, and in the Southwest they're looking at lettuce, tomato and chili peppers. One study by Oregon State University researchers found that by converting one percent of ag land into agrivoltaics, we could meet 20 percent of the nation's energy demand.
Alex: Wow! So, like, if we just sort of say, like, take one percent of land that is currently just only agricultural, and we find a way to sort of mix it with solar ...
Kendra: And the other thing is if this works, it doesn't just ease the tension between using farmland for energy, it may also solve this other climate problem, which is the question of conditions of work on farms. Basically, solar panels provide shade, and we know that as it gets hotter because of climate change that it's harder and harder on farmworkers. So if you're harvesting a crop, and you can do it in full hot sun or under the shade of a solar panel, under the shade is better.
Kendra: Byron is so excited about the potential of mixing ag and solar that he hosts events right there on the farm so people can see what's going on for themselves.
Byron Kominek: The kids come out for workshops. They went out into our much taller portion of the solar array and they danced underneath the solar panel. We've held a handful of events out there. We even had a banjo player come out and play the banjo for 25 people. And we have fundraisers where we're hoping to have a hundred plus people come out for some food, some music, some dance, and to be able to hang out with the folks that have been working on this project for the past few years.
Kendra: How do people react when they come out, and they see two things that don't seem like they fit together but do?
Byron Kominek: You know, it's so nice how often, like, just strangers thank me for doing this. We had an event for the Audubon Rockies a few weeks ago where there was 120 people that came out to the farm, and quite a few folks just stopped me and said, "You know, thanks. Like, we really appreciate seeing this, we appreciate understanding more about how these two things can be co-located. Nobody really knows until you see it, right?
Alex: It's so cool when you think about this. Like, he's basically having a party on his land, which is like a power generation plant, right? [laughs] But, like, when you think of, like, a typical fossil-fuel power generation plant, like, it's not a place you want to party.
Kendra: No. And it's funny, as I was learning about this and getting to see it firsthand, it made me think a lot about where my energy comes from.
Kendra: I live pretty close to a power plant. It's actually kind of famous because in 2018, a transformer station there had an accident and turned the New York City skyline blue.
Alex: I remember that.
Kendra: [laughs] And everybody thought it was aliens but it wasn't.
Alex: What was it, actually?
Kendra: According to, you know, quote-unquote "scientists," the accident for complicated reasons caused electrons to be released, which when mixed with, like, the gases in our atmosphere turned the sky blue. But, you know, so they say.
Alex: Cue the X-Files music, yes.
Kendra: The truth is out there, Alex. [laughs]
Alex: So anyway, this is the plant you went to go see.
Kendra: Yeah, I took my bike out to go see it.
Kendra: Somebody had carved out this little seating plaza. It's these giant concrete benches. And so a really beautiful place to rest is while watching a smokestack of burning oil for electricity. This neighborhood has, you know, pretty high rates of asthma for New York City because of the pollution. When I got here I thought, you know, I wouldn't see much, but in the distance there's this, like, tower just flaring gas.
Alex: So what does it look like? What, is it like a parking lot? Is it like—what are you looking at?
Kendra: I mean, it's huge. It's more than a city block. It's this massive industrial facility, and there are these big black boxes all over the place that look like giant car batteries.
Kendra: It just looks like a factory. It looks very industrial.
Kendra: Very gray and black. And lots of asphalt. And very—I don't know when it was actually built, but it feels very, like, the 19th century.
Kendra: What was striking is how different it felt from the other power plant I'd visited, you know, the solar farm in upstate New York where Judy's sheep were grazing.
Kendra: It's a lot more alive than I thought it would be, yeah.
Judy St. Leger: So those are frogs living in the wet part under the array.
Kendra: Oh yeah. You can see them breathing.
Kendra: The solar farm didn't feel like the 19th century. It was this mashup between high and low tech that felt like the future.
Kendra: So all of this is really rethinking what a landscape should look like.
Judy St. Leger: Correct. That's exactly right. And I think it's everyone rethinking what a landscape looks like.
Kendra: It really does feel like we're walking through a meadow.
Judy St. Leger: So—and this is super important to me. These solar sites are here creating energy, but the land is still being used and is important in the environment. This is terrific bee habitat. If you look around, we have a lot of flowering plants. And even though the sheep rotationally graze through things, we still have rotational growth of flowering plants, so there's lots of different pollen for the pollinators to take advantage of. This site can become more productive with solar panels on it because it has different agriculture than it had before. So this is actually a way not just of using land differently, but in many ways using land better, in addition to generating solar energy. I love this. [laughs]
Kendra: If you, like Judy, love this, we will link to resources where you can learn more about agrivoltaics—both the sheep and the plant kind—in our newsletter and in our show notes. If you are by any chance a sheep grazer looking to get into solar, or a solar developer in search of a good shepherd, check out the American Solar Grazing Association's website for resources. That's at solargrazing.org.
Kendra: There's also been some policy movement on this front. Earlier this year, the US Department of Agriculture announced funding for a new project to optimize design for agrivoltaic systems. It's a four-year project, and if you want to check it out, those links will be in our show notes along with links to Judy, Lexie and Byron's farms. We'll also have information on the blueberry and cranberry projects that we mentioned in this episode as well.
Kendra: And if you still haven't gotten enough sheep—really, can anyone ever have enough sheep? We have a little surprise for you after the credits.
Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg. This episode was produced by you, Kendra Pierre-Louis. Our other producers are Anna Ladd, Rachel Waldholz and Hannah Chinn. Our intern is Nicole Welch. Our supervising producers are Lauren Silverman and Kaitlyn Bogucki. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.
Alex: Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music by Peter Leonard, Catherine Anderson and Emma Munger. Our fact-checker this episode is James Gaines.
Alex: Special thanks to Alex DePillis at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, and Tonje Waxman and Brooks Mixon at Sun Raised Farms. And thanks to all of you for listening. See you next week!
Judy St. Leger: So coming here is an example of the sheep outsmarting me. When we brought the sheep in the springtime, I try to bring sheep that have not been bred. They're a year old and they haven't had a baby yet. Or sheep that did not get bred for one reason or another as part of my main flock. Well, one ewe we brought, two weeks after I said, "Oh, she's not going to have a baby," we came one day and there was a brand new baby on the solar farm. So the baby is named after the solar company that runs the solar arrays, because we just thought it was an appropriate tribute to them. And so she's been with her mom all season.