Jamie McGee Nashville Tennessean
BROWNSVILLE, Tenn. – Rows and rows of solar panels face a gray December sky as dozens of small sheep graze beneath them. They munch on hay before trotting off to the next section of panels, part of a 120-acre solar farm owned by Nashville-based Silicon Ranch that creates energy for the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Keeping grass off the solar panels is only part of the reason 500 sheep were brought to the site, about 60 miles northeast of Memphis. As they disrupt the soil and stomp hay beneath their hooves, they dispatch seeds, strengthen roots, spread natural fertilizer and restore the vegetation that absorbs carbon emissions from the atmosphere. As they grow and reproduce, they contribute to the supply of grass-fed meat that has seen increased demand in recent years.
The sheep are part of a practice that Silicon Ranch executives call regenerative energy. Rather than just focusing on producing solar power, the company takes a holistic approach to the land it operates on and seeks to improve soil quality, vegetation, biodiversity and agriculture production. As it shifts land management strategies away from mowers and chemicals, the company is able to expand its overall ecological and economic impact.
“The Earth wants to be covered. Ground wants to have plants growing on it,” said Trent Hendricks, a Missouri-based rancher who manages sheep at 10 Silicon Ranch solar projects. “We are using a cause-and-effect model that is actually rebuilding the soil and bringing health back, so this land isn’t taken out of nature or out of food production.”
Silicon Ranch, co-founded by former Gov. Phil Bredesen, Matt Kisber and Reagan Farr in 2010, has developed nearly 150 solar projects across the USA that provide solar energy for major corporations, including Volkswagen and Facebook. The company, which attracted a $217 million investment from Shell in 2018 and an additional $60 million in 2019, introduced regenerative energy techniques on 12 of its projects and designs and builds solar projects to allow for sheep grazing and its benefits.
“We build utility-scale power plants. We happen to own the real estate,” said Michael Baute, Silicon Ranch’s director of regenerative energy and land management. “As a land owner, the solar industry never really cared about this stuff. We just dealt with it and moved on. As we grow, we see the ability for us as landowners to make more positive change.”
Silicon Ranch, led by Farr as CEO, began exploring land management techniques after noticing erosion problems on properties that had been maintained with commercial mowers and sprayed herbicide. The chemicals can stunt grass growth, which leads to hardened and cracked soil. When rain falls, it bounces off the ground instead of penetrating it, causing runoff and muddy rivers, Hendricks said.
The consequence of eroded soil can be added expenses to correct runoff issues or to repair degraded ground, said Nick de Vries, who leads Silicon Ranch technology and asset management. Silicon Ranch directors had expertise in physics, engineering, finance and energy, not land management, he said.
“We own thousands of acres of lands, and we have owned them for years,” de Vries said. “We can see what has happened. Some (tracts) really are doing great. Others, you just sit and wonder, ‘Why did this not turn out right?’ “
Outside Bluffton, Georgia, where Silicon Ranch operates a solar farm that powers Facebook, Silicon Ranch officials met farmer and rancher Will Harris, who introduced them to regenerative agriculture techniques that greatly enriched his soil. It was the “missing piece” to their land management, de Vries said.
Instead of viewing land management as a cost or liability, Silicon Ranch began to see it as an asset, Baute said. Their new methods allow the company to contribute to food production and the farming industry, which has faced declining revenue and challenging markets.
“Otherwise, a mower would have mowed it, and it would have been the end of the economic impact,” Baute said. “You are producing additional lamb product, hiring locals in the regions where you have contracts and keeping land in ag production.”
Hendricks raises and sells grass-fed sheep and cows from his Cabriejo Ranch in West Plains, Missouri, and consults on holistic management. He has raised livestock animals since growing up on a small farm in Pennsylvania and passed on the lifestyle to his six children. His two eldest children help him manage the sheep on Silicon Ranch sites, and they visit the Brownsville site a few times each week to move the sheep as needed.
The regenerative practices are new at Silicon Ranch. The Brownsville solar farm was constructed in 2017, on land previously used for growing cotton and grain, and Hendricks’ sheep arrived in April. There are still signs of disrupted land – muddier patches with sparse vegetation, bits of moss and banks cut by erosion – but the ant mounds, rabbits, meadowlarks and the occasional red-tailed hawk that Hendricks observes on the solar farm are evidence that the company is on the right track.
“We are seeing massive increase in beneficial biodiversity,” Hendricks said.
That a Nashville corporation providing a solar platform for Shell has turned to Hendricks and his family members to help restore their land is a powerful endorsement of the holistic farming methods he has devoted himself to.
“Being able to have this opportunity to provide a service doing what we love, what we know how to do, what we are equipped to do and having an additional revenue stream that covers the cost of that is phenomenal,” Hendricks said. “It is one of the most exciting stories in food and ag today.”
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