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Long-time farming family is conflicted about utility scale solar land leases

A sign opposing the Kingwood Solar Project alongside Clifton Road in Xenia
Chris Welter
/
WYSO
A sign opposing the Kingwood Solar Project alongside Clifton Road in Xenia

Solar power is booming in Ohio. More and more companies are looking to build large scale solar arrays in places where crops used to grow. It’s a pattern that’s dividing communities. Some worry about losing farmland. But others say renewable energy is necessary to fight climate change and that it will provide a steady flow of income for farmers. The battle lines extend from the statehouse all the way to the dining room table.

In Southwest Ohio, the Spracklen family is conflicted about the proposed Kingwood Solar Farm.

Cindy & Lamar

It was a hot, windy September afternoon at Cindy and Lamar Spracklen's farmstead in Xenia. Walking in the door, Lamar showed off the new carpet and the empty space where a couch used to be. He gave it to one of his grandsons.

The Spracklens have lived in this house for more than 50 years. Lamar's roots however, go back much further. Eight generations of the family have farmed here. Lamar is related to James Galloway, Sr. who was one of the first white settlers in Greene County.

At the kitchen table, Lamar talked about the family business and said he has always tried to keep diversified. Nowadays, he and his two sons farm around 3,000 acres in a few counties. They mostly grow corn and beans. They also raise 4-H calves for the kids in the family. In the past they have run a bed and breakfast and a vegetable market.

A few years ago Lamar decided to diversify his part of the family business even more. He signed a contract to lease some of his land, around 60 acres, to a solar energy company called Vesper Energy.

"I’d rather have the panels paying me than...you know I grew up out in the sun and the heat on days like this. It's work, I enjoyed it, but there were times I didn't," Spracklen said.

Lamar is in his eighties and has had five surgeries for skin cancer on his face. He said he wants something different for his grandkids. The solar panels will bring in around $60,000 a year if the development is approved. The evidentiary hearing for Kingwood started Monday, December 13.

"It's insurance. It's an income," he said. "Money will be used to either buy other land or pay for my grandkids' way to school."

Over his decades of farming, Lamar has seen a lot of different opportunities to make money off his land. First, he said it was the companies interested in the mineral and oil rights of his property. But the companies never ending up finding anything. Then, it was housing development pressure. Lamar sold off a bit of his land to be subdivided into housing plots. He said he never wants to do that again, though.

Lamar said it's frustrating when he sees signs in front of houses built on subdivisions that say things like "say no to solar" and "save our farmland." He said he thinks it is hypocritical for the owners to take an anti-solar stance since those houses are built on former farmland.

Lamar is respected and recognizable in the community. He has owned businesses and was also a longtime Township Trustee. So once he signed on his land for the solar farm, Lamar said that, unsurprisingly, people started to talk.

"The gal that lives across the road, she wouldn't speak to me for a while. So I went up to her, I said, 'Well, what's the problem?' And she said, 'You signed a farm up and people followed your lead,'" Spracklen said.

Alan & Crissy

But it isn’t just neighbors who are opposed to the new solar developments.

Alan and Crissy Spracklen have a farm a few miles down the road from Lamar's farm. Alan is Lamar's son. Alan and Crissy decided to not lease their land for the solar project when they were approached by a solar company a few years ago, and now they will lose some rented land that Alan currently farms to the solar farm if the project is approved.

Alan has stayed neutral on the solar farm issue and didn’t want to be interviewed for this story. But Crissy is against it. She said that she doesn't want the fields around her home to become a "sea of black" panels.

Crissy didn’t grow up on a farm. But she did see the land around her childhood home in nearby Springfield change. It went from fields of row crops and cows, to big box stores and restaurants, and that loss has stuck with her. Since she married her husband twenty years ago, she said she has embraced the farming business and lifestyle—and she wants that life for her sons, if they choose it.

On a rainy fall morning, Crissy was in the her sheep barn during breeding season. She said her and her boys spend a lot of time tending to the animals this time of year. She said her kids learn a lot of lessons on the farm.

"They plant corn and beans. They are there for the harvest. They hear their dad talk about the markets and prices and where what we grow goes," Spracklen said. "They are not going to learn anything by looking at the solar field."

Crissy said she was heartbroken when she heard her father-in-law and other close friends would be leasing their land for solar.

Some money Lamar earns from converting his land to solar will go to pay for her son's college education and Crissy said she is grateful for that. She also said that she is worried about what her kids will lose. The solar leases would last for almost forty years.

"So our oldest son is almost 18. So how old will he be when this is gone? That would be most of his working career when that ground would be unavailable," she said. I do feel like we're losing an opportunity for that next generation."

Still working the land together

When the solar opportunity came around, Lamar said he didn’t think it would amount to anything. But with a few utility scale solar farms already operational in Ohio, and dozens more under construction, all signs point to solar staying around in Ohio for a while. Lamar said he thinks it’s an opportunity worth taking for the future of his family, even if his kids don’t exactly see it that way.

At the end of the day, even if the Spracklens disagree about solar, they’re still working the land together. Both Crissy and Lamar said they plan on doing that for as long as they can. In fact, the week they were interviewed for this story, the family had recently gotten together at Lamar’s house to check and vaccinate their cows, and then to have lunch.

Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Chris Welter is an Environmental Reporter at WYSO through Report for America. In 2017, he completed the radio training program at WYSO's Eichelberger Center for Community Voices. Prior to joining the team at WYSO, he did boots-on-the-ground conservation work and policy research on land-use issues in southwest Ohio as a Miller Fellow with the Tecumseh Land Trust.