Solar moves into Kansas, brings decision time


The Kansas Soybean Association supports a landowner’s freedom to operate and therefore takes no particular stance on investing in solar energy production on farmland. KSA’s role on this topic is to serve as guidance in the complicated decision-making process and offer resources for a landowner’s consideration. This article is not intended to serve as a legal resource.

Having productive land is the ultimate goal in row crop farming. The traditional route to achieve this is growing a quality commodity and selling it at the elevator, though landowners have begun to look toward a new avenue to profit from their acres – leasing land to solar companies to construct panels.

A report by Shannon Ferrell, agricultural economics professor at Oklahoma State University, says solar companies seek relatively flat land with bright, abundant sunlight. The ideal location is clear of obstructions like trees, hills or buildings, and is near existing power transmission lines. Land that has been in agricultural production, especially in Kansas, checks many of these boxes.

When landowners are approached by developers, the terms to convert the land to solar use can be enticing. On the surface, a solar agreement promises diversified income with minimal input and offers relief from being at mother nature’s mercy during the growing season. Payouts vary by source, but are substantial by all accounts. Contrary to wind turbines, which allow for shared use of the land, solar panels tend to completely replace the land’s crop production, according to Ferrell’s report. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at states that opportunities do exist to co-locate solar technology and crop production. Called agrovoltaics, this coopetition most often looks like grazing sheep beneath the panels or growing vegetables and pollinator habitats in the accessible soil. EERE materials discuss modifications to traditional solar technology that would allow farmers to grow other crops, saying that system could tout benefits while also requiring a trade-off between energy output and crop productivity.

Despite potential benefits, there are numerous factors for landowners to consider before signing a contract. One of those factors is the contract itself.

Charles Atkinson resides in Great Bend, but is involved with his family’s operation in Columbus. As a farmer, he’s seen the surge in land leasing proposals sent to neighbors by solar companies.

While he agrees with freedom to operate, Atkinson says, “My concern with the whole thing is that farmers who are approached and would like to lease a solar farm need to look those contracts over very closely.”

Atkinson encourages his peers to seek a reputable attorney who can review the legalese within the contracts and ensure the terms are fair. The OSU report points out that solar companies enlist their own legal team whose professional obligation is to create a document favorable to the developer.

Discussion amongst the agricultural community calls out downsides associated with land conversion – including holes within contract terms, infrastructure left behind if a company goes bankrupt, lack of commitment by solar entities to assist in cleaning up past lease expiration and extra land tied up in a contract that is not being compensated. Atkinson also sees absentee landowners as a target for solar companies and worries about the negative implications for renting farmers.

“My other concern is that they are going after productive crop land,” he shares. “There are other potential sites available, such as rangeland or much less productive land. They are after crop land because it is clean and cleared.”

There are social factors involved in the decision, as well. A publication from the National Ag Law Center flags family matters and community relations as important considerations. It advises landowners to check if a solar agreement fits with existing estate or farm transition plans and encourages a discussion among all family members with interest in the land. The NALC guide also cautions that choosing to install solar technology could invoke opposition from neighbors. Converting farmland is a hot button issue among farmers and may lead to conflict because of the changed landscape aesthetic, noise and traffic during panel construction or other reasons.

Landowners are also encouraged to research the companies that contact them, seek testimonials from current lessors, calculate tax and insurance costs and exercise due diligence every step of the process before signing their name and legally binding themselves to a solar contract.