Managing Farm Land Potential Against Solar Development

By: Jessica Nixon, MBA, ICD, Director of Economic Development for Cowessess First Nation

Land use is a contested topic in environmental planning. Jessica Nixon, Director of Economic Development for Cowessess First Nation, provides an opinion article about the need to factor in agricultural productivity when considering a solar development on farmland.

A cattle farm in Cowessess First Nation

Being raised on a mixed cattle and grain farm in central Saskatchewan has resulted in my close connection to the land, my strong appreciation for the value of the land, and my recognition of the need to preserve the most fertile lands in our province. Primary production agriculture is at the core of my day-to-day life as a co-owner of a mixed cattle and grain farm with my husband.  

We focus on sustainable crop rotations, manage a number of crop applications, and annually calculate input rates to ensure optimal growing potential. It is our goal to produce high yielding crops, while maintaining the health of the land.   

When not assisting on our farm with seeding, harvest, and overall financial management of the business, I work as the Director of Economic Development for Cowessess First Nation. Cowessess First Nation is highly focused on renewable energy development in southern Saskatchewan, particularly wind and solar.  

A significant element of my job description is developing renewable energy projects which are located on reserve status land. I am proud my career has enabled me to focus my efforts in agriculture, renewable energy, and First Nation economic development; it is work that I find fulfilling.  

Recently, I have found my passion for agriculture and the process for solar energy development clashing, specifically as it relates to the lost value of agriculture land for solar development. Solar projects are land intensive; you could expect anywhere from five to ten acres per 1 MW of solar development.   

Saskatchewan currently has approximately 40 MWi of solar, with plans to increase that upwards of 1000MWii in the next five to ten years. Each of the three 10 MW solar projects developed in Saskatchewan in 2021 and 2022 have been developed on approximately 360 acres of previously cultivated land. These sites were selected based on their proximity to a SaskPower point of interconnection, flat terrain (topography), environmental acceptance, and a willingness of the landowner to lease the land.  

These selection criteria were focused on minimizing the construction cost of the projects. In the site selection process, there is no consideration given to the lost value of agriculture production from the land.   

A solar project on Cowessess First Nation

The agriculture industry invests heavily in research to increase productivity of farmland. For example, there are strains of grass and barley specifically designed to grow in alkaline soil that is otherwise less productive. The proposed Lake Diefenbaker Water Diversion project would result in irrigation of 400,000 acres of farmland, again a significant investment to increase the productivity of land. Significant research, development, and investment go into fertilizer blends and herbicides strains all aimed at increasing the productivity of the land. Equipment manufacturers are investing in new technologies to ensure optimal seed placement and minimized yield loss.  

Every year, billions of dollars are invested in agriculture to increase the production potential of farmland. Meanwhile, we see the rise of solar development on the Prairies, but no consideration is given to taking productive land out of its maximum growing potential.  

Solar infrastructure has a life span of 25-30 years and it can be completely decommissioned and removed from the land. During the 25-30 year life span the land around the panels can either be mowed or grazed by sheep. When mowing is selected the land is taken completely out of agriculture production.  

If grazing sheep is selected, there is still agricultural value gained from the land. This gain is not nearly as great as producing a cash crop like wheat or canola. The best solar resources in Saskatchewan are in southern Saskatchewan, which is also where the most fertile land is found. 

A solar project on Cowessess First Nation

The issue at hand is renewable energy developers do not factor the lost agricultural productivity of farmland into their financial models. This seems like a huge miss in a country that is trying to be more sustainable; we are forgoing one national priority (agriculture) for another (renewable energy). If renewable energy developers are not bound by any regulations on the agricultural value of the land they use, they will simply choose the land that has the lowest developmental cost.  

So, who then should be concerned about the agricultural potential of farmland?  The answer that first comes to mind is the landowner. However, we find landowners are typically motivated by financial returns. Let us consider those landowners who are located near a substation/interconnection facility that have been approached by a solar developer.  They essentially have three options: 

  • Passively lease out the land, yielding $40-80/iii acre annually. Low risk. 
  • Actively farm the land, targeting a yield between $100-$150/ acre from crop sales. High risk. 
  • Lease land to solar developer, yielding $275- $300/ acre.  Low risk.  

Therefore, the landowner is highly incentivized to agree to a solar development. There are no penalties to landowners or developers for taking fertile crop land out of production. Without evaluation tools and metrics which give consideration to the agricultural value of the land being used, we will continue to see some of the highest value farmland forgone.   

I am not saying solar projects should not proceed on the Prairies.  

I am not saying that solar projects should be capped or banned.   

I am not saying solar projects should proceed only on uncultivated land.  

I am suggesting that additional consideration needs to be given to selecting land that is in a marginal soil class or land that requires remediation from other industrial uses, such as waste lands from mining. 

Additional research and policy development needs to occur to calculate the true cost benefit of producing solar energy over the lost agricultural potential of the same land parcel. Utility companies, electric system operators, academia, industry associations (CanREA), and government would be best suited to continue conversations to factor in the lost value of agriculture land in the cost of solar development.