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Farmers Increasingly Look To Solar To Power Their Operations

Missouri Farmer Chris Bohr stands next to his solar panels in front of his hog barn. He received a USDA REAP grant to help pay of the project.
Missouri Farmer Chris Bohr stands next to his solar panels in front of his hog barn. He received a USDA REAP grant to help pay of the project.

Chris Bohr’s farm in Martinsburg, Missouri, has hundreds of acres of soybeans and corn. It also has a 5,000 head hog barn that requires a lot of electricity to power its ventilation system, cooling fans and lights.

About fifty yards away from the barn are three rows of solar panels. Bohr is among a growing number of farmers that are generating solar power to meet their needs.

Bohr received a Rural Energy for America Program, or REAP, grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to help pay for his solar panels. And the number of farmers applying for the grants is going up.

Nathan Tutt, a rural development specialist with the USDA’s Missouri office said there has been a 50% increase in applications for REAP grants in the past two years. While the program funds all kinds of renewable energy programs, the kinds of applications Tutt has received are mostly for solar.

“Over 80% of our applications the past few years have been solar related,” Tutt said. “The economics of the industry has made it more palatable for people to implement that system into their operations.”

Tutt said there is enough money in the program to fund all but a handful of applications, but that could change if the popularity continues to grow. REAP has $250 million available for renewable energy. They fund small projects where a farmer has to pay at least 75% of the total cost.

Chris Bohr calls the program a “great long term investment.” Adding his solar panels in 2018 cost him $87,000. A REAP grant paid for $20,000 of that total.

“These systems are pretty well maintenance free,” Bohr said. “Everything is monitored by computers, we have apps on our phones where we can actually look at the amount of electricity that is being produced on an hourly basis.”

Bohr said before he added solar, his electricity bills were more than $15,000. Now they are are less than $5,000.

Bohr said the panels will pay for themselves in seven years, and after that, he will enjoy lower costs to run his farm.

Bohr said he applied for the REAP grant primarily because it made economic sense, but it wasn’t the only reason.

“If we can do projects like this to help our environment, to save our natural resources and take advantage of something that God gives us every day, like the sun, then we need to take advantage of it,” Bohr said.

During the sunny summer months when the solar panels produce more electricity than the hog barn needs, Bohr sells power back to his electric co-op that is his utility provider.

Bohr said his co-op has been a very willing partner in assisting him make solar work on his farm.

The non-profit nature of co-ops and their dedication to rural areas makes them well positioned to assist customers with innovative energy projects, according to Jan Ahler, Director of Energy Solutions with The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Ahler said it makes sense for farmers to look at all options to help save money, and solar can be a viable answer for many operations.

“Farmers are able to diversify their revenue streams with new power solutions. So they not only have income coming in from their agricultural production, but they also have money saved from the production of solar electricity,” Ahler said.

Reap is funded at $235 million per year through 2023. Currently most applications are funded, but that could change if interest continues to grow.

But Chris Bohr said he is moving forward with installing solar at another hog barn he owns near Thompson, Missouri, even if he doesn’t get another REAP grant.

Bohr said it still makes economic sense in the long run.

“You know, a lot of people today don’t understand agriculture. We’re very common sense thinkers, we think about what’s practical for our operation day in, day out, and what’s right for our communities,” Bohr said.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Copyright 2020 St. Louis Public Radio

Jonathan is the General Manager of Tri States Public radio. His duties include but are not limited to, managing all facets of the station, from programming to finances to operations. Jonathan grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago. He has a B.A in music theory and composition from WIU and a M.A in Public Affairs Reporting from The University of Illinois at Springfield. Jonathan began his journey in radio as a student worker at WIUM. While in school Jonathan needed a summer job on campus. He heard WIUM was hiring, and put his bid in. Jonathan was welcomed on the team and was very excited to be using his music degree. He had also always been interested in news and public radio. He soon learned he was a much better reporter than a musician and his career was born. While at WIUM, Jonathan hosted classical music, completed operations and production work, was a news reporter and anchor, and served as the stage manager for Rural Route 3. Jonathan then went to on to WIUS in Springfield where he was a news anchor and reporter covering the state legislature for Illinois Public Radio. After a brief stint in commercial radio and TV, Jonathan joined WCBU in Peoria, first in operations then as a news reporter and for the last ten years of his time there he served as the News Director. Jonathan’s last job before returning to Tri States Public Radio was as the News Director/ Co-Director of Content for Iowa Public Radio. During Jonathan’s off time he enjoys distance running, playing competitive Scrabble, rooting for Chicago Cubs, listening to all kinds of music and reading as much as he can. He lives in Macomb with his wife Anita and children Tommy and Lily.