At this North Carolina farm, the specialties are lamb and solar power
You've probably heard of agritourism, where people visit farms, vineyards or other agricultural businesses just for fun. In North Carolina's Montgomery County, one farm has taken it to another level, with what you might call agri-solar-tourism.
About two dozen ewes and their lambs fed in a pen at the Montgomery Sheep Farm in Biscoe on a recent day. About 70 miles east of Charlotte, this is a 200-acre working farm with not only sheep, but also chickens, horses and other animals. It's also a 20-megawatt solar farm, sending electricity to the power grid. And there's a bed and breakfast in the farm's renovated bunkhouse.
This combination of uses is the vision of Joel Olsen of Cornelius. He's a solar developer who bought the former hunting preserve in 2013 for a solar farm and then realized it had other potential.
"Agriculture alone is very, very difficult to make work, so every single farmer has to do something else," Olsen said after hosting about 50 people at a recent tour and lamb-and-wine dinner.
Olsen says keeping the grass cut on the solar farm used to be a cost. But grazing sheep under the panels took care of that. And selling their meat made them moneymakers, not an expense.
The solar panels also have an advantage for sheep farming during the sunny and hot North Carolina summer. Shade from the panels, Olsen said, helps grass grow thicker and greener than in an open field. And that feeds more sheep.
"We can have many more lambs per acre than if you put them on a normal pasture because of the solar panels," he said.
Sheep — and sheep dogs
The Montgomery Sheep Farm typically has up to 400 sheep rotating weekly among about 30 different fenced paddocks under the solar panels. They're watched over by a team of Great Pyrenees sheepdogs, which also provide revenue. The farm sells their puppies.
The farm includes the bed and breakfast and also hosts lamb dinners for visitors. People can also book group tours. It all adds up to welcome extra income, Olsen said.
"If you can provide farmers additional income related to clean energy, additional income related to grounds maintenance, you know, it allows our rural areas to remain beautiful and have the people living there to remain employed," he said.
Montgomery Sheep Farm is actually one of the first farms in North Carolina to be completely off the grid, Olsen said. It's powered by a separate set of solar panels hooked up to batteries to supply electricity when the sun isn't shining.
A collection of agri-solar businesses
All of Olsen's operations are separate businesses: one for solar development, called 02 Group Ventures; one for Montgomery Sheep Farm, including the bed and breakfast; and another called Sun Raised Farms that trains and manages sheep farmers for groundskeeping at this and other solar sites. The last company markets the lamb and host lamb-and-wine dinners under a similar brand, Sun Raised Foods.
Brooks Mixon manages sales and grazing operations for Sun Raised Farms, which was founded by Olsen's wife, Tonje Olsen, in 2012 to help solar farm owners.
"We found a need for ground maintenance, with all the burgeoning solar farms and solar developments around the state," Mixon said. "We decided to use sheep instead of machinery, trying to keep it in sustainable agriculture and a symbiotic relationship with renewable energy."
It also helps educate people about solar power, he said.
"There is something cool about it," Mixon said. "It's wonderful to see sheep grazing under solar panels — something new and different and not thought of on a daily basis. So we're excited about the model."
That cool factor also helps the Olsens fulfill their broader goals of getting people to embrace solar energy and sustainability.
A version of this story first appeared on WFAE's weekly climate newsletter on Dec. 23, 2021.
Sun Raised Farms is a WFAE sponsor. Climate coverage on WFAE is supported by the 1earth and Salamander funds.