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Leading the Flock

New York State is poised for an agrivoltaics revolution. But to get there, we’re going to need a lot of collaboration between agriculture and energy—and a lot more sheep.

This is how it begins: A farmer and an agricultural economist walk into a bar.

Greater Ithaca being what it is, the bar is Brookton’s Market, a little country store with two dozen craft brews on tap in the tavern, proudly local eggs starring in the breakfast sandwiches, and a bounty of fresh foods from local farmers and producers. The perfect spot to hatch an agricultural revolution.

The year was 2019, and farmer Caleb Scott noticed Cornell professor Todd Schmit across the room. Scott decided it was a good time to sit him down for a beer and a chat about organizing sheep farmers into a co-op to work with solar developers.

“I knew he did work in this realm. I just pitched the idea to him. I said, ‘Look, this really needs to happen,’ and he’s like, ‘Let’s do it,’” Scott says.

Schmit now heads a three-year $500,000 project, funded by Cornell and the USDA, to dig into potential economic opportunities for a farmer-owned business cooperative focused on solar grazing. Scott is vice president of the American Solar Grazing Association (ASGA), a nonprofit devoted to supporting and professionalizing the fledgling solar grazing industry. Together with a small but growing crew of farm and renewable energy advocates, they are working to put sheep under solar panels across the Northeast as proof of the power of “agrivoltaics”: a growing field that combines renewable energy development with farm production, to the benefit of both industries as well as local communities and ecosystems.

“There’s very aggressive renewable energy goals by the state, of which they’re trying to do a lot with solar. And frankly, there aren’t enough sheep in the state to graze it all,” Schmit says. “This is a real opportunity for growth in a relatively small agricultural production sector in the state.”

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