Farmers share thoughts on Dumont Solar Project

NOW: Farmers share thoughts on Dumont Solar Project

SAINT JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind.-- The solar debate is dividing many across the region and country. The debate locally over the Dumont Solar Project is less over renewable energy, and more about property rights and how we want to utilize farmland.

ABC57 brought you several perspectives on the project, and now, hear from the men who actually cultivate the land. Friday, ABC57's Annie Kate talked with one family that is going to lose out on farmland they've leased for years to the Dumont Solar Project, and one farmer who is leasing some of his land for the Dumont Solar Project. He argues it's his right to take the agreement, the paycheck, and the promise of restored farmland that he can keep in his family.

"Whether you are for or against the solar, the bottom line still is it's about property rights," said Mike Wagner of M & B Wagner Farms.

Mike Wagner has lived and farmed in St. Joseph County for more than 40 years.

"I have a piece of property that has power lines running through it. It's always been a big detriment," Wagner said. "I cannot run a large amount of irrigation or anything like that."

But one company found that land-- near the Dumont Substation-- very attractive. That was Hexagon Energy, the company working to bring a 300-megawatt solar array to the area, so Wagner signed a lease agreement to use those acres for part of the solar farm.

"I'm fourth generation, my grandchildren are going to farm. This was a way for us to diversify," Wagner said. "Now the whole time the negotiations went, we had to make sure at the end, this farm was going to be farmable again."

It gives the land a rest from the tons of pesticides and fertilizers sprayed every year, not to mention, it's stability and security, and a payday, for his family.

"Wy world, we put a crop in the ground, and we don't know if it's going to rain," he said. "We can't set our price. We cannot control a lot of our imports. Security would be spectacular."

But he knows some in the community are against the project, people like Kyle Schafer from Schager Family Farms.

"We farm the ground that is going to be solar panels, so we learned about [the Dumont Solar Project] right away," Schafer said. "But I think the community has kind of been left in the dark, and I think there's a lot of unknowns and a lot of impact that comes from this project that we don't know what that's going to be yet."

Some of the land he leases to farm is now under a lease agreement with Hexagon Energy.

"This is a family farm, it's our goal to continue this for generations to come. It's my dad and I's passion to farm. We love it, and it's what we want to do, so we intend to farm that ground as long as we can until the solar panels move in," he said.

He said it will make farmland more competitive in the county than it already is.

"Land prices and rent prices definitely reflect that in St. Joseph County," Schafer said. "Family farms are slowly but surely dying in this community, and we don't want to be a part of that."

His argument in general: he wants to see solar on rooftops, not fields.

"The solar project is very spread out, it's not a farm," Schafer said. "This is a farm. Solar panels are not a farm."

But Wagner is defiant. It's his land and his right to do with as he pleases.

"It's amazing, if I harvest corn, soybean, wheat, I have this right. As soon as I want to harvest sunlight, that right has been taken away from me," he said.

In fact, he thinks if the community gave Hexagon a chance, there is room for compromise.

"I think there's some ways to appease people on this. Hexagon has been a very good company to deal with. They've been very easy to work with," Wagner said. "And I think they would like to find a way to appease my neighbors that are truly affected by it, surrounded by it."

Wagner said he plans to reintroduce quails and pheasants on the land being leased to Hexagon, both for nesting/breeding and hunting.

The St. Joseph County Area Plan Commission approved amendments to the county's solar ordinance this week.

Those amendments would require public hearings for large-scale solar arrays, setbacks, and more. They now go to the full county council. It would affect the Dumont Solar Project, but they are supportive of these rule changes.

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