How farming solar panels became more profitable than crops

Richard Haynes, a fourth generation farmer on land near Winslow in Buckinghamshire, decided to go for it four years ago, when he realized the loss of subsidies after Brexit meant he needed a more diversified income.

He expects to make around four times as much from leasing 100 hectares, around a third of his land, to one of the big energy companies than he would make from the crops and livestock that are currently there.

Leasing out land to solar on a 40-year lease will allow him to continue farming. It will also contribute to tackling climate change, and keep the land in his family.

“It’s an opportunity for farmers to have long term revenue,” says Hugh Taylor, CEO of Roadnight Taylor, which advises renewable developers.

But there is division also within the farming community about whether it’s the best use of land in the long term.

Martin Lines, who grows cereal crops in Cambridgeshire, says he is regularly contacted by solar developers hoping to persuade him to lease his land.

“I think it’s the wrong choice for land use at the moment,” says Lines, who is also the chair of the Natural Friendly Farming Network, which supports sustainable agriculture.

Lines believes the Government is encouraging farmers to take up any opportunity on their land, without a plan for balancing competing pressures on the British landscape. “There is no focus around long term food security or meeting the needs of UK citizens from our landscape.”

Local branches of the CPRE in Devon and Cornwall have recently mounted co-ordinated opposition to several proposed developments in the area, and have been successful in seeing some of them off.

“Some of our local groups, like Devon, feel that they’re on the frontline of waves of development,” says Fyans.

The CPRE and others argue that the necessary solar development can be achieved by targeting rooftops on commercial buildings and brownfield sites.

Advocates of solar, including those advising the Government, point out that panels currently cover just 0.1 per cent of UK agricultural land, barely making a dent in food production. Solar coverage could increase 10 times and still amount to less than half of the land taken up by golf courses.

The NFU, which has been beating the drum for UK food security since Brexit, is relatively relaxed about the emergence of solar, recognizing it as a valuable income stream for their members.

“There is the scope to free up land for solar without harming our food security,” says Henry Dimbleby, who wrote the Government’s National Food Strategy. “But what this requires is for the government to actually create a land use strategy.”

Polls show the country is overwhelmingly in favor of solar development. But without careful consideration, the risk of backlash is significant.

“We want to see the right development in the right place,” says Fyans. “We don’t need to industrialize the countryside.”

Additional reporting by Alex Clark

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