“So, how much dough will I make on this wind farm deal?”
That question remains utmost in the minds of farmers interested in squeezing every drop of income from their operation. As a native Iowa farm boy, I understand “the bottom line is the bottom line.”
Drought, hail storms, and low commodity prices sometimes made profit margins tight on our 160 acres. But growing up on that farm also taught me priceless values that sustained our family farming operation through thick and thin. A strong work ethic, resilient attitude, spirit of fair play, watching out for your neighbor, caring for the wildlife that shares our land, and being a good steward of the soil shaped this rural legacy of values passed on to me from my ancestors to whom I am forever indebted.
Wind farms threaten this legacy.
At first glance, it seems like a good deal. A “windfall” of cash. “Free money” for the taking. A winning night at Vegas! After all, the wind is “free” isn’t it? Well not exactly. I recall wise farmers in our community who lived by the credo, “Free money never comes without strings attached.” And those “strings” are front and center of the wind farm debate, driving to the more important question, “Who owns the wind?”
Winning over the farmers
Wind farm corporations know this and work hard to incentivize farmers with promises of “free money,” avoiding the “Who owns the wind” question until it’s time to sign the contract. In the words of a fellow Iowan and respected writer, “They act as though eminent domain extends to the sky.” They control the script. They control the outcome. They control the strings. That’s why the “promise” of free money dominates the debate, overshadowing other urgent concerns. Who owns the soundscape we all listen to? Who owns the horizon we peer into day and night? Who owns the wildlife that depend on unobstructed flyways and migratory routes of our beautiful Iowa skies?
Wind farm planners minimize these concerns, seeking to control the debate with promises of quick and easy money-another source of “low-hanging” tax revenue for the county and a way of reducing our dependence on foreign oil. What happens when this “free money” wins out over responsible stewardship of wind, land and wildlife?
Delivering on the promise
Unfortunately, wind power can’t deliver on its promises. Carbon footprints remain unchanged because wind power is too unreliable to permanently replace existing power generating sources. Denmark is the latest nation to scrap plans for building more wind farms. The Danish government says wind power has become too expensive. (Matzen, Erik and Boyle, Jon; “Danish Government Says Wind Power Became Too Expensive.” Reuters Daily Mail Wires 13 May 2016 at dailymail.co.uk/wires/reuters /article-3589130/Danish-government-says-wind-power-too-expensive.html)
Sprawling wind farms indelibly scar the rural landscape with giant towers that cast moving shadows during the day and a sea of blinking red lights at night. Residents living near wind farms report chronic health problems and we see mounting evidence wind farms kill our most treasured bird species (Cohen, Bonner R. “Minnesota Wind Farm Seeks Permit to Kill Bald Eagles.” Heartlander Magazine March 8, 2013 at news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/03/08/minnesota-wind-farm-seeks-permit-kill-bald-eagles)
This is an enormous price to pay for economic gain enjoyed by only a handful of farmers, while their neighbors are doomed to live in the shadow of these hulking, blinking skyscrapers literally “scraping” the beautiful Iowa horizon with turning blades, hundreds of feet long. That “free money” carries a huge price tag.
Despite these undesirable consequences, some farmers “bend with the wind” toward the foreign wind farm corporations, enticed by their offers. The promise of “free money” becomes irresistible. And when we give in, we have just answered the question, “Who Owns the Wind?” They do. Until that point in time, no individual owned the wind. Wind was a shared resource that benefited all. No one could claim an exclusive right to it. But now the wind farm corporation has us “all turbined up.” They own the wind.
Tragically, they own more than the wind. They own the farmer who has surrendered control of the land. They own the “future” of that land destined to become a gravel road, tons of buried concrete, and towering steel monstrosities held together by nothing more than a “promise” to pay. The farmer has abdicated total control of that piece of land with no reasonable recourse to reclaim it, if and when the “promise” is broken.
The wind farm companies did it without firing a shot. They took control. They expropriated our shared resource that benefited all. Most of us get nothing but a landscape littered with moving, blinking, noisy machines. Gone is our wildlife, gone our rural quiet, gone our peaceful evenings sitting on the deck, gone our unrestricted views of red/orange Iowa sunsets. Gone is our spectacular, unimpeded view of the Milky Way, and our community spirit of solidarity built by generations of farm families; while city dwellers thousands of miles away get cheap electricity without sacrificing anything.
Giving up our freedom
But this isn’t just about giving in to a foreign occupation that has decimated our land, wildlife, skies, horizons and our rural way of life. Perhaps the most important one is the freedom that comes with full ownership of the land. Gone is the legacy of unencumbered land handed down to us from our ancestors. Gone is the promise of passing this unencumbered land to our children and grandchildren, free and clear. For we now share air space with foreign entities unconcerned with preserving our way of life, which we have just traded for tons of steel, concrete, asphalt, and gravel covering our rich Iowa dirt.
This is a tragic irony
“So, how much dough will I make on this wind farm deal?”
Ironically, our life is diminished in proportion to the lease payment. The greater the payment, the more restricted and smaller our life becomes. The greater the payment, the more power we have ceded to these invaders. The irony of all this centers on power. The farmer loses power, loses the ability to shape the destiny of their farm-to a wind farm corporation. The farmer gives away the power of ownership of land, their birthright.
How much is that power worth, the power the farmer just gave away? Can we put a price on it? Is getting “all turbines up” worth it when we abdicate our responsibility to protect a family birthright: the land? Do we really want to give that away? Who owns the wind? Now, they do. And the land. And the farmer. And the close-knit community that raised me. Our tragic loss is their “wind-fall” gain. Their Vegas win.
Is this the legacy we farmers want to pass on to the next generation? How much is that “promise” piece of paper called a lease really worth? Our land? Our wildlife? Our dignity? Our legacy? Now, all of this is “gone with the wind.”
(signed) Wayne R. Knutson, Jr.
former Palo Alto County resident, from San Antonio, TX
Knutson, raised on the family farm in NW Iowa, is a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force. His mother lives on the farm and is involved in managing the operation. His commentary was first published in Wallaces Farmer, August 2016.
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