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Another Option


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Why should small and mid-sized farmers have their financial livelihoods tied so heavily to the value of their “dirt?” Shouldn’t they also have reliable income that they can count on each year?

Jess and Marcus Gray think they should. That is why they transformed their lives and livelihoods after deep reflection during the COVID-19 pandemic.  


“We were taking our kids to basketball, and we turned a different way. We took a different route, and we found out that we were four miles from 800 acres of solar,” Jess Gray explained to American Farmland Owner. “And we thought our girls would love to graze out here.”


To be clear: “our kids” and “our girls” are not the same.


She isn’t talking about turning her children loose on the field vegetation. She is talking about her ewes. Ewes are her life. Or at least part of her new life.

two photos - marcus surrounded by goats. jess holding a goat
Marcus and Jess Gray on their farm in Virginia with some of their “workers.” Photos courtesy: Jess Gray.

Jess and Marcus own Gray’s LAMBscaping. In some ways, it is a massive transformation of their lives. But in other ways, it is building on their family’s past and passions.


Jess had been a collegiate field hockey coach. So, yes, that is the part of her background that may not have brought obvious transitions to her new career. But she has always been passionate about sustainability.

a handful of sheep under sola panels
Sheep take a break in the shade of solar panels. Photo courtesy: Jess Gray.

Marcus worked as a wildlife biologist. But he comes from multi-generational sheep farmers. Add a few of those skills and beliefs together and you have a couple dedicated to solar grazing.

It combines a commitment to renewable energy, an alternative to chemicals for weed and vegetation control, plus some extra bucks from sheep sales.


“It's just a different way to look at things and to manage the landscape,” Jess said.


The Grays are part of the American Solar Grazing Association.

     

The association describes itself like this:


“The American Solar Grazing Association (ASGA) supports and promotes solar grazing by identifying best practices, creating networking systems for the exchange of ideas and innovation, providing educational materials, and facilitating connections between solar developers and farmers.”


The association considers sheep to be the best and most popular grazing animal.


“Sheep are naturally suited to the job of solar grazing.  They enjoy the shade of the solar panels on hot days, napping and grazing where humans would struggle to reach.  They are resourceful foragers, walking to search for vegetation that might otherwise become a shady nuisance for the solar company.


For the safety of the existing, low-mount solar arrays, goats, cows, pigs, and horses are not recommended.”


 (Solar grazing operations in the United States. Map courtesy: American Solar Grazing Association.)
Solar grazing operations in the United States. Map courtesy: American Solar Grazing Association.

RELATED: University of Maryland Extension hosted this webinar on how solar grazing works. Watch that here. 


The Grays try to raise the economic potential of their land by creating an additional revenue stream rather than relying on just solar or sheep. If you have solar panels on your land, why not have sheep come in and take care of the weeds? That is their mindset.


And they are doing two-year mentorships with other farmers to convince them that solar grazing could be the way forward. But there are skeptics. Not everyone likes seeing solar panels. And some communities are working to limit them.


“I’m going to go to the planning commission,” Marcus said about the critics. “I’m gonna fight this solar. And I don’t want to look at it even though my neighbor has the potential to make a decent amount of money for 30 years off this and be able to stay in farming.”


The Grays aren’t concerned about the anti-solar crowd. They plan to expand their herd of 800 sheep to 5,000 and follow the mission they lay out on their website, “fostering a harmonious balance between clean energy production and agricultural prosperity.”

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