Eastern Colorado families that have produced wheat, corn, and other cash crops for generations are now becoming “wind farmers”, as Xcel Energy’s 300-turbine Rush Creek Wind Project opens up a new revenue source for operations facing low crop prices and economic uncertainty.
“It doesn’t matter if there is hail, rain, lightning,” farmer Jan Kochis told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “As long as the wind blows, we’re producing energy that we’re able to profit from. It is our new cash crop.”
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“It’s a bright day for conservation and energy production in Colorado,” said Greg Brophy, a former Republican state senator who now serves as Colorado director of The Western Way, a self-described right-leaning conservation group.
“Small towns in eastern Colorado are drying up and blowing away,” he added. “The only thing we have here is agriculture and energy. Since agriculture is suffering right now, the growth of wind is pumping development into areas that desperately need it.”
Kochis and her husband Virgil trace their farm’s history back more than a century, to Virgil’s grandfather’s arrival in the United States from Czechoslovakia. “After working in the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Boulder, he bought 160 acres of farmland near Matheson in Elbert County through the Homestead Act,” the Gazette states. Since then, “the farm has grown to 10,000 acres, half of which is used to grow crops. Beef cattle graze on the other half. In 2016, the Kochises received a Centennial Farms & Ranches designation, marking the 100th year of the farm’s life.”
But the farm’s profits have fallen sharply in the last decade, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture now estimating that producers in their region lose US$134.95 for every acre of wheat they produce. “Weather can be detrimental, too,” the Gazette notes. “A hailstorm in early June destroyed $80,000 to $90,000 worth of crops, Virgil said, and the low snowpack this year left his fields brown and parched until a rainstorm last week.”
Wind development is helping to reverse some of those economic losses. Farmers with turbines on their property receive lease payments and damage compensation while construction is under way, then royalties once the systems begin producing electricity, and the wider region benefits, as well.
“Each turbine generates $4,000 in property taxes,” the Gazette notes. “In Lincoln County, more than $2 million will be pumped into the county budget once the turbines are operating.” As well, “hundreds of workers have been employed to install the 260-foot tall turbines, which were manufactured at one of three Colorado plants. Thirty-two will be employed full time once the farm is producing energy.”
State Senator Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling) calls Rush Creek “a terrific project that has employed hundreds during construction and will continue to employ wind technicians, many of which are from our local communities.” He adds that “rather than continuing to export our best local resource—our children—the growing wind industry is providing new opportunities that are allowing more of them to stay local.”
Overall, the wind industry employs more than 5,000 Coloradans, and delivers important environmental benefits, as well: Last year, wind power “saved four billion gallons of water that coal and gas plants would have used and avoided eight million metric tons of carbon dioxide,” the Gazette states. “That’s equivalent to 30.4 billion water bottles and 1.7 million cars’ worth of emissions.”