CHICAGO — What happens when a core value of an organization runs up against the wishes of its own members?
The Illinois Farm Bureau will be trying to find a way to ensure that one of its core values — protecting the right of property owners to do what they want with their property — can co-exist with the desire of members to preserve and protect prime farmland in the state.
“We have a lot of folks that are very concerned about prime farmland being put into these projects,” said Mark Gebhards.
Gebhards, IFB’s director of governmental affairs and commodities, spoke at a press conference following the IFB’s annual meeting and the close of the delegate session that saw delegates finish up their business in almost record time.
Renewable energy projects and how those projects, particularly solar farms, are affecting and could affect prime farmland was toward the top of a list of concerns that delegates debated during that session.
Illinois has become a magnet for solar farm development. In November, a proposed 100,000-panel solar installation on 223 acres of farmland near Washburn in Marshall County was announced.
Other large-scale solar farms are either under construction or have been proposed all across the state, from Saline County, to Sangamon County, to DeKalb County.
Also in November, a proposed 3,800-acre solar farm in Lee County was approved by the Lee County Zoning Board of Appeals. That project would lease ground from 25 landowners and 89% of the land for that installation currently is in row crops, according to a report from SaukValley.com.
Gebhards said that those projects and the questions and concerns surrounding the land use and land impacts of them were at the top of his priority list for the coming year.
“I see an increase in the number and scope of these projects. One thing we haven’t talked about, but it was part of the discussion or the debate around renewable energy, is farmland preservation,” he said.
One of the big questions that IFB officials and members will face is how does the organization walk the fine line between protecting private property rights, a core value of the organization, and at the same time advocating that landowners should be able to use their private property as they wish?
“There are a host of things that I think our membership wants to see. The message I heard from the delegate body is, yes, we need this sort of overall umbrella of some statewide standards, but our counties or local government entities do want to have the ability to make sure they can protect their respective areas as much as possible,” Gebhards said.
An IFB policy submittal that would have limited how much farmland in a county can be used for renewable energy projects failed.
“It didn’t pass because, again, it goes back to private property rights. It goes back to how can we tell Roger Ward (farm director at WLDS Radio in Jacksonville) that he can or cannot do something on his land, if he so chooses, that he wants to do?” Gebhards said.
Gebhards said the delegate body discussed the need for statewide standards for renewable energy projects or even to move control of renewable energy projects to the local level — a move that could have implications in other areas of agriculture.
“We talked a lot about whether we should or shouldn’t have statewide standards. There are implications for other aspects of agriculture. We talked about the livestock industry and the Livestock Management Facilities Act and how that may or may not be impacted if you start advocating for local standards or local control versus statewide standards. The Livestock Management Facilities Act is the statewide standard, the statewide regulations, that we (use) to operate, not only run our livestock farms, but to site new farms or expand our current farms. So, it’s very important to find that balance,” Gebhards said.
Working with Soil and Water Conservation Districts on the drainage and soil conservation issues that are always a part of installing renewable energy projects, from wind to solar to transmission lines to carry the electricity generated by those projects, also was part of that discussion, according to Gebhards.
Gebhards said one common theme was to find a way to partner with organizations like SWCDs, with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and with local drainage districts.
“We have talked with Soil and Water Conservation Districts. We’ve talked with NRCS. We’ve talked with the drainage districts out there. I do think the key thing here is that there does need to be a partnership approach. I think agriculture needs to find a way forward to try to look for these solutions, whether it’s drainage or other issues,” he said.