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INFB Delegates Set Policy on Wind Farms, Biofuels

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, September 10, 2021

Over 200 Indiana Farm Bureau delegates met virtually Aug. 28 to determine policy positions for 2022. Identifying the farm organization's No. 1 legislative priority, rural broadband, was easy—it was a carry-over from 2021.

However, other topics—locating of wind and solar energy farms, carbon credits, expanding local processing, and DNR floodplain notification—required more considerable debate.

With help from INFB President Randy Kron and Vice President Kendell Culp and staff, the 225 delegates were persistent and eventually fulfilled their obligation to set new policy.

In short, the delegates support the following:

• Local control for the siting of wind and energy projects;

• Maintaining the continued use of biofuels, biodiesel and ethanol as part of the fuel mix for transportation;

• A voluntary carbon credit program, along with producer education and nationwide standards;

• Encouraging more agricultural processing facilities, especially for small and medium-size operations; and

• Requiring landowner notification whenever land is included in a floodplain designation.

In their discussion on renewable energy, delegates voiced concern about the potential impact that solar farms might have on the rural landscape in Indiana. Some delegates were concerned about the loss of farmland, while others want to see local control for the large solar farms that are springing up across the state.

Still, other participants debated how such projects would be zoned and questioned the tax incentives being offered for these projects.

Solar and wind energy are increasing in popularity due to the Biden administration's push for renewable energy, complete with federal tax credits.

"The profits being generated ... are big," said Jim Weeber, a delegate from Elkhart County. "And I think the counties need to be very careful that they aren't on the short end of the stick."

One 850-acre solar farm has already been proposed for Elkhart County. A Kansas City, Mo.-based company, Savion, plans to invest $120 million to build a solar farm about seven miles southeast of Goshen in Benton Twp. Working with willing landowners, the company said the 100-megawatt facility would generate enough electricity to power nearly 19,000 homes.

"This zoning needs to be such that they are taxed as a utility, industrial installation," Weeber said, arguing against a resolution to maintain agricultural zoning for solar farms.

Phil Leibering, a delegate from Spencer County, agreed that it doesn't make sense to have a solar installation in an agricultural zone.

"Once this land is put under solar panels, it is no longer agricultural land," he said. "It is industrial or commercial land."

On the other end of the spectrum were delegates who were concerned about the potential loss of farmland.

"We're struggling (with) already losing agricultural land to development," said Ryan Martin, president of Kosciusko County Farm Bureau. "If you're going to transfer land like this to a different zoning, (then) you make it very difficult to get that land back into agriculture upon (the) decommissioning of that solar field."

The proposed solar farm near Goshen would be operational in 2023 and have a 30-year life span. INFB delegates were concerned about what happens once the solar panels outlive their usefulness. Who removes the material and cleans up the site?

Martin said that is an issue to be handled at the local level, but the majority of delegates felt strongly that developers should be required to post a decommissioning bond before construction begins.

"The reason for the bond is that we want to make sure that, after the lifetime of this energy system—whether it's wind, solar or whatever it is—that there is money available to take care of the closing down or removal of all that material," said Mike Moesner of Warrick County.

Farm Bureau policy was updated to state that local officials should have the final authority for siting decisions, and that land under a solar array should remain agriculturally zoned.

"We heard loud and clear from our members on Saturday (Aug. 28) that they want the control of siting of those (solar farms) to stick at the local level," said Andy Tauer, INFB's executive director of public policy. "They feel that locals are better prepared to determine what areas in their communities are best suited for this type of project."

Tauer noted that a bill was introduced last year in the Legislature to bring siting of wind and solar farms under the authority of state government. The bill failed to get enough votes.

"We're going to be pushing for that (control) to remain in the locals' hands," he said.

Regarding the future of biofuels, delegates support the continued use of ethanol and biodiesel, and encourage their use in state or municipally owned vehicles. They also called for a financial incentives program for the Indiana biofuels industry.

Tauer said Farm Bureau wants to make sure lawmakers are aware of the importance of biofuels as car makers begin producing more electric vehicles.

Delegates also added language to the INFB policy book around the development of carbon markets. They affirmed their support for transparency and education for producers, and that participation should be voluntary.

Tauer added that INFB supports a nationwide program rather than a statewide effort for carbon credit markets. He said a federal program would streamline the process for those individuals who farm in two states.

For agricultural processing, delegates approved language that supports the creation and expansion of all forms of agricultural processing, including grain and meat. However, the Farm Bureau leaders were particular in their support of small and medium-size processors, especially after witnessing a breakdown in the food supply chain during the peak of COVID-19 pandemic.

"There was concern that we didn't have enough medium and small-size (processors) the way it was this past year," said Russell Beiersdorfer of Dearborn County. "The large processing facilities normally get incentives to move into Indiana or whatever state they're in. We're not really trying to stop them. We're just trying to increase some of the small and medium-size ones."

Tauer said some Farm Bureau members have expressed interest in starting local butchering plants, and the organization would like to facilitate those efforts. Last year, INFB successfully lobbied the Legislature for money in the state budget for additional meat inspectors within the Indiana State Board of Animal Health.

That was just a first step, Tauer said, toward INFB helping livestock and poultry producers who want to expand their operations.

"We're hearing from a lot of our members who are looking for opportunities to diversify," he said. "As the whole local-foods movement continues to build, we have a lot of members who raise lambs, cattle and hogs. They are looking for those opportunities to sell."

Now that there is more money for inspectors, Tauer said the next steps might involve a combination of legislative and administrative actions. One example is securing federal grant money to help farmers with the start-up costs of opening new locker plants.

In July, the Biden administration announced an executive order with a total of 72 initiatives. One of those initiatives is designed to encourage more competition in the meat industry. In the announcement, USDA said it planned to invest $500 million to expand meat and poultry processing capacity, and another $150 million to aid existing small and very small processing facilities.

Once the money becomes available, one might see a rush of farmers lining up to apply for their share.

In Indiana, Tauer said there are also discussions to be had at the local level with economic development directors. He hopes INFB's new policy will provide a good starting point for those discussions.

Another issue arising from the delegate session was that of landowner notification when the Department of Natural Resources designates an area as a floodplain. Some INFB delegates, including Jarrod Hahn of Wells County and Larry Jernas of Starke County, complained that property owners did not learn about this until they received their mortgage statements from the bank. They said there is also no appeals process for landowners who are included in the designation.

The delegates adopted policy calling for landowner notification prior to implementation.

Regarding broadband, delegates continued to voice their support for extending service to the rural corners of the state. As federal money becomes available for reaching more areas, Indiana Farm Bureau wants to make sure that grants and other financial assistance are distributed equitably.

One new tool promoted by INFB is the Broadband Speed Test, a crowd-sourced Internet speed test that identifies what areas of the state are most in need of broadband service. The data from the speed test will be available to local governments and organized broadband groups to analyze potential solutions and aid their applications for federal grants.

With a new policy booklet in hand, Tauer said INFB's board of directors will meet later this month to determine the policy priorities for the 2022 state legislative session.

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