Earth Day 54: A Sense of Wonder On The Farm And Senate Bill 697

By Bobby Whitescarver

My wife and I are cattle farmers in Virginia’s legendary Shenandoah Valley. Early in our marriage, Jeanne gave me a nickname: “Walk Slow, Stand Around.” Yep, that’s me. Sure, it’s funny. And it’s true. But I’m not lazy; I just wonder a lot. As a farmer, I’m exposed to so many things in nature that just leave me in a state of awe.

I asked Jeanne, “What gives you a sense of wonder?”

She didn’t hesitate: “Daffodils and young calves running.”

I wonder at those, too. A bunch of newborn calves running with their tails in the air and their mothers chasing after them is a sight to behold. I stand in amazement every time our border collie does an outrun to bring a herd of cattle to the barn. 

Tree swallows arrived on our farm this year on March 14. Each year, I wonder when they will come; that’s when spring begins for me. They migrate here from Florida, Cuba, and Mexico to nest and raise their young. We put up nesting boxes for them. Their metallic blue wings and white breast are unmistakable. They fly in squadrons all summer in pursuit of flying insects. I stand around and watch.

When I see rays of sunshine beaming through holes in big white and gray puffy clouds, I have to stop and wonder. It’s just so beautiful and awe inspiring. A ray of that light starts one of the greatest natural processes on the planet: photosynthesis. It’s what gives us green pastures for our cows to graze in. It’s what makes trees’ leaves grow and then fall into streams to feed the aquatic ecosystem. We had thousands of native trees and shrubs planted along the water courses on our farm to support this miraculous process and to provide wildlife habitat.

My wife and I are regen farmers. “Regen” is short for “regenerative,” meaning we produce wholesome food while regenerating our land’s ecosystem services, such as the production of clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat and renewable energy. 

We raise beef cattle — they’re ruminants, which have multiple stomachs that make them capable of digesting the cellulose in grass. Cows, and other grazing ruminants such as sheep and goats, are mobile cellulose-digesting protein and fertilizer factories. These animals harvest their own food and fertilize the soil, which makes the grass grow more vigorously. This regenerative cycle helps the planet too: The more vigorously a plant grows, the more carbon it captures from the air, reducing greenhouse gasses.

The rays of sun beam down. The grasses and trees grow, capturing carbon from the air. The rays of sun also beam down on the solar panels we installed on one of our barns, producing renewable energy.

I stand and wonder as the direct current from the solar panels hums through the inverters, converting it to alternating current before it enters the grid. We would like to install more solar panels, but our utility company limits the production of renewable energy that can go into its grid. We also have some land well suited for solar panels, but our local government, and many others across the commonwealth, have severely restricted farmers’ rights to 
install them.

Those human actions inspire a different kind of wondering: Why would the utility companies and the government restrict our ability to produce renewable energy? And that kind of wondering should lead to action, not standing around.

Senate Bill 697, introduced this past legislative session, intended to remove local government authority for utility scale solar until the locality reached a cap of 4 percent of its land in panels. Control of solar siting rested with the State Corporation Commission. The bill was tabled until next year because it met with so much resistance from local governments, but that gives us an opportunity to work together and get the bill right. I wonder: Can we reduce the cap to 1- or 2 percent with the caveat that localities adopt stringent 
siting ordinances?

We don’t have time to stand around. The demand for electricity in Virginia has never been higher or more complicated. The Virginia Clean Economy Act sunsets fossil fuel electric generation by 2050. And Virginia is now the world’s epicenter for data centers, which suck at least 20 percent of Dominion Energy’s supply, and plans for more data centers are in the unsecured “nobody’s watching” pipeline.

As the country observes Earth Day, our Virginia legislators could — and should — remove barriers for properly sited solar installations.This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury, Bobby Whitescarver is co-owner of Whiskey Creek Regenerative Farming, a watershed restoration consultant, an award-winning writer, and teaches natural resources management at James Madison University. He serves on the board of directors of the Berryville-based nonprofit, The Downstream Project.