The term “farm” is often used to describe fields of solar photovoltaic panels, although there are usually no animals or crops being raised within the racking, wiring and panels.
For one school district in southern Ohio, its solar array became just that — a farm.
The 1.2 megawatt solar photovoltaic system was put in as a way for the Scioto County school district to offset the electricity needs for its campus using resources it had at hand: vacant land and the sun. Those two resources are also great for raising sheep.
The solar farm soon became home to the Northwest Scioto County Career and Technical Center FFA chapter’s first sheep flock and on-school farm. Not only do the panels power the school’s building, but they’ve energized a group of students who never before had the opportunity to get hands-on work with livestock.
“It was a good experience and journey for me,” said Brooklyn Nichols, a senior at Northwest High School. She showed one of the ewe lambs from the school’s flock at the Scioto County Fair in August, the first time she’d raised an animal for a fair. “I want my own farm and my own farm animals now.
“By knowing this kind of thing, the medications, the feed, the cleaning pens, learning the how-tos of showing at the fair, I can pass all that knowledge down to my children and keep the tradition going through them.”
Todd Jenkins, school superintendent, said the district explored the idea of having a solar array in 2014. It could make the school more environmentally friendly and resilient. It would also make the school district a regional leader and model in using alternative energy sources.
The school solar photovoltaic became operational in early 2018. The district leased a 10-acre portion of the school’s campus, in McDermott, Ohio, to an energy company to install and operate the panels. In return, the district buys all the electricity produced by the system. It’s enough to power about 67% of the school district’s buildings, Jenkins said.
The school district’s FFA program began not long before the solar panels were installed, according to Marcheta Ferguson, the high school agriculture education teacher. The chapter was formed in 2016.
Northwest Local’s FFA program is a satellite program of the county’s career and technical center. Ferguson handles grades 9-12 and Bridgette Freeman, the middle school agriculture education teacher, teaches grades 6-8.
The two ag teachers first learned about solar grazing during a work conference. They wondered if they could put sheep under the solar panels at the school, using them for vegetation management and also for the animal science classes and FFA chapter.
The teachers proposed the idea to the superintendent, who cleared the proposal with the school board and solar company. It was an easy sell to Jenkins, who is also the president of the Scioto County Fair board.
Grazing and lambing
The FFA chapter’s first five Suffolk-Hampshire cross ewes came to live in the school’s solar field in July 2020, Ferguson said. Someone donated the use of a ram, so the flock had a small group of lambs in the spring. The sheep have a small run-in shed for shelter, although they rarely use it.
“The solar panels actually provide a great deal of shelter,” she said. “They hardly ever use the barn, until we make them use it like when it was time for lambing.”
The forage is abundant under the panels. Ferguson said they didn’t need to start feeding hay until January this year. She donates hay to the school’s flock from her farm. The small flock hasn’t been able to keep up with the vegetation management under the panels. Some of it still gets mowed.
Ferguson, like many of her students, didn’t have a lot of experience with sheep. She grew up raising cattle. It was a learning experience for all of them, going through their first lambing this spring.
A trail camera connected to the internet let them check on the ewes throughout lambing.
The ewes lambed on weekends or in the evening, when the students weren’t there, but Ferguson or Freeman would go to help.
The students handled tail docking, castration and other care for the lambs. One ewe stopped nursing her lamb, so the ag students took her in as a bottle baby.
“She was close to death when we found her,” Nichols said. “We brought her into the school and warmed her up. The next day, she was running around the classroom, jumping from wall to wall.”
That ewe lamb ended up being Nichols’s fair project. From the five ewes came seven lambs. Ferguson offered the lambs to FFA students who were interested in showing at the fair but otherwise couldn’t raise a market animal. It cost $250 for students to participate in the program.
“It’s a rural county, but a lot of my students and a lot of kids in school are two or three generations removed from the farm,” Ferguson said.
Nine students were initially interested in the program. Ferguson bought in two more lambs to make sure everyone who wanted to had a chance to participate. In the end, six students saw the program the whole way through to show day at the fair.
Nichols said it was hard at first to balance her part time job, soccer practice and caring for her lamb. She eventually worked out her schedule to fit everything in.
“I got it set up to where I went in the morning after soccer to feed, water and walk my sheep,” she said.
Nichols grew up near Dayton, Ohio. She moved to Portsmouth and got involved with the FFA when she started attending Northwest several years ago. She’d never had the opportunity to raise an animal for a fair before and had no experience with sheep.
“It was a really big opportunity for someone like me,” she said. “For someone that didn’t have a lot of experience in farming and showing, it taught me a
lot of responsibility and other great values that I use today and I’ll use in the future as well.”
Show day at the Scioto County Fair was Aug. 9. Nichols was prepared, but nervous.
“I didn’t know if my sheep was going to run off from me, and I wouldn’t be able to catch her,” she said.
Showmanship was first, then the sheep judging class. Once she got in the ring, Nichols said her nerves went away.
“It was really fun being in that show ring,” she said.
Learning and growing
The first year has been an “undertaking,” Ferguson said. One ewe died in March. Because there is no full barn, they built temporary pens underneath the solar panels to house the fair lambs. One of the teachers had to be there every day over the summer to let the students into the fenced solar field take care of their sheep. They already have ideas for how to improve.
The teachers applied for a grant to build a full barn. The barn would house the sheep, but Jenkins said it could be an opportunity for the district to house other types of livestock. The school district owns about 100 acres. There’s room for the school’s farm to grow.
Since the FFA chapter was started at Northwest, two greenhouses were built. The agriculture education program has about 80-90 students in it each year, Ferguson said. It’s young, compared with many legacy programs at Ohio schools, but the interest is strong.
“Our board is very supportive, our community is very supportive,” Jenkins said. “It’s a dying culture, in a sense. Small farmers aren’t there anymore, so the kids lose that. We’re blessed to offer this at both our high school and middle school.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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