What’s at least as environmentally friendly as constructing a solar farm to cut utility bills? Using a four-legged mowing crew to keep the 6-acre tract manicured.
Furman University is partnering with Greenville farmer Steve Wood to see if his flock of St. Croix hair sheep can reduce the cost — and gas emissions — of mowing the solar farm, which sits between Poinsett Highway and Old Buncombe Road.
Opened last year, the 743-kilowatt solar farm features 2,994 panels capable of reducing the university’s electricity expenditures by 5 percent annually, said Jeff Redderson, associate vice president for facility and campus services at Furman.
Despite its benefits, however, the solar farm has become a challenge for the university’s landscaping team as their riding mowers can’t trim grass and weeds growing in the hard-to-reach areas beneath the solar panels, according to Redderson.
Wood, who drives by the solar farm on a regular basis to use Furman University’s Lay Physical Activities Center, noticed overgrowth on the property earlier this year and decided to meet with Redderson to propose a partnership.
“I was pretty shy about bringing it up at first, because I figured the university would think I was crazy,” Wood said.
Redderson, however, loved the idea of deploying sheep at the solar farm and took it to the Shi Center for Sustainability to see if it might work.
“I had heard of the technique but never really considered the possibility of doing it here at Furman until Steve approached us,” Redderson said. “It’s been a great solution.”
Furman officials introduced 12 sheep — four ewes and eight lambs — to the solar farm last month. The bleating crew has since proved itself to be a handy addition, munching on patches of grass day and night, according to Redderson. They will graze at the university’s solar farm until October and return next spring.
Laura Bain, associate director of sustainability assessment at Furman, said the sheep are a greener alternative to lawn mowers and weed whackers, which consume large amounts of gasoline and emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The sheep are also a cheaper, more efficient maintenance option since the hard-to-reach areas under the solar farm’s panels would have to otherwise be mowed by hand, a technique that’s more expensive and time-consuming, according to Bain.
Bain added that bringing in sheep to do a job typically left to lawn mowers and weed whackers isn’t a new technique, but Furman’s solar farm is likely the first in South Carolina to use the animals for landscaping purposes.
The use of sheep to maintain solar farms is a trend that has grown with the rise of utility-scale solar developments in rural areas across the country. It has become especially popular in North Carolina, where more than a dozen solar farms employ sheep.
North Carolina is also home to Sun Raised Farms, a maintenance contractor that offers mowing, grazing, and agricultural services, and manages a statewide network of sheep farmers who want to grow their flocks and serve solar sites.
“Our farmers take ownership of each site and are trained [in] best [practices] from our experience working with sheep on solar farms,” the company’s website reads. “With our model, we accomplish a win for the solar company, a win for the community, a win for the family farmer, a win for the consumer, and a win for the environment.”
Wood, who operates a 17-acre farm in northern Greenville County, said St. Croix hair sheep, which are known for their white hair and gentle nature, are a good choice for Furman’s solar farm since horses or cows would be too large and goats would likely damage the panels by jumping on them or even consuming parts of them.
The sheep are also low maintenance, Wood said. Unlike other breeds, St. Croix hair sheep grow hair instead of wool and naturally shed their winter coat during the warmer months. They’re also known for their resistance to internal parasites.
Sheep also have big appetites, according to Wood. An online calculator created by real estate brokerage and referral site Movoto shows that a single sheep can trim from 10 to 20 square meters of grass per day — the size of a large bedroom.
In addition to a buffet of grass, Furman’s sheep receive fresh water and minerals on site and can take refuge from the heat beneath the solar panels, according to Wood, who visits the solar farm two to three times a week to check on his flock.
The sheep, however, don’t need much supervision since many of them are outfitted with bells, which ward off coyotes and other predators, according to Wood. The university also slightly modified the solar farm’s fencing to better secure the property.
Wood said his partnership with Furman is a conservation effort of sorts as the St. Croix hair sheep is a heritage breed, a term used by the agricultural community to designate traditional livestock breeds that were popular before industrial agriculture became a mainstream practice. Heritage breeds are usually threatened or endangered.
St. Croix hair sheep, which are native to the U.S. Virgin Islands and named for the island of St. Croix, are believed to be descended from African sheep that were brought to the Caribbean on slave ships in the 1500s, according to The Livestock Conservancy, an organization that works to protect endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction.
The first group of St. Croix hair sheep — two ewes and one ram — were imported into the United States in 1957. The breed is now recognized as threatened by The Livestock Conservancy, with fewer than 1,000 registrations per year.[gj_gallery]
Wood said he plans to organize several “sheep encounters” at the university’s solar farm throughout the year in hopes that their docile nature might provide an opportunity for Furman students to learn about the animals in a safe way.
For now, Wood is working with the university to evaluate how many sheep are actually needed to maintain the vegetation at the solar farm. He’s also working with Bain and other officials to install solar-powered electric fencing at the solar farm to guide the sheep’s grazing patterns to patches of grass beneath the panels.
Furman is currently using a combination of mowing and grazing at its solar farm until the flock’s lambs can consume more grass, according to Bain.
“The babies don’t eat much grass now since they are still nursing,” she said.
As the project continues, Bain said she would like to recruit students and faculty members from a number of disciplines, including biology and mathematics, to help determine the amount of forage that’s available at the solar farm for grazing animals.
“I think if we’re able to solve that puzzle, then it will not only benefit Furman but also help the greater community and world if folks want to implement similar projects,” Bain said.
For more information, visit furman.edu.