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“A couple years ago was the first we began to make a decent profit off our farm, then all of a sudden natural gas went up so high.  That’s a fossil fuel also, and I don’t see where it’s so green.  That’s another thing about the wind energy – if it’s not blowing today it will be tomorrow.  ”

-Leland Russell
Farm and Food Voices
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Wind Farm Helps Illinois Family Farm Survive

Russell familyFor most Americans, windmills offer the promise of clean energy to light homes and fuel industry.

For local farmers, they offer a second benefit – an environmentally friendly income stream to help keep farms profitable and family-owned.

The Russell family – three brothers and two sisters who farm together through a family trust – are a good example, according to Leland, the oldest,“We have highly erodible land, so we no-till two-thirds of our ground and work really hard to rotate our crops.  We’ve rebuilt all our conservation waterways [for erosion control] and that costs money." 

The family is committed to good environmental practices, even though their waterway program takes up 18 acres that might otherwise go into crops – a serious sacrifice in De Kalb County, where that can translate into more than $12,000 of lost income per year.    

Type of Operation:
Midwestern corn and soybean farm

Land in Agriculture:
560 acres

Greatest Challenge:
High operational costs and land prices

Program Participation:
USDA corn and soybean commodity programs and an HEL (highly erodible land) farm program with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service

The Russells’ six windmills don’t eat up so much land, according to Leland: “Going around a windmill is much more feasible than working around a waterway.  We can plant right alongside the towers, within 15 feet.”

According to Leland’s sister Rosalie, “Having the windmills… make it a lot easier to keep the family farm trust going.  Without the windmill income, it’s much more likely somebody will want out of the trust, but it’s almost impossible to buy out one person without selling the land.”

A brother or sister who wants to cash out is the biggest threat to the survival of their farm.  In the current farm economy, land prices are so high that the remaining family members would find it almost impossible to buy out a brother or sister’s share.

Part of the problem is the loss of farmland to Chicago’s suburbs further east.  Eldred Russell explains that farmers who sold land at huge profits to suburban developers can buy farms further west at prices no De Kalb County grower can afford.

“There’s some big operators paying $9,000 per acre.  Even people from overseas are investing around here,” he says, warning that there’s a difference between buying land for what it can earn as a farm versus buying it as an investment.  

“If we sold today, we’d make a lot of money, but we don’t want to sell.  We want to keep the farm in the family a long time,” he concludes.

Leland, the family’s acknowledged windmill expert, is enthusiastic not only about their benefits to the family trust but also about their economic and environmental advantages. 

“We have to meet the energy needs of the future.  Wind is by far the most economical out here, and these are General Electric towers made in the U.S.A.,” he notes, “there’s another thing about wind energy – if it’s not blowing today in De Kalb, it will be tomorrow.”

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American Farmland Trust