The tall grass prairie of the Flint Hills provides food for cattle and on the Ferrell Ranch, wind to power 50 turbines. The 7,000-acre ranch in Beaumont, Kansas, was started by Pete Ferrell’s great-grandfather in 1888. But ranching is hard work, and success is dependent on the weather, so in the 1920s, Ferrell’s grandfather sold leases to extract and sell oil from the land. Those wells helped the ranch survive years when drought dried up income from the ranching operations.
But now Pete Ferrell is extracting another form of energy: wind. Since 2005, wind turbines have been producing renewable power for the grid and a reliable cash crop for the ranch.
Yale Climate Connections spoke with Ferrell about his ranch and his journey with wind energy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Yale Climate Connections: Can you describe the tall grass prairie that your ranch is on?
Pete Ferrell: It looks like an ocean of grass, if you can imagine looking across an ocean with massive swells. Our rainfall here is almost 40 inches, and so we get this incredible amount of beautiful grass, and it’s something to behold if you haven’t seen it. You can see to the horizon, and the ranch here is on the highest place in the Flint Hills. So, by pure dumb luck, my great-grandfather chose the perfect site for a wind farm.
YCC: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of wind energy on the ranch?
Ferrell: In 1994-95 a company approached me and proposed building a wind farm on this ranch. And quite frankly because it was so foreign to me, my first response was, “No, we’re not doing that.” I didn’t have a positive response to begin with.
But they knew it was way out of the box [for me], and they were patient. They flew me to California, east of San Francisco, near the Altamont Pass. At that time, it was the only other place in the United States where wind turbines coexisted with ranching. And it was there that I met with other ranchers. And I remember one of them said to me, “We have been able to go on with our ranching operation, and we find no problem with the wind turbines being compatible with our ranching operation.” So that was a turning point for me to actually talk with another rancher who had done it, and I came home and did more research. And I began to really understand that we have a carbon problem, a big carbon problem. In the mid-90s, that was becoming obvious.
YCC: How did the community react to the idea of putting wind turbines on your property?
Ferrell: The range of responses is from one end to the other, and I can’t ever predict if it will be well received or not. I had no idea that it would be so controversial when we did this. I was a bit caught off guard by the negative responses because, by the time I agreed to allow the park to be constructed, I was convinced that it was a net benefit not only for this ranch but for rural communities and for the nation at large in our attempt to lower CO2 emissions.
I strongly believe we have to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, and I felt that this was an excellent statement on how we might do that. But the community at large, some of them didn’t see it that way. There were many efforts to stop construction, to halt construction by legal actions. The developer prevailed through all of those and we eventually built the park. But to this day, I’m aware that it’s very divisive, not only in this rural community but in many rural communities.
YCC: And how many turbines are on your land now, and what does that look like?
Ferrell: The park was completed in 2005. The total park is 150 megawatts and there are 100 turbines, and 50 of them are on the Ferrell ranch. The other 50 are on three adjoining ranches that are off to the west of us. But it looks like just very large plants out on the prairie, and so that’s how I choose to look at them, and I see them as something highly beneficial.
YCC: You mentioned when you were first approached you were skeptical, and hearing the firsthand accounts of other ranchers who were doing this successfully was really what swayed you. Have you played that role for others?
Ferrell: My phone rang off the hook in the year or so following 2005 by other ranchers very interested in what I did and wanting to know how I did it. But I think many of them backed away in the face of the community resistance that they encountered. But I would say that nine out of 10 calls that I received were farmers and ranchers wanting to know, “How can I get this done on my place?” And of course, at that point in time, wind farming as a sector of our economy was really quite young — this was kind of a moonshot. And we prevailed.
The whole industry has matured into something that is really not recognizable compared to what I was doing 20-23 years ago. But I still get calls to this day from ranchers who have been approached by a developer and the rancher wants to know, “What do I need to know? And I gladly help them by sharing my experience, but I only do that on a one-on-one basis. I’ve learned that it’s almost impossible to speak at a public forum in many of these communities because you can almost be assured some extreme person is going to be there to spew this misinformation about wind farming.
YCC: And the cattle graze in and around the turbines?
Ferrell: As the ranchers in California predicted, there has been virtually no impact on the cattle operation. We’ve had virtually no interference between our ranching operation and the wind farm operation whatsoever. We recognize that we have changed the environment and have been very sensitive to how that impacts the native species. For example, the jack rabbits and the greater prairie chicken: We’ve been monitoring their health and welfare. Actually, before the wind farm was installed, we did a study of the greater prairie chicken, and I believe it lasted eight years. And at the end of eight years, that was up until 2011, we were able to discern that the prairie chicken population was as healthy on the ranch as prior to construction, which was pleasing to us.
YCC: Is there one message that you would like to get out there for folks in rural communities who are listening, or one thing you’d like to counter as far as misinformation?
Ferrell: If a big oil field had been discovered south of Beaumont, Kansas, and we were going to put in 100 new oil wells, everybody would have gone, “Yippee! More oil.” And they wouldn’t have said a word [against it].
When the wind farm was completed, we went around and literally measured every acre that could no longer be used for agriculture — the exact footprint of the turbines at the base, the roads, the operations and maintenance station, everything that could no longer be used on the Ferrell Ranch for grazing. And the measurement came out to be almost exactly 50 acres. And we have 50 turbines on this ranch, so the net loss for grazing was one acre per turbine.
Then I asked them to go up to the oil field and also measure the loss of acreage due to oil production. Which they did. And so they measured the tank batteries, the pump jacks, the roads, and also the large amount of spillage damage that had occurred for the last hundred years up there. Because when salt water is spilled on the land, it is rendered unusable. So we measured all of that, and we measured it against how many pump jacks were there. Well, lo and behold, it was exactly one acre per pump jack.
So the argument that I developed was, “I put in 100 new pump jacks, they’re up in the air, they’re going to harvest wind, and they will never spill saltwater on this land. Furthermore, the fuel will never run out.” And I don’t know whether I persuaded anybody with that argument, but I used it repeatedly to express the fact that this is another form of energy extraction. It is industrial. I don’t deny that those are machines out there. But it’s a way that we can move away from fossil fuels, and I believe that to this day.
YCC: What benefits can wind energy provide for rural Kansas?
Ferrell: In Kansas, the machines themselves were exempted from property taxation. And so in lieu of that, most developers offer a PILOT payment, which is Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, which can greatly benefit these communities at large. And so in our community, we now have a community building, a place to meet that we did not have. And much of the funding for that building was made possible by grants given from the wind farm to the county. And we applied for those grants, and so the money came back to our community. So there is at-large money that will be available to these communities.
And I think most of your [readers] will understand that farming and ranching, it’s hard. It’s really hard. We have two issues that can make it very difficult for us to make a living: One of them is the markets, and the other is drought. And I had to purchase a majority of this ranch, and making payments from the agricultural income was really challenging. And so having this supplemental income has literally allowed me to have insurance so that I can make my payments even in the face of drought. I always say that wind farming is my best cash crop because the wind blows even during a drought. And it’s been extremely helpful in those years when the agricultural enterprises were impaired because of dry weather.
YCC: So essentially what you’re saying is wind energy is something that can allow you to continue operating as a ranch.
Ferrell: Exactly. The wind farm allowed me to continue operating the ranch and to improve my personal quality of life. Ranching and farming are extremely taxing, and it’s always difficult to get a life balance, so I don’t have to work as hard as I once did, and I’m grateful for that.