A new kind of cash crop is turning gusty Iowa into a renewable energy juggernaut — and preserving a rural way of life.
Reposted with the kind permission of Reasons to be Cheerful.
This story is part of Red State Green Energy, a series about renewable energy endeavors in places where conservative politics or pro-business attitudes reign. This series is funded in part by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network’s Business & Sustainability Initiative.
It was one of Iowa’s longest droughts in recent years, and it arrived just as the 2020 pandemic was surging across the American Midwest.
Gerald Leng, a stocky corn and soy grower in his eighties, watched as friends and acquaintances around his town of Primghar succumbed to the virus. Then June — usually the wettest month — came and went with barely a drop of rain. The drought continued into the fall, wilting crops and cracking the ground. Like others, Leng upped his federal crop insurance from 70 to 85 percent. Lake Big Spirit, one of his getaway spots up north, dropped a resounding 2 feet.
But Leng, a generally positive man with a grandfatherly wit, did not flinch. Like hundreds of other farmers around O’Brien County, his land contains not just corn and soybeans, but an array of massive wind turbines, which, besides delivering power to homes as far south as Houston, provides Leng and his brother Arnie with tens or sometimes hundreds of thousands of leasing dollars per year.
These turbine leases are the lynchpins in a multipronged, mutually beneficial arrangement that makes Iowa one of America’s most prolific producers of renewable energy. The system brings together farmers, energy companies, and the federal government to capitalize on two of Iowa’s most prominent resources: strong winds and vast expanses of land. The result is thousands of megawatts of green energy, reliable income streams to offset bad harvests, and substantial private sector profits aided by generous federal tax credits.
“It’s just like another crop,” Leng said of his turbines from behind his desk at the Primghar Savings Bank, which he’s owned since 1994. “It’s diversification. If the weather doesn’t cooperate and we don’t have enough corn and soybeans, we might have enough wind.”
According to the US Department of Energy’s 2021 Wind Energy report, some 57 percent of the power generated in Iowa last year came from wind — the highest share in the nation. And Iowa is second only to Texas – which produces more wind power than most countries — in the total amount of wind power it is capable of producing. A politically conservative state that voted for Donald Trump twice over, Iowa is a trailblazer in the clean energy sector. And the bulk of all this wind power was captured in what Iowa is known best for: corn fields.
Since 2005, when federal tax breaks incentivized energy companies to invest heavily in wind, agents from these companies have fanned out across the Hawkeye State, visiting Iowa’s rural farms and ranches to convince the owners to install turbines, many of which soar well over 200 feet in height, among the rows of their crops.
“We wouldn’t be able to do these projects without voluntary participation of our landowners,” says Adam Jablonski, the vice president of resource development at MidAmerican Energy.
Based in Des Moines, MidAmerican today is responsible for the highest number of wind turbine land leases (or easements, in energy parlance) in the state: 3,414 turbines generating over 7,300 megawatts of electricity.
Nowhere is MidAmerican’s presence more evident than in O’Brien County, centered smack dab in the middle of Northwest Iowa’s economically lucrative Wind Belt. While already profitable for cash crops — its loose black dirt means bragging rights for century farms — O’Brien County has the capacity to produce up to 752 megawatts of energy (enough to power roughly 150,400 homes), making it one of the top-producing wind power counties in the United States.
For 18 years, energy behemoths like MidAmerican, Invenergy in Chicago, and Mortensen in Minneapolis have flocked in droves to places like O’Brien, Ida County, and Palo Alto County, touting property tax benefits to county auditors, and offering cash-in-pocket — $10,000 to $15,000 per tower — to farmers who sign on the dotted line. With sustained winds that often clock 30 mph, O’Brien County is to wind what Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar Field is to oil and natural gas.
For Jablonski, who was one of those energy company agents on the ground in the early aughts, the trifecta of benefits is a no-brainer: “The better the wind resource, the more wind generation, the more renewable energy for our customers.”
Being a green energy goldmine doesn’t come without hiccups, however. From the first preliminary meetings with locals in Primghar’s Community Center, the turbine boom proved divisive. Some believed they were ugly, or killed off bats or birds. Others worried the cranes or trucks carrying the massive structures were damaging their land. Perhaps the most unexpected acrimony came from those who couldn’t get a turbine deal, due to dissenting neighbors or obstructing power lines near their property. “Here,” said Barbara Rohwer, auditor of O’Brien County, “you either love ‘em, or you hate ‘em.”
This is why many O’Brien folk maintain a quiet neutrality on the subject of wind, akin to avoiding discussions of national politics circa 2016. For Leng, who has hosted five MidAmerican turbines on his farmland outside Primghar, the deal he made — which kept him calm during the 2020 drought — has just these pros and cons. On the one hand, it allows for more romps up to the Okoboji Lakes, maybe a new $300,000 combine harvester one year. On the other, the agreement he made 17 years ago has burned a few bridges.
“I don’t think any one of my neighbors are still talking to me,” Leng said. “But I probably haven’t opened up a conversation and said, ‘Hey! Let’s talk about windmills.’ I’m smarter than that. I mean, I don’t even want to go there.”
For as long as wind turbines have been in Iowa, and the rest of the Midwest for that matter, there has been both a tax benefit and a resulting backlash.
“Experts have called Iowa one of the best places in the country for turning prairie breezes into electricity,” read a report by The New York Times on September 13, 1984.
The year previous, the US Commerce Commission, via a new law, began allowing landowners with turbines — then less than half the size of today’s — to profit off the energy produced on their own land.
But this incentive was somewhat blunted by the fact that farmers back then had to pay for their own set of blades at a cost of $25,000 and up ($52,000 in 2022 dollars). The result was that fewer than 60 turbines, then called generators, were built by year’s end. “If a farmer is in trouble and can’t even get his crops in the ground,” a wind manufacturer in Newton, IA, explained to the Times, “he sure isn’t going to invest in a wind generator.”
By 2005, things had changed. Bush-era federal production incentives — about a $13 billion federal investment over the following decade — were generous enough for the energy giants to pay to erect the turbines themselves. Energy company hard hats swarmed to towns like Sanborn, Primghar, and Paulina, all tiny farming hamlets with a combined population of less than 3,500.
Jablonski, then in his twenties and fresh out of Iowa State University, was one of those agents. In 2013, following nine years of wind company diplomacy in Iowa, he spearheaded preliminary talks in Primghar’s Community Center, laying out MidAmerican’s proposal to alter the landscape. Mortensen and Invenergy had sold hundreds of turbines to MidAmerican, and now Jablonski was here to leverage the familiarity into a behemoth project. The process “was always the same,” he said. “We target a project area. We get all the landowners together, answer their questions, meet with them one on one to tell them exactly what’s going to be there. We’re pretty upfront, how we do it.”
The meetings were fruitful. Six years into Jablonski’s wind career, he helped MidAmerican bring 214 towers to O’Brien farmland in what the company believes was the world’s largest order for onshore wind turbines at the time. The twin gargantuan wind farms — Highland and O’Brien — would be an undeniable boon, MidAmerican agents told residents, to both the county and Iowa as a whole, which would come to produce $62 million in lease and property taxes by 2030.
For Primghar, a town of 963, the projects were welcomed with majority open arms. Since the aughts, the town had struggled with brain drain — teenagers shipping off to state schools instead of taking over the family farm — and a slow-to-grow business district. In May 2015, the first cranes began to arrive from Minneapolis. For the next six months, 53 Mortensen trucks (each turbine requires eight trucks to assemble) brought hundreds of workers into town. New housing sprouted on Highway 59; other Primghar residents rented out their spare bedrooms. “Gas stations, suppliers, excavators — everyone really was put to work,” Johnson told me. “It kept them really busy.” The next year, a MidAmerican maintenance building would be built in Primghar’s small industrial park, next to preexisting grain elevators and the O’Brien County Egg.
O’Brien County Economic Director Kiana Johnson says wind turbine construction raised complaints from some farmers. “They’re proud of the land, they respect their neighbors. And so they expect the same as when someone comes here.”
As the construction activity ramped up, the complaints rolled in. Johnson said she’s heard every possible grievance imaginable. Some farmers said the trucks were blocking their grain vehicles. Others complained about the noise — one woman said that the turbines “were like the sound of an airport” — or about the “flicker” in their kitchens or living rooms caused by the shadows of rotating blades. The compaction issues and crop damage from the concrete trucks, they said, were not worth the grievance payments energy companies were promising. Some of the more vehement opposers even went as far as to run MidAmerican trucks off the highway.
“The farmers are very passionate about what they do,” said Johnson, a Primghar transplant from Waterloo, IA, who talks in a thick Minnesotan accent. “They just do due diligence. ‘Cow comfort’ is a term here. They’re proud of the land, they respect their neighbors. And so they expect the same as when someone comes here.”
Rohwer said that when MidAmerican hosted turbine meetings in nearby Ida County, “some of my naysayers here actually went to their meetings and raised quite a ruckus.” They were unsuccessful: Ida Grove II, the county’s second wind farm, was finished in 2017. “I sent my apologies,” Rohwer said, laughing. “I have yet to even hear a turbine,” she added. “Maybe I just don’t know what they sound like?”
In July of 2016, months after Highland was completed and 363 windmills newly dotted the environs of Primghar, 10 researchers from seven universities across the globe capped a nearly year-long investigation into the controversy around turbines.
Out of 1,705 responses, the vast majority from Iowa, the researchers came to a surprising conclusion: only 4 percent had “negative” or “very negative” feelings about wind farms on or close to their homes. Those who were paid hosts, the researchers found, “may be more likely to hold a positive attitude toward the project.” Or as Leng likes to put it, “Money talks.”
The researchers also discovered that those farmers who saw wind energy as “fighting climate change” were more positive. This study, they said, “suggests that the public places more emphasis on practical solutions than it does on emotional responses to a changing climate.”
The road to the Highland Wind Farm runs east off Interstate 60 through Sanborn, a trucking town of 893, past rows of hay bales, frosted cornfields and signs that read, “CHOOSE LIFE: YOUR MOTHER DID.”
As it breaches Highland territory, hundreds of triple-bladed turbines appear like icy-white toothpicks on the horizon. If it was night, an array of blinking red lights would guide you through the field like a vast airport tarmac.
Eventually, you would make it to the Tjossems’. Situated on 2,500 acres of land in Highland Township since 1943, the Tjossem brothers (pronounced “Joe-SEHM”) are veterans of the Great Flood of 1993 and the tornado of 1987 that, as Jeff Tjossem recalls, “pulled the hog barn right up out of its foundation.” In 2016, Jeff and younger brother Tracy Tjossem got their first round of turbines. They were, both brothers admit, ignorant of the reality of being turbine hosters. Like others, they were worried mainly about adjusting the combine or planter to skirt around the towers.
The Tjossems, including Tracy’s wife Jan, were soon brought into the turbines’ political signifier: owning one often meant something to those who couldn’t. It’s for such a reason both families maintain a strict public neutrality about the turbines, as other O’Brien hosts. They’ve never told any of their neighbors how many turbines they have, and refuse to have that number published for their own peace of mind. Other neighbors with MidAmerican turbines have gone on Florida vacations, re-roofed their homes, or bought a much-needed $500,000 combine. To them, as with Leng, the added revenue stream means they don’t have to lose sleep over every crop setback.
“To me, it’s comforting,” Tracy Tjossem said. “We know we have this as a background to the farming operation…
“If the prices are bad, or we happen to sell at a bad time, and don’t have real good income, we’ve always got this over here helping us out.”
But what about the future? Both Tracy and Jeff said they signed a 30-year-total leasing agreement with MidAmerican. But with a turbine’s life expectancy maxing out at 50, that means the entire Highland farm will cap out around the same time the US reaches — or does not reach — President Joe Biden’s carbon emission cut goals in 2050. It’s possible that O’Brien could become, like parts of California or Texas, home to yet another American wind farm graveyard. Both families see a future with their kids taking over, yet such talks have only just begun: Who inherits the turbines?
“They’ll split the ground up,” Tracy said, “and hopefully they’ll do it so that each of them have a similar number of turbines. Because that’s extra income, right?”
“We’ll be dead by then,” Jeff added. “It’ll just move on to the next generation.”
In early December, as the winter frost in Iowa browns the soy fields into a charred landscape, the Tjossems invite me over to their farm to talk about the towers rising from their property. Tracy and Jan take me out in their Chevy Colorado a few hours before dusk to demonstrate the turbine noise (it’s minimal). As we drive through the country, they point out the three-car-garage homes MidAmerican bought to appease neighbors who complained about the noise, or those who had flicker-proof rooms installed. “Hey, we’re not jealous of anybody,” Jan tells me. “We’re happy for them.”
Near the end of our tour, Tracy takes us up to the base of one of his turbines. He looks up in awe, like it’s the first time he’s seeing the blades from 265 feet below — each one is 179 feet long and weighs 27,000 pounds. I ask him as we crane our necks if he ever thinks of the environmental perks of his own fight for cleaner energy. He smiles.
“I like the fact that we’re helping to produce energy, good energy,” he says. “It makes me feel a little bit better about my life.”
Mark Oprea is a writer from Cleveland. He’s contributed to Time, NPR, The Counter, and other publications. He pronounces turbine with the long ‘i.’
Victoria Maxfield is an illustrator and artist in Catskill, NY. She draws, paints, and animates for various publications and businesses.