Being a farmer in Australia is and always has been a tough business. They have to contend with nature – drought, flood, fire – and while there’s been an acceptance of the ups and downs of farm life for a long time, recent weather patterns have made a tough job next to impossible.

We’d therefore like to offer a glimpse into a more hopeful and fruitful future for farmers. A future that sees farmers more able to harness, the immense power of the sun, and work with it. There’s some interesting research relating to places like drought-prone California, and by extension, to Australia.

The issue with hydropower

This new study by a research team from Princeton University shows that solar and wind power are good for the water table, and they could help farmers survive periods of drought. Importantly, investing in renewables would reduce farmers’ reliance on hydropower.

The issue for farmers is that drought means their need for water for irrigation purposes peaks at more or less the same time that hydropower dams are especially cautious about releasing water for other uses.

The water allocation trade-off is something that has to be managed until agriculture becomes less reliant on hydropower and hydropower dams for energy storage.

Reasons for farmers to love renewables

The researchers argue that policy-makers should consider the value of water in agricultural use along with the value of reducing carbon when calculating the economics of new wind and solar projects.

They state: “… energy systems are becoming less reliant on hydropower, as well as fossil fuels, especially for developed regions. Consequently, water used to drive turbines for hydropower generation can be saved for irrigation purposes to ensure food production, whilst reducing groundwater usage thereby increasing groundwater sustainability especially under drought.”

Another reason for farmers to love renewables is they can earn an additional income stream while cutting their costs by installing low impact solar and wind projects on their farmland.

The emerging field of agrivoltaics – how solar panels can integrate with crops – is also very promising. The idea is that shade from solar panels can help conserve water and shield plants from excessive heat, resulting in bigger yields. Preliminary results at a test site in the US showed cherry tomato yields are doubled and require less water when grown in the shade of solar panels.

The support we give to farmers needs to be evidence-based, sustainable, and effective. Particularly with the natural environment seeming to work against traditional farming practices as a result of climate change, selected strategies need to embrace clean energy that does not create polluting emissions. Short-term is not good enough – it is in everyone’s best interests that solutions aim to support farmers and farming many generations into the future.