John Deere's renewable energy harvest

Realizing farmers can make money on more than just crops, the maker of green tractors puts its cash behind wind turbines.

By Steve Hargreaves, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- For Steve Tiedeman, a farmer in Woodstock, Minn., it hasn't been all that great of a year. The weather's been dry, and he's lost about a third of the corn on his 1,000 acre farm.

But Tiedeman, along with a growing number of farmers across the Midwest, can now rely on another, more stable crop: wind power.


With the help of big companies that put up the cash, farmers once tied to the weather, government subsidies or the fluctuations of the commodity market can now rely on the relative stability of the wind.

"Sometimes it's dry, but I don't worry about the wind," said Tiedeman, who installed two utility-scale turbines on his land in 2003 as part of a 12-farmer, 24 turbine cooperative. "And it doesn't even take up an acre."

For companies that help the farmers with financing, it's a chance to earn what appears to be a handsome return on investment, and also support farm communities.

Which may explain why John Deere (Charts, Fortune 500), the venerable maker of tractors and other heavy equipment, is one of the bigger players in this growing game.

Deere, which can bring big money to the table and has a working relationship with many farmers going back generations, puts up about half the cost of the project, said Dan Juhl, president of Minnesota-based Juhl Energy Development Corp.

The farmer or group of farmers kicks in a small amount and then form a company, which then gets the remaining funding from a bank loan, said Juhl, who has worked with Deere and other creditors to orchestrate 20 or so such deals since 2001.

Tiedeman didn't disclose the financial details of his deal. But according to Juhl, finances of a typical deal involving 5 windmills and a group of four farmers might look like this:

Total project cost of $10 million.

Deere, or another creditor, puts up $4,950,000. The farmers kick in $10,000 a piece. The remaining $5 million comes from a loan from a bank or other creditor.

The farmers' cooperative secures a contract to sell power to a local utility, then puts up the wind turbines. The projects are usually fairly small in scale, say 5 to 10 turbines producing 7.5 to 15 megawatts of power in total, or enough to power about 5,000 to 10,000 homes.

Deere gets the federal production tax credit of about 2 cents per kilowatt hour and just about all of the proceeds from selling the power for the first 10 years.

The farmers get a maintenance fee of about $20,000 a year each for managing the turbines - keeping the access roads plowed, calling technicians for repairs, handling the paper work with the utility.

After 10 years, when the loan is paid off and Deere has recouped its investment plus profit, the ownership structure flips, with the farmers becoming majority owners.

Selling the electricity can generate between $1 and $1.5 million a year in revenue. The federal production tax credit is worth about another $500,000 annually. The farmers collect the "maintenance fee" of $20,000 or so a year a piece.

"Twenty or $30,000 a year is nothing to sneeze at," said Juhl. "But after 10 years, the local farmer ends up owning the machines, and that's when it becomes a real cash crop thing."

Juhl said the electricity agreements with the utilities are typically in place for 20 years, so the farmer should be able to turn a nice profit before the turbines require replacing. He said in some deals a portion of the yearly budget is set aside for maintenance and dismantling the turbines.

Tiedeman, the farmer, said so far he's happy with his deal. But one crucial test will be seeing how well the turbines hold up, as any repairs would cut into his profits.

"It's good, for what we're getting out of it," he said. "As long as we don't have any problems."

Others see the scheme as a win-win for everyone.

"This combines rural development with energy policy," said John Farrell, a research associate at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "If you have local ownership, a lot more of the revenue goes right into the pockets of the farmers."

As for working with Deere, which declined to comment due to a conflicting media interview, Juhl said "I was a little skeptical when the 800 pound gorilla came in and said 'help me,'" he said. 'But they're good guys, and they want to find a way to help farmers. The more money farmers have, the more they can spend on green machinery." Top of page