From Dust Bowl to turbines, the value of the wind has changed for Kansas farmers

By Amy Bickel Kansas Agland

Vic Thomas' family has always wrestled with the wind.

Born in 1934, Thomas knows the stories of the Dust Bowl days that blew across the family farm near Montezuma. He recalled how his mother would put up wet towels along the windows to help keep the dirt from coming through the cracks.

Even in the 1950s, when Thomas was farming full-time, he battled the wind and drought, which, thanks to better farming practices, wasn't as bad as his father's Depression-era farming.

In his 82 years of life on the Kansas High Plains, Thomas still lives with the wind. 

"The farmers always have the wind to deal with," Thomas said. "Sometimes the wind has been our enemy out here."

So it wasn't a surprise when a man came by the farm a few decades ago, wanting to lease his ground for wind energy. He told Thomas about the wind towers - the first in the state - that would be built in Gray County.

"My thought was, 'There is a lot of wind up there,' " Thomas said. "If they could turn that into something good for this area, that was great. But it had to be good."

While a few naysayers tried to tell him the turbines would blow the clouds away and prevent what little rain falls on the semi-arid southwest Kansas landscape, Thomas and his wife, Louise, watched as crews constructed the 170-turbine Gray County Wind Energy, which began generating power in December 2001.

Sixteen years later, Thomas has only seen the good - which includes a nice supplemental income to the farming operation, as well as the county's economy. Thomas himself has more than 20 turbines - 20 sitting on a mile section of ground. However, he wouldn't disclose how many he has on his land in all or how much he was getting paid.

It didn't take much out of production − one of his only few concerns when the energy man talked with him. The turbines and the roads on that 640-acre parcel only amount to a little more than two acres in all.

Thomas is retired now, but his son-in-law, Jeff Reed, and his grandsons Ryan and Alan, are farming around the turbines these days.

"It has been an addition to our farm, and a positive addition," Thomas said.

Today, wind farms stretch across Kansas, bringing an economic windfall to the farmers and counties that have them. In 2016, landowners received more than $15 million in payments, according to John Hensley, with the American Wind Energy Association.

Every agreement is different and individually negotiated. Prices vary by location, the size of turbines and competition for leases. Generally, however, the average is $3,000 to $6,000 per megawatt, said Kimberly Svaty, Kansas public policy director with The Wind Coalition.

Seeing Montezuma's success, many struggling rural communities began to look at wind as a potential savior. That included in Wichita County, where farmers and town leaders gathered in November 2002 in a packed room at the fairgrounds, listening to two wind developers talk about the county's potential.

A predominantly agricultural community with 2,500 residents at the time and with no oil- or gas-producing wells, Wichita County Economic Development officials were looking for a way to boost the economy.

Then-economic development director Sharla Krenzel reached out to 16 wind-farm developers in 2001. Only two responded.

It would take seven years, however, before a wind farm developed and started generating power in Wichita County, near the town of Marienthal.

Today, the farm generates some employment - five technicians and one Westar employee.

But a Westar report from 2009 showed the utility company paid more than $500,000 annually in royalty payments and more than $250,000 in payment in lieu of taxes to the county.

"Last year, it was more than $270,000," said Diane Kirk, the new economic development director, adding that is based on the power generated.

"It's been great to have the wind farm here," said Kirk. "It is good for the farmers, it is good for the community."

She said the community even started a wind festival called "Wind and Wheel." Moreover, the income helps in the struggling farm economy.

Marienthal-area farmer Earl Smith would agree to that. After a late spring snowstorm that left 18 inches of snow, he is worried the wheat crop might only produce half the harvest he was expecting. Moreover, prices are low.

The 60-year-old fourth-generation farmer has seen plenty of ups and down in farming. Since 2009, the five wind turbines have helped supplement the farm income. Moreover, watching the payments come in, calculated by the energy the wind produces, shows the wind doesn't change much in western Kansas. His payments don't vary much over the years.

He was one of the farmers in the meeting 15 years ago, he said.

"Anything we can get to stimulate the county is a wonderful thing with our shrinking population," he said.

He lives in the heart of the wind farm with turbines to the north and the south of his home. 

"I used to cuss the wind a little bit," Smith admitted. "Now I tolerate it a little more because we get an income off of it."