A little more than six years ago, Barney Johnson was a quarry manager, a role that included stripping land of its topsoil, sand, and gravel to get at the limestone underneath. Over the course of his 30-year career, he worked at nine different quarries. During his time with the Lincoln Quarry in Illinois, he took a hard turn in his heart, trading his quarry manager’s role to that of conservationist.
“I was managing a strip pit and to harvest the limestone, there were places that were dug down 40 feet to get to the rock. Quarries try to practice reclamation, but when I got there, it was a mess. I worked with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and did it the right way. A couple of years later, the State of Illinois gave me an award for the quarry reclamation project. That was a proud moment,” he says.
Barney worked at three more quarries after that one. During that time, he and his wife purchased a 140-acre farm in Rensselaer, Indiana, and founded Bluestem Acres. His specialty is planting and maintaining conservation properties. Recently, Barney became Solential’s ‘go-to’ expert for designing, planting, and maintaining pollinator habitats for customers with ground-mounted solar systems. His first pollinator habitat for a Solential community solar project is in Wheatfield, Indiana.
It has become increasingly popular among solar solutions providers like Solential and solar system owners to plant pollinator habitats under solar arrays. Here are Barney’s top reasons for creating some solar buzz:
Helps sustain and build pollinator populations. Pollinators like bees, butterflies, moths, and some birds play critical roles in pollinating commercial crops, orchards and native plants. For more than a decade, honeybee populations around the world have been in decline. Planting pollinator habitats provides a food supply and welcoming environment for these beneficial insects and birds.
Ease of maintenance. Once a pollinator habitat is planted and matures, it is pretty much self-sustaining. There is typically no need to re-seed the habitat each year, explains Barney. “Depending on the seed mix, you can have wildflowers spring, summer and fall. We can choose plants by the height requirements of the panels so they don’t interfere with the solar panels’ energy production.”
It’s worth noting that some minor trimming may be required. Plants are naturally grow and spread!
Far cheaper than grass. Maintaining grass under a solar system is far more expensive than a pollinator habitat, as much as three times more. Grass has to be cut and trimmed regularly to be aesthetically pleasing and so as not to interfere with the solar panels. That takes a lot of manpower, equipment and equipment maintenance. The seed mix of a pollinator habitat is carefully selected for a number of factors, Barney says. “We consider the soil, the amount of moisture the area gets, the type of pollinator we want to attract, the mature height of the grasses and forbs (flowers) themselves, and the aesthetics. The objective is the right mix of native plants that will thrive in a natural state.”
Financial incentives to plant pollinator habitat. This is a topic not many people know about and one Barney is happy to help clients with, and that is keeping them abreast of grants and other financial incentives. For example, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), DNR, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife all offer cost share programs to incentivize qualified farmers and landowners to install pollinator habitats. Soil and water conservation groups may also offer incentives.
Says Barney, “These are great programs, but they’re always changing so it helps to have someone knowledgeable assist you through the process. For a while, the focus was Monarch butterflies so we were planting lots of milkweed. Now the emphasis is on honeybees and supporting natural bee succession by planting various wildflower food sources for them. What’s wonderful landowners and farmers get rewarded for creating pollinator habitat, but also the benefit of bees pollinating their crops and orchards.”
Barney is all too happy to help Solential’s solar customers participate in these programs and enjoy the financial incentives
Support of native plants. Midwestern states are heavily into agriculture and naturally try to make the land as productive as possible. Likewise, plantings in urban areas are typically done with commercial plants developed for color, size, shape, and other criteria. As a result, native plants are slowly being pushed out and just like some animal species, are now endangered. To optimize their effectiveness, pollinator habitats use native plants. Barney pays close attention in his seed mixes. “Depending on location, we plant big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, Virginia wild rye, purple prairie clover, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, wild bergamot, milkweed, Queen Anne’s Lace, and other forbs. The dominant soil structure dictates what we plant.”
Support of native fauna. This benefit is near and dear to Barney. He planted his own farm with various types of native plants, some specifically designed to attract game birds. He and wife Stephanie have been rewarded by a growing population of quail, pheasants, wild turkeys, rabbits, and more. There’s also a groundhog he sees in one solar customer’s pollinator habitat. “It’s a neat thing to see the wildlife that returns when you create these habitats,” he says.
Community enjoyment and engagement. Barney’s passion is creating something special for Solential’s solar customers, landowners, communities and the pollinators of course. “When people see a pollinator habitat under a solar array and understand the purpose, that solar installation takes on a whole new meaning and value in their eyes. It’s a great way to get community buy-in for solar projects. For me, I’m just excited to see the solar industry getting behind pollinator habitats because it’s something the world desperately needs and so easy to do,” he says.
If you’d like to learn more about Bluestem Acres and Barney Johnson’s work in creating pollinator habitats and other types of reclamation and sustainable habitat projects, visit his website. If you’re considering a solar project and want to discuss how best to integrate a pollinator habitat into your solar solution, Solential is happy to discuss options and provide insight. If you decide to go this route, we will engage Barney in the process to provide a custom solution. To start a conversation, shoot me an email at email@example.com or call/text me at 317-627-4530. Let’s create a little buzz!