The killing of Billy the Kid was still within living memory for some on the stark, wind-swept prairie outside Ft. Sumner, N.M., when Powhatan Carter’s grandfather settled there to raise cattle in 1937.
Twelve years later, Pow was born there, where he runs the family cattle business his grandfather began.
After two years of drought, though, Carter’s land is so dry that even the durable native grasses in his pasture are dying.
With little grazing land remaining, and the cost of feed sky high, Carter has sold about half of his 450 beef cattle, months before he normally would and at a poor price. Soon, he said, he’ll have to sell more.
To rebuild his herd and restore the dead turf will take years, Carter said, adding to the strain of keeping his grandfather’s homestead intact.
“It’s just hard to keep the land in the family, because most people are land rich and cash poor,” Carter said in a telephone interview. “An outside boost makes all the difference.”
Fortunately for Carter, he gets such a boost, about $35,000 a year for the electricity produced from the seven wind turbines towering above a series of rocky bluffs at the edge of his pastureland.
Come rain or shine, the winds blow steady, the turbines spin, and the checks come in the mail. And, for Carter, the extra cash means one thing.
“Survival,” he said, “able to stay home, where you’ve always lived.”
Welcome in any year, income from wind turbines has become an economic lifeline for thousands of farmers and ranchers like Carter across the country’s vast heartland. With more than half the country searing in the worst drought in half a century, much of the nation’s corn, wheat and grasslands parched to ruin and cattle ranchers struggling to feed or liquidate their herds, wind turbines are providing back-up income that is helping to keep family farms and ranches alive.
“It’s truly a blessing for us,” said Carter. “It’s kind of like the sky falls with a little more rain.”
Windmills have been part of the landscape of the American West for more than a century, harnessing the force of the wind off the plains to pump water from wells or generate electricity for homes long before power lines crisscrossed the country.
Modern wind turbines, of course, are much larger in scale, with generators the size of tractor-trailers perched atop steel towers typically 200 feet tall. The power they produce goes into the commercial electric grid, where wind turbines are beginning to make a significant contribution to the nation’s energy supply.