MUSCATINE — Billie Danner's primary business is in corn, beans and hogs, but when the clouds part, he's harvesting energy of the sun.
As the snow melts, it reveals one of Danner's more recent investments. On the roofs of buildings and out in front of the grain dryer on Danner Farms are large reflective panels. He said that his road to solar began in 1988, his first year he began farming and what he called a bad year.
"It was a really bad time to be in agriculture," Danner said. "There were a lot bankruptcies and a lot of foreclosures. There were a lot of farms being sold."
Danner, a fourth generation farmer, has return on investment down to a science. Walking around the facilities at Danner Farms, he can say how long it will take to recoup the cost of a hog barn. He can say how long it will take to recoup the cost of tractor. He thinks not just in terms of this season or even this year — Danner thinks 10 years, 20 years down the line.
Competition on the global market had driven crop prices down. When Danner came to farm with his father, he was told he should leave.
"My father didn't want me to come back and farm," Danner said. "We weren't making money. The bank wasn't out here telling him he had to foreclose, but I'll tell you, that was happening 30, 40 percent of the time. Guys were being forced to shut down."
Making matters worse, in 1988, a drought hit. It did not rain from May to August.
"Crop prices were low. We had back-to-back droughts," Danner said. "Bottom line, (my dad) had talked to a local auctioneer and was going to sell out and drive a truck, he was so fed up with it."
Through a combination of crop insurance and a government disaster program, Danner said he and his father were able to pull in more money in one year, than they'd made in the previous five.
Having avoided financial ruin, Danner began looking for practices that added value across the farm.
"We've always been an operation that catered to those specialty markets," Danner said. "I have raised in the past whatever made the juice worth the squeeze."
Low-priced corn could be sold as whole-plant silage for livestock feeding. By keeping the process clean, he could raise food-grade tofu soybeans, white and yellow corn.
He said that starting in a dismal time for the business led him to look for more ways to better his investment.
"If we're going to do this, we've got to do value added stuff," Danner said. "We've got to do anything that we can within our land to produce a better return on investment and add value."
Fast forward to the Spring of 2016, Danner began installing solar panels across his facilities.
"It was renewable and if it can save some money, it is just like anything: rain or wind or solar," Danner said. "Anything you can show me that provides a better return on investment, I am going to look into it."
Danner said that in his experience, Iowan farmers' perception of renewable energies is positive.
"A lot of that stems from the first question they are going to ask: will it make any money?" Danner said.
To that question, Danner said yes. As he explained it, the return on investment for solar panels ranges from four to six years, depending on the company doing the calculating.
"We invest in land that we hope we get an investment back from in 30 years," Danner said. "We invest in enterprises like hog production. Or we make investment with (a return on investment) in 10 to 15 years. Farmers, in general, are familiar with long term investments. We do it all the time. And we are used to really slow returns. (Solar panels are) a short return in farm time."