RUSHFORD, Minn. — Northfield couple Arlo Hark and Josie Trople are the operators of
— a mobile-grazing service for ecosystem management on solar farms.
The couple got into the livestock industry with six ewes around 2017, and have been working on solar sites for the last three years in which that number has grown significantly.
On the last Friday of May, the couple loaded around 270 sheep from a solar site in
to another solar farm about 20 miles away. They have between 30-40
that they’ll run sheep on this year, said Hark, in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.
“Each site is a little different size, and we do different kinds of management plans for different sites,” Hark said on May 26. “We are going to be on roughly 600 acres this season.”
A full service
Cannon Valley Graziers is a full-service vegetation management company. Some of the sheep are owned by them and some belong to partnerships with other area farms.
“We walk this funny line between like farmers and service providers in a certain way,” Hark said.
They do mowing and string trimming and some herbicide application, although Hark said they try to stay away from that if they can, because of the sheep.
“Our job is really to manage the vegetation on the sites — no matter if the sheep eat it, or if they don’t eat it, we show up and we take care of the vegetation.”
He said they’ve found sheep to be the best at the job.
“Sheep are really the most efficient way to manage the vegetation,” he said. “A lot of the sites that we work on are really difficult to mow, or they’re really time consuming to mow — and you can do it, and people do, but grazing is really efficient with labor, and we’re able to provide a really top notch service.”
are the preferred livestock to graze on solar sites, he said.
“Goats chew on wires, and they jump and they climb,” Hark said of solar grazing. “Cows are too tall for most of the sites that we work on, and they rub. You can set up sites for cows, but it’s triple the cost, so nobody would ever want to go for that.”
The sheep are generally “cool” with loading and unloading at sites, said Hark, and they’ve implemented a low-stress process to maintain that. That includes how they corral the animals, how they move them into the trailer and what times they work in the summer, when the trailer gets the most hot.
“Other than that, they do great,” Hark said. “Anybody that works with livestock understands when it’s time to move to the next paddock, the sheep, or the cows, or the goats or whatever — they all know if you’re doing it often. So they get the systems and we really appreciate their chillness about their ability to load and unload quickly and efficiently.”
In the region and for farmers their age (Hark and Trople are in their late 20s), it’s difficult for farmers to break into the livestock industry.
“Land is really expensive, and so for me, kind of broadly, I really see solar grazing as the next way of being with sheep in particular,” he said. “It’s a very special thing and I feel lucky to be on kind of the forefront of what’s going on here in this region.”
Hark said they expect the company to grow “quickly” in the next few years, and they have two sister companies — Tethera and Bayl — to support them. One is a meat company and the other focuses on wearable goods.
“We’ve got a great email list of folks that we sell lamb to and things like that,” Hark said. “And then we also have a Bayl, which is really Josie’s brainchild, which is all about wool and textile and wearable goods, and thinking about how we can kind of rethink our approach to clothing.”
Art and family
Trople practices textile art currently after doing a lot of printmaking in college, and Hark is a performing musician. They both consider themselves to be artists.
“I think that there’s something important about being creative, and I think as we’ve grown Cannon Valley Graziers, it feels like this kind of shepherding is creative in a cool and fun way,” Hark said. “We really feel like we’re doing really good work and important work, but also have some time to try to play music and do other stuff as well.”
The two first met when they were 18 and 19, in Maine while they were attending College of the Atlantic where they were studying
“I come from a farming family, so I kind of knew that I wanted to stay in agriculture, but find a way that felt like it was also embedded in my values of ecosystem services, and doing right by the soil,” Trople said, with their three-month-old daughter, Ammi, attached to her chest.
She said she’s definitely had to slow down this season, especially as their company continues to grow, but she’s happy to still be a part of day-to-day operations.
“I knew I wanted to do farming because I knew it was something that I could do with children,” she said.
Hark called Trople the “hardest worker he knows,” and admires the work she’s doing as a new mother.
“Having our daughter along for the ride is great,” he said. “There’s lots of challenges in the world right now, with things like childcare, and so this has been really great for us to be able to have her along.”
It has its own challenges as well, he said, but Trople has mastered the job of balancing their child’s needs and the needs of the business.
Trople said that Ammi is a natural.
“She likes it. She likes sheep and she likes our sheep dogs,” Trople said of their daughter. “I can tell she’s already excited about livestock.”
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