Joe Bush has been in the energy game for a long time. For a native Texan who spent years working in oil and gas accounting before becoming a rancher in Osage County, Okla., the sight of an oil derrick is as familiar as they come.
But about 10 years ago, a wind energy developer approached Joe, wanting to know if he’d be interested in leasing some of his Tower Hills Ranch for a wind farm. Since then, he’s seen firsthand how wind power can strengthen a community while creating a better and cleaner tomorrow.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Joe and learn about his family’s ranch, as well as what having a wind farm has meant for his livelihood. Here’s some of his story.
Deep Oklahoma ties
Joe’s family has been in Oklahoma for a long time, since well before it was a state. His ancestors originally came from Northern Georgia, where they had assimilated with the Cherokee and moved west with them along the Trail of Tears during the 1830’s. After the Civil War, Joe’s great-grandfather began leasing the land Joe now ranches from the Osage Tribe. Then, between WWI and WII, Joe’s grandfather, A.A. Drummond, started purchasing parcels of the property from the Osage Nation.
Joe’s own career followed a different path. He spent years working in Shreveport, La., as an oil and gas tax expert. However, when the industry took a downturn in the late 80’s, he was left without a job and in need of a second career.
“I decided to go back to Plan A and become a cattle rancher,” he explained, and he now has about 1,000 head of cattle.
So in 1989 Joe went back to the family ranch his great-grandfather started in Osage County.
“It’s a very wonderful place to be because it’s naturally sustainable and agricultural. It’s a natural treasure of sorts,” he said. “It’s a very unique place; it’s got very productive native grasses.”
Making it work
While Joe may have found the work rewarding and the surrounding environment inspiring, that doesn’t mean it was easy to make a living. And with so much history on the land, the emotional stakes to make the ranch work were high.
“It’s been hard to hang on to, it takes so much real estate to cover costs and make a living,” he said. “I’ve been operating on a shoestring budget since I moved here.”
A little help came when a wind developer approached Joe around 2007, wanting to lease some of his ranch for a wind project. At first, Joe didn’t know much about wind power.
“I was vaguely aware that it was something that was happening,” he explained. “I was too busy trying to make a living as a cowboy to pay much attention to politics.”
Joe did his due diligence and learned what he could about what it would be like to have wind turbines on his property, visiting other projects and speaking with other farmers and ranchers who had experience with the decision he was facing.
“It was all positive. I can’t think of anybody who said it was a mistake or it was destructive,” Joe said, so he decided to move forward and agree to become a wind farm landlord.
Living with wind power
In 2015, Joe’s new tenant came online. The lease payments he receives have already made a tremendous difference.
When Joe’s mother passed away in 2009, he had to buy out his siblings. That wouldn’t have been possible without the wind contract. Expanded operations also meant he needed to take on three additional workers. The added revenue he gets from his wind turbines has helped him pay his mortgage bills and the salaries of his new employees.
“It’s given me some economic breathing room just to hang on,” Joe told me. “Wind farms and the prospect of wind farms allow people to still be able to make a living and still have a community.”
And the wind farm has done just that: strengthen the entire community. In particular, it has helped the local school stay open. The revenue it provides to the county is critical at a time when the state has slashed education funding, especially for rural schools, Joe noted.
“Keeping the school open is keeping the town alive. (Osage County) is too special of a place to make it inaccessible.”
As for day-to-day operations, the wind farm hasn’t had much of an impact. In fact, Joe’s cattle love them. On hot days they line up in the turbine shadows to stay cool, and in the winter they stand behind them because the towers block the cold winds. Another added bonus is that the roads in Joe’s pastures were improved during project construction, leading to less wear and tear on his trucks.
More than just economic benefits
Beyond the added financial resources, Joe has become a big believer in wind for other reasons.
As a devout Catholic, he takes the Biblical principle of acting as good stewards of the land seriously. He mentioned that as an emission-free energy source, it’s important to him that growing wind power alleviates mercury in fish populations, haze in the sky and ozone alert days.
As somewhere who depends on the land to make his living, Joe also spoke about wind’s role in helping to combat carbon pollution.
“Nobody pays closer attention to the weather than people in agriculture. It’s getting weirder,” he said. “It’s hard to produce food, even in a sustainable environment, if nature if changing.”
“Me being able to keep my property, having something to pass on, I’m proud of it. Being able to help the planet even in a small way, find a new source of energy, I’m proud of it.”
“I like the way the turbines look. I’ll sit on the porch and watch them swing—it’s like watching the ocean roll in. They’re like giant lawn ornaments.”
“I think it’s a no-brainer.”