SUSSEX COUNTY, Va. — The wide-open ruralness of Sussex County is quiet enough to hear for miles in each direction.
But if you're standing in the right spot on Sussex Drive in Stony Creek, you might be able to hear Marcus Gray hard at work with his crew.
Like any farm, managing one that’s roughly 200 acres requires maintenance and upkeep. Luckily, Gray has a reliable herd of coworkers helping tend the land.
"They get a bad reputation for being unintelligent, but that’s not true," Gray said, overlooking his herd of sheep. "They’re more intelligent than people realize.”
Gray is a sheep farmer by trade and a landscaper by the circumstances of his job.
"It’s just sheep farming... there just happens to be [solar] panels on the land," he laughed.
He moved to Virginia several years ago, with the intention of keeping two dozen sheep on his family farm as an education tool for his children.
He eventually turned his idea for a family hobby into a business that's growing in the space of eco-conservation.
Gray is part of a pilot program effort connected through Dominion Energy; testing how to upkeep thousands of acres of solar panel farm land across Virginia while doing so in an eco-friendly way by utilizing herds of sheep instead of crews of equipment.
Gray said that the sheep herd serves a purpose beyond entertainment and conversation, but is independently well suited for the rigors of the job as well.
"They’re just clipping down the plants a little each time they come, instead of burning fossil fuels on a renewable energy site to maintain it," he said.
"They can get under the equipment, you don’t have to modify the equipment much to implement sheep grazing," he added. "They just stop eating when they’re full.”
How the herd of sheep helps the Sussex County solar farm
The Sussex Drive solar farm contains 80,000 solar panels, which can generate enough power for 5,000 homes. It's one of six solar farms connected through Dominion Energy which Gray manages his "lamb-scaping" operation on, accounting for more than 3,000 acres in total with roughly 800 sheep in his total flock.
“Putting sheep on our solar farms has been a perfect fit. It’s clean, green and environmentally friendly – just like our solar farms,” Dominion Energy spokesperson Tim Eberly said. “On one hand, solar power is a more eco-friendly alternative to traditional sources of energy. And using sheep to eat the vegetation is better for the environment than using lawnmowers that burn fuel. So it’s an ideal pairing.”
It’s the herd’s job to make sure the grasses don’t overgrow the panels, as they help cool the underneath of the panels.
"Actually cools the equipment. Once it gets to a certain temperature it doesn’t perform well because it's too hot. Having green grass growing underneath actually helps it from overheating," Gray explained.
A herd as large as 80-90 sheep can graze roughly two acres of farmland a day.
Now, the sheep on the solar farms are starting to give birth to baby lambs, who are integrating as part of the flock.
"They’re providing vegetation maintenance service. They’re basically our lawnmowers.”