When Theron Rowbotham first calculated installing a solar array at his four-house turkey farm north of Lamar (Johnson County), he knew a little about creating electricity.
Rowbotham is a seventh-generation Hagarville farmer, bound to the land by blood, tradition and nature.
But he has a day job: operations trainer at Arkansas Nuclear One, Entergy Arkansas’ nuclear plant in Russellville.
It was a renewable-energy-meets- atomic-power moment when his 50-kilowatt, 144-panel solar array helped Rowbotham’s farm, Infinity Ranch, receive one of five nationwide Family Farm Environmental Excellence Awards this year. The awards are presented by the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association to recognize family farms going far beyond the call of environmental duty.
“The solar array was a key aspect,” Rowbotham said. “But you also have to be a strong steward of the land. You’ve got to do things like watch your runoff, keep everything clean around your houses and have a good nutrient plan in place for litter management.”
Rowbotham and his family raise turkeys for Butterball LLC, the largest turkey producer in the United States. Jeanie Rowbotham, his wife, is a University of Arkansas Extension Service employee and 4-H program coordinator.
The family is among nearly 700 independent poultry growers for Butterball, which nominated the Rowbothams for the award. “We just really care about running the family farm, and being strong stewards of the environment as we have been for seven generations,” Rowbotham told Arkansas Business in a telephone interview. “Solar power isn’t new, but it is sustainable, and it’s an innovative way to try to take better care of the environment for future generations.”
Butterball featured the Rowbothams and their solar-run turkey houses in its first corporate sustainability report, back in 2018. The sun power is routed to the turkey houses first, then any excess goes back onto the grid.
The grid-tied array creates 50 kilowatts, enough in most months to keep Rowbotham’s 64,000 birds happy. That’s barely a flicker compared with the nearly 2,000 megawatts of total capacity at Nuclear One, which supplies 56% of the energy used by Entergy Arkansas’ 700,000 customer families and businesses.
But it was plenty to impress Rowbotham, who later installed a 16-kilowatt non-grid array to power his farm shop. His electric company is Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative, which interconnected his system. The arrays were built by Seal Solar of North Little Rock.
“Our family has been in poultry farming for about 70 years,” said Rowbotham, who has one full-time employee to help monitor the turkey houses. Beyond his poultry chores and job at the nuclear plant, he runs a cow-and-calf operation with about 150 cows.
“I raise 14-pound turkeys, the whole turkeys that you see in the grocery store that are packaged for Butterball,” Rowbotham said, relishing the idea that his birds are the centerpiece for thousands of holiday meals. “We coordinate the timing a little bit so that you can have fresh turkeys during Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
A division of Seaboard Corp. of Merriam, Kansas, Butterball is based in Garner, North Carolina, and produces more than a billion pounds — that’s billion with a “b” — of turkey per year. Its processing plant in Ozark is one of six in Arkansas, North Carolina and Missouri.
Rowbotham predicted that solar power will someday be a familiar sight on the farm. Farmers appreciate things that work, and things that last, and most farm and commercial solar arrays are guaranteed for 20 to 30 years.
“Solar systems have monitoring that allows you to see how much power they’re putting out,” Rowbotham said. “I grew turkeys for a while before I installed the solar system, and I had those records to show to Seal Solar, which let them say how much savings were likely.
“And that’s the savings I’ve seen; what they showed me in the projection was exactly how the solar array has performed.”