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Student Spotlight: Carlson Swafford

By Carlson Swafford May 12, 2020

My name is Carlson Swafford, and I’ve worked as a student on the Farm and Energy Initiative for three semesters. I’m finishing up my third year at VLS, where I’m working on a J.D. and a Masters of Environmental Law and Policy. Prior to law school, I studied philosophy and permaculture while working in sustainable agriculture and food security.

I was deeply discouraged to learn that environmental and agricultural models producing positive environmental outcomes could only meet their bottom line with philanthropic subsidies. I was equally disturbed to learn firsthand how some non-profit models rely on extractive wage levels to fuel their model. I came to VLS to learn how to use policy to create enabling environments that reward appropriate economic activity and propagate equitable socio-ecological systems. I was and am convinced that our economy can and does thrive with more complete environmental value sets.

When I learned about the Farm and Energy Initiative, I jumped at the opportunity because it touched so many points I wanted to address. My work with the FEI has been really useful because my project—analyzing solar siting on agricultural land—focused on questions at the nexus of economic and environmental change, including development pressure, existing activities, ecosystem services, and planning. Renewable energy generally provides a fascinating case study that illustrates how small policy shifts can change revenue flows and alter the economics of downstream projects significantly.

As I stood in the position of the local farmer and started to untangle the web of regulations and laws that governed renewable siting, I started to see a pathway toward a technologically integrated agriculture. Indeed, we even read a few whitepapers describing how “dual use” siting policies reward designs that maximize both agricultural and energy generation outputs. I admit feeling more than a little “Star Fleet”-ish when I was considering how evapotranspiration from vegetative growth below could cool solar photovoltaic panels, boosting their efficiency. Our work revealed how complex the question of renewable energy siting can be. The work showed me how farmers could diversify operations in a way that provides more financial stability while also decreasing inputs and environmental harms. However, the work also raised many ancillary questions that have driven me to explore other policy areas, including local and impact investment pathways, producer and consumer cooperatives, securities reporting and regulation, zoning, open-source licensing, the sharing economy generally, energy cropping, and most recently renewable natural gas.

Working with the FEI is like a thread that you can’t stop pulling. You may pick up the thread on a farm in Windsor County, Vermont, only to look up and discover that you’re discussing the Paris Agreement. On the way back home, you’ll talk about FERC, regional energy and compliance markets, state-level planning, and local zoning and implementation. All in all, the FEI helped me examine how the economy at large interacts with the biosphere, listen to the pain points environmentally and economically, and dream up ways to make it all flow more freely.