In the spring of 1999 a stranger named Bill Moore arrived in the small town of Lowville, the county seat of Lewis County, New York, and checked into the Ridge View Motor Lodge on Route 12. Like many towns in this county, Lowville (the "Low" rhymes with "now") is blanketed with countless parcels of farmland and pastureland that are whipped, especially in winter, by powerful winds gusting out of Canada, 60 miles to the north. This is dairy country, though the constant pressure for cheap milk has made the economics too chancy for single-family dairies. Moore, a broad-shouldered Yale man who had worked on Wall Street, had a passion for renewable energy and owned a company, Atlantic Renewable, that had already developed two wind farms -- one with seven turbines and the other with 20 -- 75 miles south of town. He had what he considered a good proposal for the 27,000 citizens of Lewis County: Milk wind, not cows.
When he started telling the locals about his notion, Moore was met with indulgent smiles but little genuine enthusiasm. "I made a presentation at a town meeting, and they looked at me like I was from Mars," he says. "They were polite. They didn't openly laugh." Next, he wandered the countryside, knocking on farmhouse doors to ask permission to erect meteorological equipment to test the wind speed. "I was thrown out by a number of people," he says. "They've listened to a lot of sales pitches over the years: seed salesmen, fertilizer salesmen." As he'd learned over the years, farmers were a tough crowd to win over.
Eight years later, though, itís as if the cool reception Moore received never happened at all. Windmills stud the flat, stark landscape as far as the eye can see. Each turbine is taller than the Statue of Liberty, and nearly all of them are spinning inexorably toward the future of Lewis County -- and perhaps our own. This is the Maple Ridge Wind Farm, the nationís largest new alternative energy project east of the Mississippi River. In the last year or so, 195 turbines have become operational in the towns of Lowville, Harrisburg, and Martinsburg, capable of producing 320 megawatts of electricity, the amount generated by a medium-size power plant, or enough power to run 98,000 homes.
What lured Moore and kept him commuting between Lowville (pop. 4,548) and his home in Maryland was the knowledge that this part of Lewis County was uniquely qualified to become the East Coast's largest wind farm. From the back of the motor lodge, he could see the land rising to a kind of rocky ridge. This is the Tug Hill Plateau, which has stood up to harsh Canadian air skating off Lake Ontario as long as there has been wind, stone, and soil. The plateau, about 600 feet higher than the surrounding countryside, sits west of the Adirondack Mountains in farm country. The Irish, German, and Polish immigrants who settled here a century ago did so because the land was cheap, and they soon learned why. The plateau is colder than the surrounding lowlands, and the growing season two weeks shorter. A few hundred feet above the plateau, wind speeds of 100 miles per hour are not unknown.
You wouldn't know it from the oversize fiberglass cow that stands optimistically beside the local farm co-op store, but the milking industry here is in decline. There are a few employers in the area -- factories that make Kraft Philadelphia-brand cream cheese, bowling pins, gift boxes, and book covers -- but they hardly provide work for everyone. The sons and daughters of the dairy farmers are leaving in droves for jobs elsewhere. The scenery has fallen into something resembling an Andrew Wyeth painting: Collapsed silos, dilapidated barns, and abandoned farmhouses are everywhere.
Moore felt strongly that his offer could bring new jobs, stabilize tax revenues, and elevate the quality of local schools, but to make it happen he would have to persuade more than 78 landowners to let him collect his data by erecting giant turbines on their land. He had to help the citizens of Tug Hill fall in love with wind.
Moore, a 59-year-old dairy farmer named Bill Burke belongs to the fifth generation of Burkes born on Tug Hill. He and his wife, Patricia, live in an Italianate-seeming white house with black shutters that is perched on the edge of the plateau, with wind turbines to the front and back. He's raised and milked cows on his 598 acres for more than 36 years and was just getting around to formulating his "exit strategy": Sell off 200 head of cattle, sell off equipment, sell off land, and settle down to a retirement blissfully free of debt. "I don't know if you know what it's like for us farmers," he says, "but most of us are in debt from the moment we start up in business. I bought out three farmers when I got started, and now there's no one left to replace me." He wouldn't go out of his way to encourage his son or daughter to follow in his footsteps: "No money in it." Maybe, he thought, he'd substitute-teach at the school where his wife was principal. Or maybe he'd sell seed or feed.
Then along came Moore, touting wind. "I was on board from day one," Burke says, "but I could see others would take some persuading. We'd hold meetings and no one would show up. Not because they opposed the idea. They just didn't think it would happen." Noting that there are more than 100 landowners, Burke says, "Getting them all to agree on something is like trying to herd ducks."
To educate themselves about Moore's proposition, Burke and his wife drove south to Madison County to inspect Moore's seven-turbine wind farm; five of the turbines are on the property of dairy farmers Carl and Bonnie Stone. The Burkes parked in the Stones' driveway, as many visitors do, and started asking questions. The Stones, who are unfailingly patient with the tourists, engineers, college students, and wind enthusiasts who come to gawk at their turbines, welcomed the Burkes in after hearing their story. Emboldened by what they learned, the Burkes soon agreed to allow the developer to collect data and ultimately to erect seven turbines on their property. The guaranteed income -- a minimum annual payment of about $6,000 per turbine, adjusted annually for inflation -- has transformed their lives. "It's paying for me to retire," says Bill Burke. "It's given us a chance to stay in our house," adds Patricia Burke. "We don't have to sell after all. We sold off the herd one spring, and the heifers later, and now we just have to decide what to do with the land." (They plan to lease to area farmers.) For now, Bill has given up the notion of selling seed. He and Patricia travel the state stumping for wind power.