WASCO, Ore. — Wheat farmer John Hilderbrand once cursed the wind that roars down the Columbia River Gorge and through this rural, hilly community, damaging crops and kicking up dust.
That was before the same powerful gusts paid for his vacations to Panama and Costa Rica, and allowed him to quit his part-time job as a real estate agent.
In the past year, dozens of wind turbines have appeared on the drab, rolling expanses of rural farmland in Oregon and Washington. The towering white machines, the latest in energy technology, loom in uneven lines on the horizon, spinning lazily over acres of tilled ground.
The spindly turbines seem almost alien in this remote setting. But Hilderbrand and scores of other farmers have made thousands of dollars by leasing their land to wind-farm developers. Hilderbrand, a third-generation farmer, has five wind turbines on a small slice of his 1,120 acres.
The project's developer, Northwestern Wind Power, spent $24 million building a total of 16 turbines in Sherman County, a desolate, wind-scoured Oregon county that hugs the Columbia River.
"The wife says, 'I want those turbines on every acre we've got,' " said Hilderbrand. "I'm quite well paid. We had a record drought this past year, so it was good we had this."
Once considered a fringe technology, wind power has in the past few years gained currency as an economic--and environmentally friendly--way to generate power.
It has particularly caught on in the Pacific Northwest, where a recent energy shortage and higher power prices sent developers scrambling to tie up the windiest land in a latter-day gold rush.
The region saw the second-largest growth in wind power last year, after Texas, said Randall Swisher, executive director of American Wind Energy Assn. If all the proposed projects are completed, the Pacific Northwest will be the No. 1 wind-power producer in the nation.
Scores of Columbia River landowners, eager for the lucrative lease payments that developers offer, have signed onto 15 projects planned along the gorge over the next few years.
"There's no question that the market for wind in the Northwest is hot," Swisher said. "If you're a windy landowner . . . you've probably gotten a lot of attention from developers."
Northwestern Wind Power is paying 60 farmers in four counties to build wind turbines on at least 150,000 acres. Another developer, SeaWest Wind Power Inc., has leased "tens of thousands" of acres from at least 20 landowners in Oregon and Washington.
By 2003, wind projects in Oregon and Washington are to produce a combined 1,400 megawatts of power.
Farmers and developers won't divulge how much money they get for leases on windy land, but industry experts say payments can exceed $4,000 per wind turbine per year. Some developers give farmers a percentage of the gross revenue reaped from the wind, while others prefer a onetime fee or annual payments.
In Sherman County, some farmers can expect a $10,000 sign-up payment, $15,000 for each turbine installed and up to $5,000 per turbine per year. That doesn't include the money developers pay to reserve the land--about $2,000 a month--while they conduct wind studies.
Farmers usually give up less than 5% of their land to the wind farms in a 20- to 50-year lease, depending on the developer.
"It's really a no-brainer. You sit down with a pencil and push it and you say, 'So we lost three acres, so what?' said Terry Kaseberg, a third-generation wheat farmer. "We're getting something for nothing."
Kaseberg said wind farms may be the future for landowners who find it increasingly difficult to make a living from traditional farming. He has leased three of his 5,000 acres to five turbines and is being courted by at least two more wind developers.
"If you don't start adding value to your crops, I guarantee you nobody's going to be farming here in 10 years," he said.
But Kaseberg and others realize that although wind power has helped them in the short-term, its long-term prospects are less certain.
A number of hurdles face those who invest in wind, including problems with inadequate rural transmission lines and the uncertainty of the overall energy market.
A nonprofit group called WinDustry works to keep farmers informed about their rights when dealing with wind developers and maintains a national Web site to help farmers evaluate their land's wind potential.
Lisa Daniels, the director of the Minneapolis-based watchdog group, said some companies will pressure farmers with a contrived deadline or sign up landowners before developers have financial backing or a buyer for the expected power.
"The time when the farmer needs the information is when somebody's knocking on their door, and at that point they're already at a disadvantage because the person who is knocking on their door has more information than they do," she said. "It moves fast and these are long-term binding contracts. You can only hope that nobody signs these contracts without visiting an attorney."