Generating for Generations to Come
— Matthew Zmudka '11
What is the difference between proper and smart? What does society urge us to follow?
What is better for the future?
As Pete Ferrell ’74 will share during his Alumni Lecture at this year’s Reunion, breaking the status quo and building a wind farm on his ranch has proven to be the ‘smart’ choice.
Ferrell grew up on his family’s “idyllic” 7,000-acre ranch outside of Beaumont, Kansas. The ranch, begun in the late 19th century, started and continues to be a cattle-grazing operation, and Ferrell’s life quest has been “to solidify the heritage of this place,” he says.
After graduating with a degree in anthropology, Ferrell returned to Beaumont to care for his father and the business operations on the ranch, although he admits “my business skills were honed at the school of hard knocks.”
Ferrell recalls hearing his father tell stories about windmills saving the ranch during the Dust Bowl. It wasn’t until 1989 that he became seriously interested in wind, when he visited a ranch in Hawaii that also had wind turbines. He said that “seeing that wind was working in paradise” was an inspiration to consider installing turbines back home, and subsequently spent years researching what it could do for his ranch.
Unfortunately, he soon discovered that placing turbines on his ranch was not considered proper by Kansans. While his direct neighbors saw value in the plan, others in the Tallgrass Prairie reacted strongly against the plan, ostensibly because turbines would block the viewshed. He did not see wind as a polarizing issue at first, and added that “my former opponents are now more intense about having no wind farms in the Flint Hills.”
Yet, the farm is a success – it is now online and powering 43,000 homes in southeast Kansas. Today, he is one of the principals of Energy For Generations, LLC, a firm that is developing a wind farm in southwestern Kansas. Although he says the wind farm challenge “isn’t what I thought I’d be known for,” he is beginning to develop a reputation as a pioneer who has successfully merged ranching and wind farming.
Ferrell claims that he is “certainly putting the environment first” and views the wind farm as “enhancing natural bounty while being respectful.” The wind farm is also an element of smart economics that his family has constantly pursued to maintain the ranch. Amidst the blowing grass and the turbines stands another juxtaposition, one that was a smart decision at the time of its installation – a few oil wells. “We’ve benefited from oil,” he said, adding that it helped the family survive lean years in cattle ranching and that the leases date back to the 1920s.
He credits Grinnell with being an “intellectual bootcamp” for him, sharing a story of an academic wake-up call his first year when he received a failing grade in biology and his military draft number in the same week. Calling it a “high incentive to study,” he succeeded and says he uses the skills of critical thinking and analysis that he learned at Grinnell every day.
According to Ferrell, “Mother Culture wants us to follow the status quo,” but coming from a family that “constantly broke the status quo” and armed with a Grinnell education, he finds new ways to pursue his environmental and economic goals. Expect to hear more about the risks and rewards of breaking the status quo and following smart ideas, along with Ferrell’s stories about his ranch’s own experience, at this year’s Alumni Lecture.