“I’ve always believed, without electricity, we would have nothing.” Those words were spoken by Jim Headley, retiring director-at-large for Central Electric Cooperative. The White Lake area farmer and rancher recently shared his thoughts on an evolving industry and energy landscape as he exits the board following 25 years of distinguished service.
When asked why he ran for the Tri-County board back in 1996, Jim said other directors approached him and sparked his interest. Tri-County Electric merged with InterCounty Electric in 2000 and formed what is now known as Central Electric Cooperative. When the co-ops joined forces, Jim was instrumental in keeping the board size to a minimum, stating it was the responsible thing to do. He believes smaller boards save members money and govern more effectively.
“It was a different world back then,” Jim said. “We didn’t have the technology.” Cybersecurity is an emerging threat he thinks power cooperatives should take seriously to protect members and the grid.
However, according to Jim, the primary issue currently facing rural electric consumers involves municipalities annexing territory outside city limits. He explained the long-term effects, including how it may potentially cause rural consumers to pay higher rates for electricity because the cost is spread over fewer members.
Wind Power on the Prairie
Jim led the effort to bring a large, first-of-its-kind wind farm project – Prairie Winds – to White Lake. His leadership in wind development earned him the Basin Electric “Cooperative Spirit Award” in 2011.
Prairie Winds spans 135,000 acres and consists of 108 wind turbines with the capacity to generate 162 megawatts of electricity annually. It is the largest wind project owned solely by a cooperative in the United States, and it was the first community-owned wind investment partnership with more than 600 South Dakota investors. Basin Electric Power Cooperative secured 100% ownership after 7 years, per the original contract agreement with shareholders.
For the Birds
“A lot of the negative press you see about wind farms is simply not true,” Headley stated, as he stood at the base of a wind turbine on his property. The only noticeable sound coming from the spinning turbine was the internal cooling system, and it was not much louder than a whisper. He said on windier days, you may hear a faint noise a quarter of a mile away.
A trusted steward of the prairie and avid bird enthusiast, Jim also said the claims that wind turbines are detrimental to the bird population are false, at least in this area. He said, according to scientific research that was conducted on his property, the five main bird species native to the area fly 10-15 feet in the air and could never reach the approximately 100-foot height where the turbine blades are closest to the ground.
A Humble Representative of the People
As the director-at-large, Jim represents all members in Central Electric’s territory. At the 2021 Buffalo County District Meeting, fellow Director Donita Loudner and Crow Creek Sioux Tribal Chairman Peter Lengkeek presented Jim with a star quilt to thank him for his many years of dedicated and compassionate service to the Tribe. This was a memorable tribute that holds special meaning to him. Jim’s pastures are home to unique Native American artifacts, including a large rock-formed turtle, which is more discernable from the sky than the ground. Turtles are sacred in Native American culture. Jim sees it as his responsibility to preserve these artifacts and to do his part in representing all segments of the population in his role.
Background, Family and Life on the Farm
The Headley ranch sits approximately 12 miles northwest of White Lake. Jim’s mother, Dorothy (Baughman) Headley, was originally from the White Lake area. Jim and his wife Cristine, moved to South Dakota from northern New Jersey in 1971. He majored in park management at South Dakota State University, where he planted some of the first spruce trees in the now well-known McCrory Gardens.
Before Jim farmed full-time, he worked for Victor Surgical Gut Manufacturing company out of Chicago. They served 16 packing plants from North Dakota to Texas, and from Illinois to Colorado. Johnson and Johnson purchased gut string for surgical sutures, and several other companies purchased gut string to produce tennis rackets.
Jim had good help to keep the farm going and family fed when he was on the road. Wife Cristine did chores – everything from forking hay to feed the cows, to pulling lambs, she kept it all running smoothly while raising four kids. She did almost every job you can think of on the farm. “I usually take her with me to open gates,” he confirmed.
The Headleys had four children. Their son Jay of Lake Norden passed away in 2002 in a boating accident on Lake Poinsett when he was only 30 years old. Jay’s children, Jack and Sydney, later moved to Colorado with their mother Ashley, and Jack passed away in 2016. For nearly 20 years, Jim has generously donated a portion of his board compensation to fund the Jay Headley Memorial Scholarship for dependents of Central Electric members.
Jim and Cristine’s daughter Tina Ludens, her husband Dustin and their son, Quinn, live near White Lake. Son Todd Headley, his wife Andreea and their children, Sophia and Anderson, live in Fort Collins, Colorado. Daughter Sarah Weiss and her husband Danny live in Sioux Falls.
Besides serving on Central Electric’s board, Jim also serves on the Patten Township Board. In the past, he was active with the White Lake School Board, Aurora County Zoning Board, GF&P Regional Advisory Board, United Methodist Church Board and Cemetery Association. He is currently a member of Farmers Union, Farm Bureau, Dakota Rural Action and the Jerauld County Game and Fish Club.
Jim said he will miss attending Central Electric’s board meetings and the lively discussions that ensued. He hopes South Dakota’s electric cooperatives will take a more progressive stance on renewable energy and protecting cooperative territory for the benefit of rural members.
The board and staff at Central Electric wish Jim and his family the best on the journey ahead. Less time in meetings leaves more time for driving grandkids around in the Kubota to hand-feed cattle, among other activities. Jim’s term on the board will officially end following the cooperative’s annual meeting in September.