Maine risks losing some of its best farmland to solar farms

There are a limited number of acres in Maine that can produce crops and support agricultural farms. According to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, only 13 percent of the state has suitable farmland.

In recent years, these acres have been targeted by developers of solar farms. The most desirable land for large solar farms is at least 25 acres, flat, open to the sun, easily accessible by good roads, and close to existing power lines.

In other words, perfect land for farming.

Now, a group – formed as a result of legislation last summer – will make policy recommendations that balance the need to protect Maine’s current and future farmland with the need to develop renewable energy sources.

There is no official data on how much agricultural land has already been converted to solar farms. In 2020, 88% of the 335 solar farm pre-applications submitted to Maine’s Natural Areas Program included high-quality farmland. That’s a potential loss of 14,949 acres of Maine’s nearly 2.9 million acres of available farmland.

These lands, referred to as prime agricultural land or soils of state significance, have soil with the best physical and chemical characteristics for producing food, feed and forage crops. The designation is determined by the US Department of Agriculture.

The 2020 Maine Natural Areas Program figures do not include acreage for solar developments under 20 acres, as these do not need to go through the same state approval process. It also only represents total area revisions, not those approved for development.

“Yes, we have seen farms lost due to solar development [and] more data is needed to accurately track and capture what has been developed and what is underway, ”said Nancy McBrady, director of the Maine Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources.

The group responsible for making policy recommendations – the Agriculture Solar Stakeholders Group – includes government officials, farmers, city officials and representatives of the solar industry. It stems from the state’s four-year climate action plan that examines how Maine should immediately tackle climate change.

Part of the action plan both reduces greenhouse gas emissions and increases local food production.

In some cases, these two objectives have found themselves in conflict.

Gloucester’s new farmer Carl Wilcox has lost count of the number of inquiries he has received from solar developers interested in his land.

“I’m kind of a small farmer here and have received several inquiries about installing a solar farm on my land,” Wilcox said.

“What solar farms are looking for is farmland right next to the road. They want the land that is easiest to access and develop, and which can be some of the best agricultural land.

Wilcox said most of the inquiries he received came through the mail and ended up in his wastepaper basket. But he said he clung to the last one he got, although he was not sure how or if he would proceed with the request to place a solar panel on his property.

Wilcox fears that the more quality farmland and important soils are removed from food production, the more farmers will have to rely on more marginal land that is less ideal for crops.

There is also the financial reality facing working farmers.

“The value of a solar development lease on farmland can exceed that of normal farm income,” McBrady said.

The information received so far on potential solar projects has been of concern to the stakeholder group due to the high percentage of agricultural soil that would be included, according to member Ellen Griswold, director of policy and research at the Maine Farmland Trust. .

“We understand that it is unrealistic to think that we will not lose any farmland to solar development,” Griswold said, adding that now is the time to make sure the policies are in place to create the best use. of these lands.

The stakeholder group has until the start of the year to submit its recommendations on agricultural land and solar development policies. McBrady said these policies will form the basis for how solar projects are implemented in the future.

“The state has ambitious renewable energy targets that the [Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry] supports, ”McBrady said. “This is where the rubber hits the road and we are thinking about ways to achieve these goals that do not harm our important farmland so that we can grow our food economy and increase our solar production.”

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