Encourage solar energy that does not sacrifice agricultural land or threaten food security

Solar panels on farmland. Photo submitted

This week, I write about a threat to topsoil, vital to preserving food security. Topsoil is the top layer of soil and is where 95% of our food is grown. Threats to topsoil are not new. Years ago, Bussie York, owner of Sandy River Farms in Farmington, Maine, taught me the importance of regenerating, tending and preserving soil by planting cover crops between harvests. According to a report by David Pimentel, Soil Erosion: A Food and Environmental Threat (2005), “Soil erosion is one of the most serious environmental and public health problems facing human society”. In the United States, soil is eroding ten times faster than nature can replenish it.

Topsoil is where the earth filters water, absorbs carbon, provides vital nutrients and retains sunlight. It retains moisture in the soil and ensures that it is rich in organic matter, and provides the large number of microbes in a handful of soil.

Here is terrible news. Since Maine signed two bills into law in 2019, more farms are leasing some or all of their land as “solar farms.” With farm bankruptcies at their highest level in eight years, I empathize with farmers. Yet I do not support the installation of solar farms without considering the erosion of topsoil, loss of food production and prime pasture, and environmental risks. Maine approved land use for solar farms without filtering the decision to be socially healthy, economically viable, and regenerative for the environment.

Close-set panels maximize space (and profit) while blocking light from reaching the floor. Crops and other plants cannot grow under the panels because the solar panel poles are too short. More often than not, these panels are made of cheap metals and plastics with no plan as to how to dispose of them.

I am not against solar energy. I advocate determining how much solar energy is needed to meet climate goals, considering scale and how best to install the solar panels while protecting Maine’s rich agricultural heritage. Other countries have, for years, coupled solar panels and agriculture in a “microclimate-agriculture” partnership. Now, a few US states are rapidly exploring this partnership. This way, Maine farmers can benefit from rental income while using the land to grow food or raise livestock.

Solar can be a valuable source of income. Farmers do not intend to destroy farmland, but without proper oversight and balanced negotiations with knowledgeable people on both sides, solar farms are likely to threaten farmland and therefore food security. Communities and officials have a responsibility to support smallholder farming, but they also have a responsibility to protect and preserve the land.

Amalia H. Mercado