Maine could lose some of its best farmland to solar farms

There are a finite 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% of the state is suitable agricultural land.

In recent years, these hectares 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 near 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 against the need to develop renewable energy sources.

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

These lands – called prime farmland or statewide soils – have soils with the best physical and chemical characteristics for growing food, feed and forage crops. The designation is determined by the United States Department of Agriculture.

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

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

The group tasked with formulating policy recommendations – the Solar Agriculture Stakeholder Group – includes state officials, farmers, municipal officials and solar industry representatives, and was established by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry of Maine and the Governor’s Office of Energy. It grew out of the state’s four-year climate action plan that examines how Maine should immediately address climate change.

Part of the action plan is both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing local food production.

In some cases, these two objectives have come into conflict with each other.

New Gloucester 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 I’ve had a lot of requests for a solar farm to be installed on my land,” Wilcox said.

“What solar farms are looking for is agricultural land right next to the road. They want the easiest land 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 wastebasket. But he said he held on to the last one he got, although he hasn’t decided how or if he will proceed with the request to place a solar panel on his property.

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

There is also the financial reality that working farmers face.

“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 is of concern to the stakeholder group due to the high percentage of agricultural soils 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 agricultural land to solar development,” said Griswold, adding that now is the time to ensure policies are in place to create the best use. of these lands.

The group of actors has until the beginning of the year to submit its recommendations on agricultural and solar development policies. McBrady said these policies will form the basis for how solar projects will be sited in the future.

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

This story appears through a content partnership with the Bangor Daily News.

Amalia H. Mercado