Wednesday Feb 08, 2023

Jay Nutting: How harvesting the sun can save family farms – Lewiston Sun Journal

My grandfather, the hardest working man I’ve ever known, farmed his entire life in central Maine. The landscape of the area has now changed significantly.

Neighboring farms went out of business. Others expanded. Houses popped up in many pastures and hay fields.

He had a saying — houses were the last crop that a field would ever produce. It was true then, and it is even more so now. Once a house or subdivision is built, generally speaking, the days of that land being productive for agricultural purposes are over.

My family’s farming history has left me a bit dismayed at the Jan. 22 article, “Maine’s prime farmland is being lost to solar. Is ‘dual use” the answer?”. There are a few claims made in the article and potential action the Legislature may take that we should all find deeply concerning.

Maine has an active and robust agricultural community. We have farms of all sizes and specialties. We are blessed with countless organic producers and associated farm stands and farmers markets. We are truly fortunate to live in a place with so much agricultural diversity and potential.

But at the same time, it’s a tough grind for many in our farming community. Take the dairy industry, for example. Since 2013, we’ve gone from over 300 farms to less than 200 today. That is a frightening reduction.

In order to stay in business, many farms are diversifying through different products, opportunities, and revenue streams. A solar farm should almost always be one of those tools for a farmer to consider — if they and a developer so choose.

The idea that the state — in some manner — may start telling farmers what they can and cannot do with their land is rarely, if ever, a good idea. That action should be reserved for broader environmental issues (harm) or public/food safety exclusively.

Are we to believe that a farmer could sell “prime” agricultural land for a housing development, a used car lot, a strip mall, or some other commercial purpose, but not a solar farm? Or worse yet, let the land lay fallow and miss out on critical income that could help save the farm or make it possible for the next generation to farm?

That does not seem right. The concept of “dual use” is a good one, and may work well in some areas and be beneficial for some farmers. However, it also increases the costs of a project and should not be forced upon willing farmers and project developers.

The other concern is deciphering if there is an actual problem to solve. There certainly has been a flurry of activity in solar development lately — so much so that the Legislature stepped in and slowed things down last year. This leads me to wonder if we are really facing a problem of solar projects “taking” prime agricultural land?

It is critical that we put this perceived issue into context: even if every proposed solar project in Maine is built, that is about 0.5% of available farmland. That is a poor justification to potentially deprive farmers of critical income opportunities at a time when many need it to feed their families, and keep their farms operational.

Furthermore, if a solar project is built on prime agricultural land — is it really “lost” for good? Two years ago, the Legislature passed, and Gov. Janet Mills signed into law LD 802, “An Act to Ensure Decommissioning of Solar Energy Developments.” This law …….


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