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Toby Whitman is the owner of Whitman’s Hidden Meadow Farm in West Paris.
Farmers have always used the sun to grow things. At our farm in West Paris, my family has used the sun to grow food for ourselves and for the animals we raise — cattle, sheep, goats, oxen and draft horses, to name a few. The sun has helped us feed and support three generations of Whitmans on this land, and, in a few months, it will help us feed the fourth generation when our grandson is born.
And as we get ready to welcome this next generation, our farm is using the sun in a whole new way to help provide for our family. We’ve converted about 10 acres of pasture to host a community solar power array that will provide clean, renewable power to our neighbors in the area.
A new law passed last year opened the door for these community solar projects, and it has had a big impact. People who can’t have solar panels on their own property can now join together to be part of a community solar project, and participate in the benefits of clean and affordable solar power. And this new program has given Maine farmers a unique opportunity to stabilize our incomes and preserve our family farms.
For us, the decision to be part of this program and host a community solar project was a no-brainer. Our land can accommodate a substantial solar array, enough to provide electricity to about 500 households in our area. While the solar farm is providing clean energy to our community, our sheep will keep grazing in the same fields.
We’re still using this land to make a living, just in a different way than we’re used to. Instead of selling bales of hay to help pay the bills, we’re harvesting clean electricity.
Farmers diversify all the time. A beef farmer might start raising pigs. A dairy farmer might start growing corn. We adjust to what makes the most sense to support our families. And that’s exactly what Maine farmers are doing when we use our land to harvest power from the sun.
Farmers like us have never had an opportunity like this before. These solar panels aren’t seasonal, they generate revenue for us year-round. They’re not dependent on the growing season. It’s a steady source of income, and a fence we don’t have to maintain. We lease our land to the solar company, so we maintain ownership, and once the lease is over, we can return the land to farm use if we decide to go in a different direction.
The option of hosting solar projects to help sustain our Maine farms comes at a good time, and can help breathe new life into our industry. To be honest, the numbers have been stacking up against us lately. From 2012 to 2017, according to USDA data, Maine total farmland decreased by 10 percent. In that same period of time, Maine lost more than 100 farms a year. And those farms that remained saw net incomes drop nearly 20 percent.
Those are scary numbers, but Maine farmers have faced tough economies before. We can adjust, and, by taking advantage of opportunities like community solar, we can make sure our farms and our way of life are protected for future generations.
At a time when fresh thinking and new ideas are critical, we’ve found a sustainable way to hold on to our farm, and our agricultural lifestyle. And we’ve found a way to make sure our farming heritage is maintained for our children, and their children too.
We’re really excited about this project, and the folks in our community are excited too. The solar developer, Nexamp Inc., has been fantastic to work with. The town officials in West Paris, including the town manager, selectmen and code enforcement officer, have been a huge help to get this off the ground. Our neighbors are supportive and have been right there with us as well.
Community solar has given us an amazing option as we work to preserve and grow our family farm. I hope our fellow Maine farming families will be able to take advantage of the growth of dual-use solar projects as a way to continue to successfully run their farms as well. We’re thankful for the opportunity this project has provided us, and we’re proud to be part of a cleaner, more cost-effective energy future for our state.