There is a finite number of acres in Maine that can produce crops and support agricultural farms. Only 13 percent of the state is suitable farmland, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
In recent years, those acres have been targeted by solar farm developers. 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, land that is perfect 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 sources of renewable energy.
There’s no official data on how much farmland has already been converted to solar farms. In 2020, 88 percent of the 335 solar farm pre-applications submitted to the Maine 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.
This land — referred to as prime farmland, or soils of statewide importance — has soil with the best physical and chemical characteristics to produce food, animal feed and forage crops. The designation is determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The 2020 numbers from the Maine Natural Areas Program do not include acreage for solar developments of fewer than 20 acres, since those do not need to go through the same state permitting process. It also only represents the total acreage reviews, 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’s in the pipeline,” said Nancy McBrady, director of the Maine Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources.
The group tasked with making policy recommendations — the Agriculture Solar Stakeholders Group — includes state officials, farmers, municipal officials and representatives of the solar industry, and was created by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the Governor’s Energy Office. It grew from the state’s four-year climate action plan that looks at how Maine should address climate change immediately.
Part of the action plan both reduces greenhouse gas emissions and increases local food production.
In some cases, those two goals have found themselves at odds with each other.
New Gloucester farmer Carl Wilcox has lost count of the number of inquiries he’s gotten from solar developers interested in his land.
“I’m kind of a small-time farmer here and I’ve gotten multiple inquiries about putting up a solar farm on my land,” Wilcox said.
“What the solar farms are after is farmland right next to the road. They want the land that is easiest to get to and develop and that can be some of the best farmland.”
Wilcox said most of the inquiries he’s gotten have come by mail and have ended up in his wastebasket. But he said he has hung on to the last one he got, though he has not decided how or if he will proceed with the request to place a solar array on his property.
Wilcox fears that the more prime farmland and important soils are taken out of 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 faced by working farmers.
“The value of a lease agreement from solar development on the farmland may exceed that of the farm’s normal income,” McBrady said.
Information received so far about potential solar projects has been concerning to the stakeholder group due to the high percentage of farm soil that would be included, according to member Ellen Griswold, policy and research director with Maine Farmland Trust.
“We understand that it’s unrealistic to think we won’t 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 that land.
The stakeholder group has until the start of the year to submit its recommendations on farmland and solar development policies. McBrady said those policies will form the basis for how solar projects are sited in the future.
“The state does have 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 think of ways to achieve those goals that are not harmful to our important farmland so we can grow our food economy and expand our solar production.”