Solar panels on farmland. Submitted photo

This week I’m writing about a threat to topsoil, vital to the preservation of food security. Topsoil is the uppermost layer of the 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 about the importance of soil regeneration, maintenance, and preservation 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 holds sunlight. It retains moisture in the soil and assures that it is rich in organic matter, and provides for the vast number of microbes in a handful of dirt.

Here’s some terrible news. Since Maine signed two bills into law in 2019, more farms are leasing all or parts of their land as “solar farms.” With farm bankruptcies at an eight-year high, I am in empathy with farmers. Still, I do not support installing solar farms without considering erosion of topsoil, loss of prime food production and grazing land, and environmental hazards. Maine approved land usage for solar farms without filtering the decision on being socially sound, economically viable, and environmentally regenerative.

Panels placed close together maximize space (and profit) while preventing light from getting to the soil. Crops and other plant life can’t grow under the panels because the solar panel poles holding are too short. Most often, these panels are of cheap metals and plastics with no plan as to how to dispose of them.

I’m not against solar energy. I am advocating determining how much solar is required to meet climate goals, consider scale, and how best to site solar arrays while protecting Maine’s rich agricultural heritage. Other countries have, for years, paired solar arrays and agriculture in a “microclimate-agriculture” partnership. Now a few American states are quickly exploring this partnership. In this way, Maine farmers can benefit from the lease income while still using the land to grow food or raise livestock.

Solar can be a valuable source of income. Farmers don’t intend to destroy farmland, but without adequate vetting and negotiations which are balanced with knowledgeable people on both sides, solar farms are likely to threaten farmland and hence, food security. Communities and officials have a responsibility to support small scale farms, but they also have a responsibility to protect and preserve the earth.

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