As Farmers Embrace Solar, Concerns About Loss Of Farmland Remain

Oct 27, 2015

As solar arrays become more prevalent around Vermont, concerns have been raised about whether or not the renewable energy projects are displacing farmland. But some, like Open View Farm in New Haven, are embracing solar.

There, dozens of sheep graze under long rows of gleaming photovoltaic panels.

Anna Freund and her husband Ben run the farm, which produces lamb, vegetables and maple syrup.  The Freunds lease the farm from a firm called Cross Pollination, which purchased the former dairy farm and developed the 2.49-megawatt project. Anna Freund says there are some advantages to having her sheep graze the solar system.

“The land owners had a vision for this farm to have sustainable energy and agriculture, and so there’s a lot of infrastructure here,” she said.

That infrastructure includes farm roads and fencing. And the panels only take a small portion of the 180-acre property. But not all animals can graze through arrays. Freund keeps her llama and alpaca fenced out. She says goats would climb the panels and cows and horses are tall enough that they could interfere with the electric wires. While there’s a limit to the type of farming that can happen in the midst of a solar project, her business is there because the solar developers wanted agricultural use to continue on the property.

“Our situation here is unique in that if the panels weren’t here this wouldn’t be a farm. Who knows what it would be? Before it was being leased, the land was being leased to local dairy farmers,” she said. “And we still work with local dairy farmers to get feed off.”

"Our situation here is unique in that if the panels weren’t here this wouldn't be a farm. Who knows what it would be?" - Anna Freund, Open View Farm

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Diane Bothfeld says there are some situations where solar and agriculture have mixed together on the landscape. But in the state’s three dairy counties — Addison, Franklin and Orleans — farmland is in demand. She says most farmers would not take crop land out of production for solar, but other landowners might make different choices.

“If you were just a landowner leasing your farmland to another farmer, that lease rate for solar might look better than the lease rate you would get for another farmer to use that crop land,” she said.

The Agriculture Agency did weigh in on early solar projects through the Section 248 permit process at the Public Service Board, asking that impacts on the best soil types be avoided or minimized. But Bothfeld says the agency hasn’t been able to keep up. 

“Currently there are not any requirements around solar or renewable energy and farm lands. The agency is not a party to Section 248," Bothfeld said. "It’s been a few years now, because the volume of solar outstripped our ability to keep up with the staff resources we have here."

"The volume of solar outstripped our ability to keep up with the staff resources we have here." - Diane Bothfeld, deputy secretary of agriculture

Bothfeld says farmers are choosing solar to offset their own electricity usage. At Howmars Farm in Franklin, Jonathan Gates pays $10,000 per year for electricity. Gates wants to install a small solar array, possibly as soon as this fall.

“Money-wise, if at some point if the money we were investing every month in our power bill, if we could turn that into an investment in a solar generating facility ... that would be a money savings for the farm," Gates said.

As an organic dairy, Gates says solar fits well with his farming philosophy. He plans to install a ground-mounted system, but its small size means he won’t lose any land that his cows would graze.

Gates has heard the concerns about other big solar arrays planned for his area.

“I can’t really speak as to whether that’s right or wrong, because we’ve never had enough open land. I kind of hate seeing farmland going into something like that, or housing development. Because once it goes into that, will it ever go back into farmland again? Probably not,” he said.

"Once it goes into [solar], will it ever go back into farmland again? Probably not." - Jonathan Gates, Howmars Farm

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Diane Bothfeld says it’s important to look at all of the state’s resources.

“There’s definitely land out there that isn’t rated agricultural soil. Is that a good place for solar? That’s possible," she said. "But also looking at all the options, the potential to put solar on roof tops, on brownfields, a capped landfill — why not put solar there?”

Bothfeld says solar developers need to consider other sites because the state has a limited amount of the best soils for agricultural use.