Solar power is a boon for Maine farmers

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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. On our farm west of Paris, my family has used the sun to grow food for us and the animals we raise – livestock, sheep, goats, oxen and horse drawers, to name a few. The sun has helped us feed and help Whitman’s three generations on this earth, and in a few months, he will help us feed the fourth generation at the birth of his grandson.

And as we prepare to welcome this next generation, our farm is using the sun in a new way to help our family. We have turned about 10 acres of pasture into a community of solar energy that will provide renewable and clean energy to nearby neighbors.

A new law passed last year opened the door to these community solar projects, and has had a huge impact. People who cannot own solar panels can now come together to be part of a community solar project and participate in the benefits of clean and cheap solar energy. This new program has given Maine farmers a unique opportunity to stabilize our incomes and care for our family farms.

For us, deciding to be part of this program and organize a community solar project was no intention. Our land can hold a large solar system, enough to supply electricity to the 500 homes around us. While solar farming provides clean energy to our community, our sheep will continue to live in the same countryside.

We are still using this land to live, unlike the way we are used to. Instead of selling bales of grass to help pay the bills, we are collecting clean electricity.

Farmers are diversifying all the time. A cow farmer can start raising pigs. A dairy farmer can start growing corn. We adapt to what makes the most sense to help our families. And that’s exactly what Maine farmers do when we use our land to gather power from the sun.

Farmers like us have never had such an opportunity. These solar panels are not seasonal, they generate us year-round income. They are not dependent on the growing season. It’s a source of income, and a barrier we shouldn’t keep. We rent our land to the solar company, so we keep the property, and once the lease is complete, we can return the land to farm use if we decide to move in a different direction.

The opportunity to organize solar projects is a good opportunity to help sustain Maine farms, and they can help give new life to our industry. In fact, we’ve been accumulating numbers lately. From 2012 to 2017, according to USDA data, farmland in Maine fell by 10%. In the same amount of time, Maine lost more than 100 farms a year. And the remaining farms saw a net income fall by almost 20%.

The numbers are appalling, but Maine farmers have faced tough economies before. We can adapt, and by taking advantage of opportunities like the community sun, we can ensure that our farms and our livelihoods are protected for future generations.

At a time when fresh thinking and new ideas are critical, we have found a sustainable way to sustain our farm and agricultural life. And we have found a way to ensure that our agricultural heritage is maintained for our children and their children as well.

Toby Whitman is the owner of Whitman’s Hidden Meadow Farm in West Paris.2

Toby Whitman is the owner of Whitman’s Hidden Meadow Farm in West Paris.3