Potatoes blossom in a field on the Centerline Road in Presque Isle in July 2020. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Aroostook County’s farmers aren’t sacrificing soil for solar yet, but the potato industry and farm preservationists are keeping close tabs on Maine’s largest tracts of prime growing land.

Alternative energy developers have targeted some of Maine’s farmland as ideal sites to set up power arrays, because they favor large pieces of land that are easy to access, flat and located close to power transmission lines.  

Aroostook boasts the largest parcels of farm acreage in the state, so any loss of tillable soil means a hit to the state’s potato industry. Both the Maine Potato Board and the Maine Farmland Trust are increasingly wary as more solar arrays pop up.

“I think everyone in agriculture has a concern — a valid concern — about siting those on prime farmland, because farmland is a perishable commodity,” Don Flannery, Maine Potato Board executive director, said Wednesday. “Once you start taking prime farmland out for other uses, you can’t get it back.”

In 2020, Maine’s potato crop — its highest grossing crop, with blueberries coming in second — yielded 265 hundredweight per acre, worth $152 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Final figures aren’t yet available for the 2021 crop, but the record harvest yielded 345 hundredweight per acre.

Flannery said he is not opposed to solar power, but cautioned that both developers and the people whose land they want to use should be selective.

Concern in other parts of the state prompted legislation that led to the formation of the Agricultural Solar Stakeholder Group in the Governor’s Energy Office, which focuses on responsible siting of energy developments.

The stakeholder group met in the summer and fall and expects to present recommendations to the state Legislature later this month.

Most of the large solar projects in Aroostook aren’t located on what is now considered prime farmland, but on land that is non-viable for growing or that has been out of the farming rotation for a number of years, Flannery said.

“There are some growers that have been approached, and for the most part, haven’t looked at that as a viable option right now on their prime farmland,” he said.

Though the potato board has been following the discussions downstate, it has opted to see what path the issue will take.

The Maine Farmland Trust is watching, too, and has set guidelines for nudging solar developers away from prime farmland. Its website lists recommendations for solar project sites, including keeping prime farmland for agricultural purposes.

“In 2019 when legislation was passed that opened the door for a large-scale increase in solar development, we started getting calls from tons of farmers who were being contacted by solar developers looking to site solar installations on their land,” Ellen Griswold, policy and research director at the trust, said Wednesday.

Though economic development and consumer factors are important, Griswold said developers should also consider the impact energy projects would have on agricultural resources as part of their site evaluation criteria.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission issued a request for proposals in June to build transmission lines in northern Maine, along with some renewable energy generation projects.

The trust hasn’t heard from any Aroostook County farmers who have been contacted by solar developers, but Griswold thinks the PUC request could signal future development.  

“We don’t see this as a black or white issue. We don’t think that there shouldn’t be development on agricultural land, and we understand that a well-sited solar project could be a great asset to a farm as both supplemental income and an energy source,” she said.