EASTON, Maine — Global potato processor McCain Foods is building five solar facilities in Aroostook County that it says will help power one of its largest plants.
The company has begun construction at the former Loring Air Force Base and four other unnamed locations in Aroostook and plans to have the solar gardens online this fall to help power its Easton facility. McCain’s has committed to reducing emissions by 2025 and using 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, according to a company spokesman.
The solar plan is one of the latest efforts to combat climate change among Maine’s agricultural producers, who are already threatened by both excess rain and drought conditions. Smarter farming and efforts to create climate-resistant potatoes have helped. McCain is developing sustainable practices and grower education so farmers can succeed as the climate changes, said Curtis Swager, senior director of government and external affairs.
“Climate change is an existential threat. We’ve seen droughts, extreme droughts even there in Maine,” Swager said Friday.
The Easton project is a key step in the company’s North American energy plan, he said. The five solar installations will generate more than 35,000 megawatt hours of electricity per year, enough to provide 50 percent or more of the local plant’s power.
Besides the Loring location, solar arrays will be constructed at a closed landfill and three other unidentified locations on land that is unsuitable for farming.
As more solar arrays have popped up statewide, the potato industry and land preservationists have been concerned some of them would be placed on tillable soil.
McCain aims to take land that has no agricultural production value and repurpose it to generate power.
“The farmers are a part of this. They’re our grower partners and they’re our future,” Swager said. “The last thing we would want to do is disrupt any usable farmland.”
Along with its renewable energy plans, the company is developing methods to help producers farm sustainably through its two Farm of the Future laboratories, one in Riverbank, New Brunswick, just south of its Florenceville headquarters, and the other in South Africa.
Scientists at those labs are cultivating techniques to help farms thrive, diversify crops, maintain healthy soil and reduce chemical use, among other goals, Swager said. The company hopes the research will provide more tools to protect farmers from the effects of climate change.
It’s part of what the processing giant calls its regenerative agriculture framework, in which it has developed key goals for potato farming. With their two diverse locations, the Farm of the Future labs can test techniques that incorporate characteristics of different climates, then offer them to growers so they can choose what works on their own farms.
Growers can progress through climate-friendly farming practices that become more complex at each level. The company wants to see all of its potato growers at least at the beginning level by 2030, Swager said.
McCain employs 4,500 people, and besides Florenceville and Easton, operates plants in Burley and Nampa, Idaho; Othello, Washington; Grand Island, Nebraska; and Appleton, Plover and Rice Lake, Wisconsin.
The Easton plant employs 400 people and continues to be one of McCain’s pillars of U.S. and North American production, Swager said.
Though details aren’t available yet, the local plant is working on a community initiative called Blossom to Awesome, he said. Leadership at each plant decides what projects are best for their areas.
Past projects have included donating to food banks, renovating recreation centers and repairing baseball fields.
All these efforts will help the potato processor provide sustainable, delicious food with an eye on climate change and renewable practices, Swager said.
“One of every four french fries is a McCain french fry,” he said. “And customers have told us they want food that reflects their values.”