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Ryan Voiland: Farmland had use before — and after — solar panels

The front page of the Oct. 25 Gazette shows a Hatfield farm field that may soon be converted into an array of solar panels. A similar situation has already occurred on a former farm field in Whately, where acres of solar panels are now mostly installed (this area is visible as one drives south on Interstate 91).

I recognize the need for renewable energy and in fact think that it is vital for our society to adopt these technologies as quickly as possible in order to reduce our reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels. In fact I have invested in the installation of solar photovoltaic panels on the roof of one of my barns in Granby, and have plans to install an even larger system on the south facing roofs of my Montague barns.

However, from my perspective as a farmer and as an advocate for regional food self-reliance, I feel that it is very shortsighted for our society to squander non-replaceable farmland with development projects.

Here in New England quality class 1 farmland is in very short supply. Most of our landscape consists of sloping, rocky and thin soils. The Connecticut River Valley is a unique exception to this landscape where the geological history of the Connecticut River and glacial lake Hitchcock have left us pockets of amazing, rich alluvial soils. The Hadley sandy loam soil series and other associated soil types are considered by agronomists and farmers to be among the best soils in the world for growing crops.

Town governments, land trusts, farm advocacy groups and private citizens should take all possible steps to preserve prime class 1 farmland for agricultural food production. Developments such as solar photovoltaic farms, new residential housing, industrial parks, etc., should be relegated to areas that are not rich in prime agricultural soils.

For example, building solar photovoltaic installations on top of old capped landfills is a great idea.

As a farmer I feel directly the effects of the loss of farmland to various types of development over the last few decades. Good farmland is very difficult to find in contiguous tracts, and when it can be found for sale or for rent, the demand among farmers is so high that the price is bordering on unaffordable for farm use.

In fact, in our area the high cost of farm land makes it economically marginal for farmers to consider growing certain types of staple foods such as grains and dairy because these crops don’t yield enough dollar return per acre to pay for the annual land cost. Many farmers in this area find that they must routinely travel with their tractors and harvest crews to fields that are in neighboring towns, often many miles away from their home farmyard.

This is not ideal for farmers, but given the short supply of farmland it is often the only way that farmers can find enough land to grow the volume of crops that they need to stay viable.

As a society, if we want to achieve any degree of regional food self sufficiency, and if we want to keep our local farms the economic engines (in terms of jobs and local commerce) that they can be, then we should be thinking more strategically about how and where we do land development projects, including where we install solar photovoltaic electricity generating arrays.

Ryan Voiland is the owner of Red Fire Farm in Granby.

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