Working Together to Address Climate Change While Keeping Land in Farming
What is the first thing you think about when it comes to solar energy? Climate change? Innovation? Necessary for our future? Well, in addition to all those things, I think about siting—where solar energy will be generated from physically. And increasingly for New York, without our collective intervention the answer may be ‘from our farmland.’
For most of us, when we flip a switch at home we don’t think about where the energy to power that light is coming from. But for those of us upstate, the majestic sight of wind turbines or solar panels, or the conversations with a developer seeking to build renewable energy projects are becoming increasingly familiar. This was ushered in by the passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in 2019, creating a new era of commitment to renewable energy by codifying an aggressive goal of reaching 70% renewable energy by 2030 (we’re currently at less than half that, with most of current renewable energy coming from hydro-power.) This is a great thing, as combating climate change is critically important to our future, but due to the financial challenges our farmers are facing, the aging of our farmers, and the financial attractiveness to developers of cleared, flat, sunny farmland near transmission—farmland is increasingly becoming a first-choice site for potential solar development.
Farmland as Sequestration Potential
In addition to maintaining food production, the carbon sequestration potential of our soils is as important to our new climate goals as renewable energy. In 2018, the IPCC stated that even if we address GHG emissions through the built environment, we need to sequester enough carbon already released into the atmosphere by 2050 to stay below 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius. Since our soils hold 2-5 times more carbon than vegetation or the atmosphere, we must continue to improve soil health and management to ensure soils sequester more carbon. The over 50,000 farmers in New York are important potential partners in these efforts—particularly for farmers growing food and crops on nationally significant farmland.
Why does that matter? While many might say, without a stable climate we won’t have farming or farmland, AFT believes we need to plan for our future more carefully than that because choosing between one or the other isn’t necessary. While aggressive and quick climate action is critical, so is continued food production—according to the Food and Agricultural Organization, global food demand is expected to increase in accordance with population increases by 50% by 2050 over 2012 levels. And not all farmland is equally able to produce high yields of food with limited environmental impact over time. In fact, the finite resource that is our most productive, versatile, and resilient farmland, best able to produce high yields of food while sequestering the most carbon, is precious and irreplaceable. With the disruptions in our global food supply chain we have witnessed in recent months, this nationally significant farmland should even be considered infrastructure as necessary to our success as a society as our roads and bridges.
And like our roads and bridges, it is in our societal interest to ensure our farmland ‘infrastructure’ does not ‘crumble.’ In this we could do better. According to American Farmland Trust’s recently released “Farms Under Threat: the State of the States report,” since the turn of the century a quarter of a million acres of New York farmland has been converted or threatened, including 121,000 acres of our best farmland for producing food and crops. Of the farmland that remains in the state, 54% is nationally significant—or the land most suited to produce continuous high yields of food and crops with the least environmental impact and the greatest carbon sequestration potential over time.
So where does solar enter into this equation? Wind development on farmland is compatible with continued food production—and in fact, wind lease payments can provide financial support to farmers to keep them producing food, a win-win. This can be true of solar development too if the project is designed to support continued food production elsewhere on the farm, or in between panels, like in the picture above from UMass’s Dual Use research site. But, for large-scale solar projects that might convert farms from food to energy production wholesale, this will displace farming from the land for the 20-40-year life of the project—and likely beyond that.
Our farmers are the original solar developers—having spent generations finding the sunniest, flattest, and best land from which to convert the sun’s energy into a form usable to our bodies.
Shown another way, the map below lays out where New York’s nationally significant farmland is in green. Overlaid with that are bubbles (not drawn to scale) representing only the proposed large-scale solar projects in New York as of fall 2019. The size of the bubbles corresponds to the amount of nationally significant farmland acres that would be compromised if the project was built.
Our farmers are the original solar developers—having spent generations finding the sunniest, flattest, and best land from which to convert the sun’s energy into a form usable to our bodies. If we plan poorly and allow solar development to displace farming from our best and most productive farmland—we may contribute to a food security crisis in our quest for energy security and climate stability.
At the very least, converting large amounts of land within any one community will impact the viability of the farms that remain by reducing the amount of farmland available, and reducing the economic viability of necessary farm support services. In addition, farmer-renters cannot compete with the high prices solar developers pay to lease land, and there is evidence of farmer-renter displacement already happening. With a quarter of the farmland in New York under lease, this is cause for concern. All of these impacts will fall the hardest on those for whom land access is already more difficult—for new and young farmers who often begin by leasing, and for Black, Indigenous, and Farmers of Color who face higher barriers to accessing land due to systemic racism and its impact on access to capital and land.
But we don’t have to choose between food security and climate action. The good news is we can plan to both protect our best farmland for food production and build enough solar and wind to generate energy and avert climate catastrophe. Here’s how:
1. Cultivate Respect for Farmers and the Value of Farmland
The first step is to cultivate respect for our farmers and the public service they provide as well as an understanding of the value of good farmland and the cost of its loss to any type of development.
2. Incorporate Protections for Farmland into State-Level Renewable Energy Policies
Critically, this must then translate into local and state level policies that support farmers, value farmland, and guide all developers—commercial, residential, and renewable— to make more responsible decisions. At the state level, a new renewable energy RFP gives us cause for optimism, NYSERDA will be requiring developers to follow the Department of Agriculture and Markets guidelines to protect farmland for future agricultural activities when building solar projects. In addition, this RFP indicated that the state is working on a way to require developers to pay a mitigation fee for projects that are sited on Class 1-4 prime soils. These, and more were part of a suite of actions American Farmland Trust and the farm community suggested to the administration in a letter earlier this year after passage of the new Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, which has paved the way for more large scale solar and wind to be sited to power our homes and businesses more quickly. Incorporating these as well as suggestions made to the Public Service Commission will ensure that we stem the potential loss of farmland that could come with New York’s important new climate policy without action. These are policies that are in the best interest of urban and rural communities alike to support.
3. Act to Protect Farmland Within Your Communities
And within our own communities, local governments, and town boards, we must cultivate and institutionalize a higher value for agricultural land and the benefits farmers and farmland provide to us all. Our farms are businesses, yes, but farmers provide many public services they are not compensated for including improved water quality, flooding mitigation, wildlife habitat protection, and carbon sequestration and storage to help mitigate climate change. Within your communities, you can follow the steps laid out in this guide to protect farmland in your community by planning for agriculture, and in the face of solar development, you can work to pass laws that guide siting to marginal or less productive land following these examples from municipalities across New York.
If we work together, we can ensure a prosperous future for all. For more information, please visit farmland.org/nysolar.