This letter was submitted to LebTown. Read LebTown’s submission policy here.
Opponents of the Enel-proposed solar farm in North Annville Township have argued forcefully that solar farms will destroy the agricultural land that has been a rich heritage of the municipality for generations. As a third-generation North Annville farmer, a portion of whose land will be included in the Enel project, I feel compelled to address these misconceptions. In reality this solar farm is 1) temporary, 2) a builder of soil health for future agricultural use, and 3) an opportunity for county farmland preservation funding to catch up to demand.
Solar farms are temporary
Solar farms are a temporary use of the agricultural land. At the end of the solar project, the solar company is contractually bound (and required to carry a performance bond) to remove all of the solar components and return the land back to its original state, ready for agricultural production. The solar panel support structures are driven into the ground without foundations, so merely pulling these supports from the ground will enable a nearly immediate return to agricultural production. Other allowed uses of agriculturally zoned land, such as single-family residences, churches, public schools, and hospitals/nursing homes result in permanent loss of that land to agricultural production. Ironically, many of the residences whose front yards display the yard sign, “Family Farms, Not Solar Farms,” are located on two-or-more acre plots that permanently removed family farm acreage from agricultural production within my lifetime.
Solar farms build soil health
This solar project proposes to use up to 600 acres to install inert solar panels that will cleanly and quietly produce much needed energy. (Opponents often reference the misleading number of 1234 acres which is the total deeded land area of the 12 farms committed in some way to this project, NOT the area that will be used for the project.) Underneath and among these panels will be perennial vegetation to include grasses, forbs, and legumes that will be mown several times each year. The biomass of these plants will not be removed as hay but instead be left on the soil to naturally decompose. Additionally, the root mass of the plants will bind the soil to prevent erosion, help water to infiltrate into the soil, and provide food for a natural biological environment to thrive in the soil. Fertilizers and pesticides which historically can have negative impacts on our soil and water quality will no longer be used continually. Instead, for at least 30 years, the farmland will sequester carbon in the soil, build soil organic matter, and rejuvenate the physical, chemical, and biological health of the soils.
In fact, the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts with farmers and agricultural land owners to accomplish this revitalization process. Current national enrollment in this program is 20.8 million acres, which includes land in North Annville Township. Our ability to produce food is not being diminished by temporarily removing agricultural land from production. Under a CRP contract running between 10 and 30 years, the USDA will pay an annual payment to the landowner to take agricultural land out of production. In return the landowner agrees to maintain the contracted land in perennial grasses, forbs, and legumes that are mown once per year. CRP’s stated goals include improving water quality, improving soil health, and carbon sequestration. This same soil rejuvenation process is exactly what will occur underneath the solar panels.
Now imagine a project that achieves the same goals as the USDA CRP program, but pays land owners using private business funds instead of your tax dollars, all while simultaneously converting the energy of the sun into electricity that flows into the grid. That is the reality of a solar farm project.
Solar farms support Lebanon County’s Farmland Preservation Program
Finally, the proposed solar farm can also assist Lebanon County’s Farmland Preservation Program. I recently requested that my farm be considered for the county’s preservation program. Because of the high interest in preserving farmland in our county, there are many more farms to preserve than there are funds to preserve them. Thus, the farmland preservation board has implemented a ranking system to determine its priority in preserving farms. The ranking system includes many factors, but high among those factors are soil quality and proximity to development pressure.
I was recently informed that there are over 30 farms on the waitlist to be preserved. I also knew that the quality of soils in the northern part of Lebanon County are not nearly as high as the fertile soils of other areas of the county, especially south of Route 422. My farm is ranked near the bottom, meaning it will be many, many years before my farm will even rank high enough for farmland preservation funding. My thin shale soils are just not going to be a preservation priority for a long time.
But this is where the solar farm can be a friend to farmland preservation activities. Because my farm can be temporarily used by the solar farm under contract for 30 years, the preservation program has 30 years to focus on preserving other higher-priority farms. The hope is that by the end of the solar project, agricultural production can begin again and the land can be preserved at that point in time.
Solar farms keep family farms in the family
This solar farm can keep my family farm in the family. This was the first farm that my grandfather was able to purchase after struggling as a share-cropper through the Great Depression. I have spent years farming and being a steward of this land, continuing and further implementing conservation practices my father began years before I took over the farming operation. This farm has seen much change over the past 100 years, and clean solar energy production is the next evolution of that change. I will be proud to see solar panels on my farm, knowing that the agricultural soils will continue to be replenished while also contributing to the clean energy future that we so desperately need. This is a family legacy I would like to pass onto my children and grandchildren.
Brent Kaylor is a farmer and landowner whose property is included in the proposed project