Farming Solar: ‘A different way to produce something’

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The area outlined in yellow is where NextEra Energy is proposing the solar panels be placed. The project is still in its initial planning phase.
Bussie York in his farm store last year.

FARMINGTON – Maine’s largest solar power facility project is hoping to break ground next winter, expanding over roughly 600 acres of land in Farmington – half of which would be used by the solar panels themselves.

While the acreage is scattered throughout Farmington, 500 acres are owned by Bussie York of Sandy River Farms, located on the Farmington Falls Road. York, whose family has been farming the property since 1952, has been working closely with the Florida-based company NextEra Energy to finalize the details of the plan which has been in the works since 2015.

“A lot of the specifics aren’t worked out yet,” York said. “This next year will see a continuation of surveys and environmental impact studies.”

The project has not been without its critics. At an informational meeting held in October, some residents expressed concerns that the project would not reduce local electricity bills. Planners have said that the harvested power will go to states like Connecticut and Massachusetts, as Maine doesn’t submit bids to utilize solar power from New England.

Other residents are concerned that the solar facility will negatively impact the area’s environment, even after the equipment is removed after the 25- to 35-year life expectancy of the project.

York said much of the acreage that NextEra is leasing is actually still covered in trees, so he will see little impact on his farming business. York’s parents bought the farm in 1952, moving down from Titcomb Hill Road to restart on the Farmington Falls Road. When York took over in 1962 he slowly began building the business up – tripling the amount of farmed acres to the 600 it is today.

“I’ve lived here for 80 years. I hold a lot of sentimental value for this town,” York said. He tells the story of his birth – in the middle of mud season; his father having to harness the horses to pull the doctor’s Model-T up Titcomb Hill. “It seemed to me this project would benefit everyone and create an industry for Farmington that is unique and has hardly any impact on town infrastructure.”

Engineers with the company have researched on the local wildlife, rare plant species and other potential environmental impacts in regards to the installation. In addition, the company is using existing logging roads as often as possible and are only clearing areas that have been forested in the last 15 years.

The $100 million project is anticipated to bring roughly 180 short-term jobs during implementation phase as well as up to 8 full-time jobs once completed. According to York, the company is committed to using local contractors and workforce as much as possible.

“We’ve been using the same source of energy to grow corn for the last 60 years here. I just see this as a totally different way to produce something for the community using the sun,” York said.

In addition, York values the monetary contribution that the collaboration will offer his farm.

“We have seen our share of difficult times. Farming involves a lot of trials and tribulations, but the family has survived and the kids are stronger for it,” York said.

The future of small Maine farms is a difficult subject. With larger corporations offering products at much lower rates, it has become increasingly tough for Maine farmers, like the Yorks, to compete.

“There will always be agriculture, but it will shift,” York said. “Maybe this solar thing will fill in some of the gaps for us.”

The Planning Board is expected to begin reviewing an application from NextEra in the next few weeks.

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