Over the past several years, many agricultural areas have seen new activity on farmland. Instead of fields being planted in corn, hay or soybeans or pastures dotted with grazing animals, farm fields are growing tall steel posts that will support solar arrays.

While some residents don’t have a firm opinion on large-scale solar development, others do. To address the issue of those who are clearly not in favor of solar development on farmland, Tom Newhart, who owns Newhart’s Iron Horse Inn in Mount Joy Township, Adams Co., hosted a press conference on his 65-acre farm, one of many properties being surrounding solar development.

Newhart’s farm was settled in 1751 and has been cultivated and farmed for more than 250 years. “Farmland here in Mount Joy Township was settled during the same time period,” said Newhart. His farm is preserved under a township preservation program. “We raise crops – corn, wheat, soybeans, hay and grapes. We also raise Angus cattle and have been running an agritourism business for the last 20 years.”

Guests who visit learn about the history of the area, including the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as learn that food doesn’t grow on the shelves of a grocery store.

Newhart referred to large-scale solar development as a “clear and present danger” that threatens to destroy prime farmland. “Over the past four years, residents in Mount Joy Township have learned about the consequences of a massive, industrial-size solar power plant which would destroy 1,000 acres of productive farmland by bulldozing topsoil that’s been cultivated for the past 250 years and building miles of access roads,” he said.

The project would also involve driving thousands of I-beams into the soil, trenching in miles of underground cables and enclosing the entire facility with 20 miles of eight-foot-high barbed wire fence, then topping it off with over 300,000 solar panels. Part of the proposed solar development would be adjacent to Newhart’s property and would be in direct view of the pristine farmland he has worked hard to preserve and cultivate.

“If this is allowed to happen,” said Newhart, “this land would never be farmed again. Twenty-five years from now, at the end of the useful life of such a project and if all 1,000 acres of infrastructure were removed, the knowledge base of a generation of farmers will be gone. Tractors, plows, combines and supporting industries’ (farm supply stores) transport infrastructure will disappear. The soil itself, after being dormant for all those years, will take years to get nutrients back to the soil to grow crops again. This is not being a good steward of the land.”

Newhart emphasized the fact that he and others who oppose the industrial-scale installation are not against solar power. “There’s a place for it,” he said, “on the roofs of homes and businesses, warehouses, abandoned mines and brownfield sites – but not on irreplaceable prime farmland.”

He installed a solar facility on his farm 12 years ago – the 42 panels take up a footprint of 25-by-50 feet and are not located on tillable acreage. The installation produces 10,000 kW of energy annually, which is about half of the power Newhart uses.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33), is aware of many residents’ opposition to a large-scale solar facility on rural farmland.

“A few years ago the community banded together and resisted a planned industrial solar plant that would have included over 333,000 panels and over 1,000 acres of prime farmland,” said Mastriano. “The local citizens voiced concerns about property values and the impact on wildlife and stormwater runoff.”

Fighting solar

Citizens were also concerned about erosion damage and the quality of life that would be the result of such a massive project.

Mastriano pointed out that these citizens are not against the solar industry and stand in support of incentivizing responsible solar development on alternate sites while protecting prime farmland.

“An abundance of agricultural land is crucial to maintaining food security and protecting against supply chain instability for the commonwealth and the nation,” said Mastriano. “Pennsylvania has been, historically, the breadbasket of the United States and we want to keep it that way. Our agricultural industry provides $135.7 billion in annual economic impact and represents 18% of Pennsylvania’s gross state product.”

The ag industry also employs more than half a million people, is central to the state’s economy and way of life and provides food security.

Mastriano noted that those who are the future of agriculture should also be considered. “It’s already difficult for the next generation of farmers who want to purchase affordable land for their own families,” he said, “and now they are forced to compete with deep-pocketed developers for the best soils in Pennsylvania.”

Recent years have seen a surge in the number of solar companies seeking to lease ag land for the purpose of constructing large solar facilities. “Once these are installed, the landscape is drastically altered and you can write off that land for farming for at least a decade or more,” said Mastriano. “Meanwhile, nearby property values will also be affected by large scale developments as large solar farms create eyesores for the community. In response to this, and in working with the Newharts and others across the state, I have officially introduced SB 798, which will prohibit large solar panel developments on Class 1 and Class 2 farmland in Pennsylvania. The bill is narrowly focused on protecting our best soil, our best farmland.”

The senator noted that USDA considers Class 1 and 2 soils the best for crop production and it’s in the best interest of farmers who want to keep them that way. Guidelines published by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) in December 2022 called for new solar projects to be kept off Class 1 and 2 soils, so this legislation supports policy already in place. The Adams County Farm Bureau supports the effort to preserve Class 1 and Class 2 soils for farmland, and recently voted to submit policy to the state that would also protect Class 3 soils from solar development.

“Let’s officially protect Class 1 and 2 soils,” said Mastriano. “As a compromise and common-sense measure, we recommend, in agreement with the PDA, that instead of taking away farmland for solar farms, let’s place these on brownfields or on roofs of massive warehouses or abandoned mall parking lots.”

Mastriano is hopeful the PDA will support his proposed legislation since it aligns with what they want.

Class 1 and 2 soils represent about 20% of all farmland in Pennsylvania, which means there’s potential for solar companies to use 80% of the rest of the land. “The majority of the land in the commonwealth would still be available for responsible solar development,” said Mastriano. “My bill would also create a first in the nation’s tax credit program that would provide financial incentives for solar companies to develop on alternate sites.

“Preserving our prime farmland for agriculture use is paramount to ensure food security for our commonwealth and stability for generations to come,” said Mastriano. “With so much national and international economic insecurity, preservation of our land for food production is more crucial than ever before.”

by Sally Colby