Don’t put ag on back burner (Editorial)

(March 7, 2017) Let this be said.
Within all law and restrictions, a farmer certainly can do with his land what suits him.
If that happens to be having his farm fields devoted to a new housing development or shielded by thousands of solar panels, so be it.
And many farmers may be thinking about alternatives to crop and animal production these days.
The Wall Street Journal reports that soon there will be fewer than 2 million farms in America for the first time since pioneers moved westward after the Louisiana Purchase.
Across the heartland, the WSJ reports, a multi-year slump in prices for corn, wheat and other farm commodities brought on by a glut of grain world wide pushing many farmers further into debt.
Some are shutting down, raising concerns that the next few years could bring the biggest wave of farm closures since the 1980s, the WSJ reported.
The current avalanche of solar farm development is attracting attention, no doubt about it.
There are scores of applications pending across the Eastern Shore of Maryland; many are being challenged by concerned citizens.
For example, in response to complaints from neighboring homeowners, a letter to a planning board from an owner of acreage proposed for solar development countered that it was not her responsibility to provide and protect the neighbors’ “viewscape.”
If they want to keep it in farming, get together and buy it, she said.
However, there is more, we believe, to this debate than viewscape.
It is our belief that most anyone living on the Eastern Shore, no matter what they call home — be it a rancher in a development, an in-town apartment, a condominium at a golf course — would agree that, if they had their druthers, they would rather see corn or soybeans growing in the fields along Rt. 50 on their way to the beach than massive displays of solar panels.
It is the flavor, the character, and the heritage of the Eastern Shore. It‘s a breath of fresh air.
And yes, it’s the viewscape. It should not be despoiled.
It’s also about money — the economy, on the Shore and across the Bay Bridge.
At recent count, the poultry industry accounted for 85 percent of the economic wealth of the Eastern Shore.
That’s not only the birds.
It’s also the acres and acres and acres of corn and soybeans and grains that are raised thereon to feed those chickens and the enormous industry developed to keep all those farms running.
That wealth transfers across the Chesapeake Bay and joins thousands of farmers there engaged in raising not only livestock but also a wonderful variety of agricultural production — from grapes and wine to alpacas to fresh veggies to plants that you can grow on a roof.
Agriculture, it needs to be remembered, is Maryland’s No. 1 industry and has been for a long time.
And that should have been remembered as well — but was apparently forgotten when the General Assembly, dominated by lawmakers from the urban counties — voted to increase the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard.
The revised RPS requires thatthe state increase solar energy availability and use from 2 percent to 2.5 percent by the year 2020.
Of course, we do not fault the farm family, ensnared in the current farm depression that finds very attractive an offer of between $1,000 and $4,000 an acre for two or three farm fields.
What does concern us is the pattern that is being established, an erosion of the state’s agricultural foundation being encouraged by a flurry of bills popping up on the dockets in Annapolis to pave the way for solar development.
We do not disagree with solar energy promoters that if the RPS goal is achieved, it will only make a dent in Maryland’s total farm acreage.
But the erosion has begun.
We counter that there are thousands of acres of land across the state otherwise unfit for farming and for any use and many other uses.
These are brownfields, enormous municipal waste sites, abandoned industrial zones.
According to the EPA’s “Repowering America’s Land” there are 100,000 acres of wasteland in Maryland.
Capped landfills in the state alone represent more than 6,000 acres, with many located in close proximity to population centers that represent high-energy demand.
Such land can be successfully used for renewable energy projects.
New Jersey, California, Colorado and other states have proven that this approach works.
These wastelands are made-to-order for solar generation.
Let’s put them to work.