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Jim Kenyon: No hay while the sun shines in a plan for solar array on Thetford farmland

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 10/31/2020 11:47:08 PM
Modified: 10/31/2020 11:47:05 PM

Pete Stever’s family has hayed the 8-acre field, 3 miles from their farm in West Fairlee, for 40 years or so. They get two or — if they’re lucky — three cuts a summer that produce about 2,000 bales of high-quality hay.

“It’s critical to our farm,” Stever told me when I reached him on his barn phone on Thursday. “The field produces good feed.”

But for how much longer?

Early this year, the town of Thetford purchased the field in Post Mills for $120,000, after the parcel, which runs along Route 244, just before Lake Fairlee, came up for sale.

The Thetford Selectboard is now considering turning the prime farmland — or at least a sizable chunk of it — into a solar array. A vote could come as early as the five-member board’s next meeting on Nov. 9.

No doubt solar is key to combating climate change, but why must it come at a farmer’s expense? As we huddle in our coronavirus bubbles for months on end, the pandemic has reinforced the importance of locally grown food.

Originally, Thetford officials intended to use the land for building up to 16 affordable homes. They ditched the plan when residents of Post Mills, a village in Thetford, voiced strong objections over the summer. The NIMBY crowd — “not in my backyard” — was certainly out in force, but the loss of prime agricultural soil was also a legitimate concern.

To their credit, opponents of the affordable housing proposal wanted to make sure the town didn’t lose any of the $120,000 that it had put into the deal.

At least one resident expressed interest in buying the property for what the town paid for it. If that didn’t work out, opponents were confident they could quickly raise $120,000 in private donations to take the property off the town’s hands and preserve the land.

But apparently the Selectboard, with Chairman Nick Clark leading the charge, has other ideas. At a board meeting on Oct. 1, Clark brought up the possibility of leasing the land to a private company to erect solar panels. Over time, the lease could generate enough money for the town to recoup its investment and contribute to an affordable housing fund.

Not everyone in town is sold.

Some residents prefer the town stick to completing the state permitting process to build a solar array on the old Post Mills landfill. On a hill above Route 113 and largely out of view, the property seems ideal for a solar array.

On the other hand, the plan to erect an array in the Route 244 field is “ill-conceived,” said Tim Taylor, who serves on the town’s development review board.

“No one is against clean energy,” Taylor said. “We just don’t want to see ruined what’s left of (Thetford’s) prime farmland.”

For more than 40 years, Taylor and his wife, Janet, have lived in Post Mills, where they’ve grown Crossroad Farm into one of the Upper Valley’s foremost vegetable and strawberry farms.

The Taylors, along with Phil Mason, their business partner and farm manager, have 40 acres of fields and greenhouses. They buy manure from the Stever farm to fertilize their fields.

The Stevers have been farming on Middlebrook Road in neighboring West Fairlee for nearly 60 years. The farm is a valuable link in the local food chain, Taylor said.

The Stevers, who got out of the milking business in the early 2000s, have about 50 Black Angus cattle. Their beef is found on area restaurants’ menus. They also raise Holstein calves — 200 or so at a time — for a large dairy operation in Bradford, Vt.

The field in Post Mills has changed owners several times, but the Stevers were always allowed to keep haying. In exchange, they fertilize the field with lime, which helps keep it in pristine condition.

“No one has asked us what the consequences (of losing the field) would be to our farm,” Stever told me.

With more and more land being lost to development, “we go as far as 20 miles for hay just to get enough feed for our cattle,” he said. “Try driving a tractor for 20 miles. It’ll take you two hours, and it’s costly. Farmers are the ones who keep fields open.”

Brian Ricker, who lives adjacent to the field in a house that once belonged to his grandfather, told me that he’s willing to buy the land for what the town paid for it. But he said when he recently approached Clark, he was told, “We don’t plan on selling it.”

Alissa Southworth, another resident with deep family ties to Post Mills, spearheaded opposition to the housing development. In a village of about 300 residents, 190 people signed a petition to preserve the prime agricultural soil, she said.

A couple of days after town officials shelved their proposal, Southworth contacted Clark about starting a private fundraising drive to buy back the land.

To purchase the property, the town had tapped into its “Farm Trust” to the tune of $100,000. A resident named Anna Poore established the fund, which supports residents and groups “needing help,” with an initial investment of $4,000 in 1957. It’s now grown to more than $1 million, according to the most recent town report.

With the housing proposal off the table, Southworth presumed town officials would want to return the $100,000 to the Farm Trust sooner rather than later.

So when Clark informed her the town wasn’t interested in selling, Southworth was taken aback. “The board chairman seems very compelled to do something with that land,” she said.

I left email and phone messages for Clark, a former Progressive candidate for the state Legislature who joined the board in 2019. I didn’t hear back.

At the Oct. 1 meeting, board member Sharon Harkay indicated that she couldn’t support the solar plan. When I called her last week, her position hadn’t changed. In Vermont, largely due to development, “our prime agricultural land has been dwindling,” she said.

Even for a cause as worthy as solar, losing another hayfield doesn’t seem worth it. Any way you cut it.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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