Diane and Michael Karabin have been farming in Southington, Connecticut since the early 80s. Their diversified farm produces everything from Christmas trees to maple syrup, to beef cattle. It is also where the Karabin’s raised their six children, many of which are now involved with the family business. While the Karabin’s own most of the land they farm, they also rely on additional leased land, like many CT farms. This supplemental land allows them to produce the hay for their beef cattle herd and expand the quantity of vegetables they produce year-round.
The Karabin’s are true stewards of the land. In late 2019 they permanently protected the land they own through the CT Department of Agriculture’s Farmland Preservation Program “From day one when we purchased this land, we realized there was pressure from developers to turn this land into a subdivision,” said Michael Karabin. “The temptation was there because the dollars were there. But we, as a family, couldn’t justify watching this land turn into a subdivision.”
Like many Connecticut farmers, the Karabin’s have dealt with the rising pressure of large-scale solar development on farmland. Late last year they were notified that the property they leased for hay production would be split to make room for a solar array. Despite multiple calls and emails, the Karabin’s were forced off a large portion of the leased land, causing them to reduce their cattle herd, significantly impacting their business.
In 2020, the CT Siting Council approved solar developments that will convert over 540 acres of the state’s farmland. Beyond solar, there are other threats as well; sprawl development pressures continue to threaten the future of CT’s agricultural sector. According to American Farmland Trust’s 2020 “Farms Under Threat: The State of the States,” 23,000 acres of Connecticut farmland were converted to urban development or low-density residential land use between 2001 and 2016, making Connecticut the fourth highest, by percentage, of any state in the nation for farmland developed or compromised. This farmland conversion trend continues today as competition for the state’s remaining farmland has intensified due to COVID-19.
“Advancing clean, renewable energy is necessary, but losing some of our most productive farmland in exchange, impacts more than just our local food supply – it impacts our farmers, the economy, and our ability to mitigate climate change,” said Emily Cole, AFT New England Deputy Director. “It doesn’t have to be one or the other, through transparent and cooperative programs, the state can develop smart solar siting guidelines, and regulations that protect farmland and meet our clean energy goals.
“The pressure on available farmland is at a crisis point,” said Joan Nichols, Executive Director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association. “We must act quickly on developing policy and legislation that focuses on smart siting of commercial solar projects before any more of this precious resource is lost.”
In some cases, lease payments from a solar developer on a portion of a farm may be key to keeping a farming operation in business, and without such additional income source, the entire farm may be in jeopardy. This must be balanced with the fact that many farmers rely on leased land for all or part of their land base. In fact, beginning farmers, and Black, Indigenous, and Farmers of Color rely on leased land at far higher rates and solar development is increasing the competition for land and pricing these farmers out at the height of Connecticut’s efforts to build a localized food system, which is also critical to our efforts to adapt to climate change and build resiliency.
To reach the state’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, there must be an increase in renewable energy, including solar. Protecting farmland, especially our best farmland, must also be a part of Connecticut’s climate solution. Without better siting criteria and regulations, the state’s farms will continue to be lost and stories like the Karabin’s will become all too common.
“I believe solar is an important part of clean energy and can be a diverse source of income for a Farm,” said Jim Smith, Working Lands Alliance Co-Chair. “However, it is imperative that there is a balance and a very well thought out plan to avoid using prime and important soils. I feel there are an enormous number of locations that could be used without impacting the usability of the farmland. We should not put food security behind clean energy.”
Working Lands Alliance, a broad-based, statewide coalition working together to preserve Connecticut’s farmland, is committed to working in fierce cooperation with other conservation organizations, renewable energy developers, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Department of Agriculture, and others to develop comprehensive and strategic statewide policies and regulations that will advance renewable energy with a more than equal consideration for the multiple benefits and role farms and farmland play in addressing climate change and leading us on a path towards sustainability.
“Just think about how much farmland in general is being lost,” said Diane Karabin, “Where is our food coming from? We should have local sources for our local population. We can’t depend on food to be trucked in from California or wherever. We should be reliant on our State to provide food for our state table.”
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