OPINION: Agriculture and Solar Energy: A Symbiotic Relationship

solar panels sit in a field next to growing agricultural crops
Solar farming paired with traditional agriculture

For many young Canadians, career prospects are bleak, with little hope for change. Economic anxiety grips the country, even as the governing Liberal party has enjoyed a relatively stable economy throughout their time in office. Currently, there are nearly five post-secondary graduates for every job opening requiring a university or college degree. There just doesn’t seem to be enough opportunity for young people. Even with underwhelming career prospects ahead of them, young people are still resisting an industry that desperately needs them: agriculture. Since 1991, the number of Canadian farms has declined by 24.8%. The average size of farms has slightly increased, but this has still resulted in a significant net loss of agricultural land and workers.

There are many contributing factors as to why youth are unmotivated to join the agricultural sector. Millennials, along with generation Z, increasingly favour urban and well-educated areas. The Canadian demographic has significantly shifted towards urbanization, as rural opportunities have dwindled and urban economic hotspots have boomed. Accessibility to higher education has also played a role in Canada’s changing demographic. The increasing volatility of the agricultural sector, as well as the nature of the work as a trade may also contribute to the lack of younger generational interest. Primary industries are naturally more volatile; however, climate change is pushing agricultural uncertainty to new heights.

The future implications for agriculture look grim. Planting dates, which have historically been fairly concrete, are no longer predictable. Erratic seasonal weather and storms also create additional uncertainty to an industry which relies heavily on routine. Even as early as 2002, climate change-induced heat waves killed as many as 200,000 poultry birds in Quebec. The future of agriculture will also face the issues of land degradation, desertification and water shortages as a result of climate change.

The irony of this situation is that for decades, Canadian farmers, in conjunction with the agricultural industry, have typically fought against environmental groups. As governments became more concerned about environmental issues, namely conservation, soil fertility, pesticide, herbicide, and insecticide use, farmers, backed by the industry, fiercely resisted regulation. One of the primary tensions between environmental groups and farmers has been the destruction of forestry for agricultural development.

Canada’s forests act as highly efficient carbon sinks. However, urban sprawl, combined with an increasing global demand for agricultural products has led to mass deforestation. The loss of natural carbon sequestration has produced a detrimental impact on the world’s ability to regulate atmospheric carbon levels, accelerating the pace of climate change. In the long run, this is far worse for farmers than any environmental regulation.

Historically, farmers and the agricultural industry have had a tumultuous relationship with environmental groups. However, new green opportunities for farmers have helped to establish a less political industry environment. As volatility in agriculture grows, farmers are increasingly switching small, less fertile segments of their acreage from traditional crops to solar farms. One of the most attractive reasons for farmers to utilize solar energy is that it offers the potential for farms to cover the cost of their own electricity use. Depending on the acreage of solar panels installed, some farmers are also able to sell off excess energy. Farming solar energy averages larger returns than typical agricultural yields, while offering a more stable income.

Farming solar energy is undoubtedly good for farmer’s bottom lines. However, there’s still strong industry opposition. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) states that “large scale solar on good farmland is not suited to Ontario,” citing soil erosion, baking, and decrease in agricultural capacity. It’s important to note that Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs has a classification system which prohibits solar installations on fertile soil. The classification system is numbered 1-7, with numbers 1, 2 and 3 corresponding to prime agricultural land, and 4, 5, 6 and 7 meaning the land has “limitations that may restrict its agricultural capability.” The Ministry regulations mean that solar installations can only be applied to land which has a fertility rating between 4 and 7. Regulations regarding farmland and solar installations vary across Canada however.

Unfortunately, analyzing the OFA’s website reveals a clear bias against green energy. The OFA fails to mention the soil standards mandated by Ontario’s agricultural ministry when discussing the potential negatives of solar production on agricultural land. The OFA website also cautions potential buyers that solar panels may reduce the value of a residential or commercial property, due to a decrease in aesthetic. This is in direct conflict with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s reporting, which highlighted that solar panels substantially increased property values. The increase in value is primarily due to the energy independence the panels provide. Electricity bills can be substantially reduced, or even eliminated, making solar installations a smart financial investment for many households.

While Canada’s agricultural industry is dragging their heels on support for solar energy, farmers are increasingly taking it upon themselves to diversify their income and harness the suns energy. Solar energy simply makes sense for farmers. The geographic areas throughout Canada which receive the most sun, namely Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, are the prime locations for solar deployment. It’s no coincidence that these provinces are also the largest producers of agricultural products in Canada. Although the climate in these provinces make a strong argument for the utilization of solar energy, these three provinces are also regularly controlled by conservative governments. Many of these governments have been less than supportive, or even hostile towards the development of solar and other renewable energy.

Larger subsidies, tax credits or other incentives for solar energy could vastly improve the opportunities for rural farmers. As the number of farms in Canada continues to dwindle, it’s worth looking at solar energy as a potential industry partner to increase agricultural participation. Solar energy offers a way of making agriculture more lucrative, environmentally friendly, high-tech and independent, factors which may encourage younger individuals to enter the industry.

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