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Editorial: Solar project could make the difference in saving this farm


Friday, August 10, 2018

There are few things we New Englanders treasure more than our bucolic views. The sight of farmsteads, cows, fields of corn and tractors plying pastures confirm our choice to live in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region. Farmers like Bernardston’s Philip (“Butch”) and Donna Grover and their daughters Rena and Regina would agree. Farming is not a job, it’s a lifestyle, they told the Greenfield Recorder in an interview for an agricultural-themed supplement last January.

Yet pastoral views and nostalgia for our rural roots do not pay the bills, and the Grovers’ River Maple Farm is struggling to survive. The four-generation dairy farm was started in 1912 by Butch’s grandfather, Howard Grover. The high days on the farm, related Butch Grover, were the early 1970s, when milk prices were high. At one time, they had a herd of 200 milking cows. They now have a herd of about 30 milkers and, when asked what they liked best about the farming life, they exclaimed, “The cows! We love the cows!”

River Maple Farm also boasts a vegetable garden and a farm stand where they sell maple syrup, tomatoes, squash, sweet corn and other fresh vegetables. But the future of the farm is uncertain and so the Grovers are hoping to grow a new product — electricity generated by solar panels — to help support the farm and ensure its future.

The plan is to take 23.8 acres of the Grover family’s farm behind Antonio’s II and the Four Leaf Clover restaurant and lease this portion to the Clean Energy Collective, a company based in Colorado with offices in Worcester that builds and manages solar farms. Installation of the panels would involve no excavation, explained Matt Waterman of Land Tech at a Planning Board meeting on Aug. 2. Instead, the panels would be driven directly into the ground so they can be removed without permanently altering the environment. The energy generated would not only provide power for River Maple Farm, but will go to the power grid Eversource supplies. Residents would be able to “buy in” to the solar farm for a discount on their electricity bills.

It sounds like a win-win proposal, but here’s the rub: concerns by the town’s Planning Board and Conservation Commission that the ground-mounted solar panels could aggravate the risks of flooding in the center of town.

At a community meeting in April, Planning Board member John Lepore explained that Bernardston’s ongoing flooding problems likely have to do with a rising water table, which is causing the rivers and wetlands in town to become more prone to overflowing. This in turn affects the private septic systems of homes and businesses. When the water table rises, explained Lepore, it suffocates the bacteria that digest waste and the septic system fails. In 2014, 16 septic systems in Bernardston failed to pass inspection and one house was condemned partially because of a damaged system. In search of hard facts, Town Meeting voters on June 6 approved spending $8,000 on a hydrology study. Ultimately, armed with this information, residents can make intelligent decisions on zoning and infrastructure projects.

Thus the solar farm proposal by River Maple Farm comes at a time of heightened concern for the downtown because the site in question sits just west of central Bernardston. Lepore said at last week’s meeting he had “a real concern” that the solar panels would make the surface of the ground less permeable to water, so that in a rainstorm, more water would run down the hill into central Bernardston, potentially causing even worse floods than the town has previously dealt with.

In response, Waterman said plans for the solar farm include drainage basins that could be expanded and combined with other designs that would slow water drainage. “The project may actually represent a way to improve (the problem),” said Conservation Commissioner Bill Meese. The solar farm project is also under review by the Conservation Commission. Meese said the technical issues involved in the project are beyond their abilities, and it will be necessary for the commission and the Planning Board to consult experts. This is a good idea and may reveal best practices that improve the situation.

Rena and Regina Grover grew up belonging to 4H and Future Farmers of America and still have their 4H cows. The Grovers would like to save their family farm for the next generation. They are also lifelong Bernardston residents with, presumably, the best interests of the town in mind as well.

We urge the Planning Board and the Conservation Commission to enlist outside expertise as soon as possible. The Grovers cannot wait indefinitely.