McCain Foods aims to power half of Aroostook plant with solar gardens

McCain Foods plans to build five solar gardens at its plant in Easton. Photo courtesy of McCain Foods

McCain Foods, the world’s largest french fries processor and owner of an Easton potato processing plant, hopes to make one of America’s favorite guilty pleasures a little more virtuous with a new companywide push for sustainable production practices.

The Canadian-based company has pledged to convert to fully renewable energy at its plants by 2030, starting with the creation of five community solar gardens to power 50 percent of its plant in the Aroostook County town of Easton on the Canadian border.

“Climate change is an existential threat. We’re committed to playing our role in solving the problem, and the solar gardens are just the natural next step in our sustainability goals,” said Curtis Swager, McCain’s senior director of government and external affairs.

Plans for the community solar gardens – a term describing smaller plots of solar panels – were announced on June 5, the start of McCain’s self-proclaimed “sustainability week.” The gardens will be spread across Easton, with one being built on a capped landfill.

In addition, McCain plans to work with its growers nationwide to implement more sustainable agriculture practices to satisfy environmentally conscious consumers and help combat the effects of climate change.

“What we try to do is be at the forefront of (sustainable) investment to drive change,” Swager said. “Customers are making more conscious choices about what they eat. We want to make tasty food and – in making food – have smart, sustainable farming.”

McCain’s push for more sustainable agriculture involves the implementation of regenerative agriculture practices within its potato patches across five states and nine facilities.

Regenerative agriculture refers to a set of sustainable agriculture practices that aim to enrich the soil in which crops are grown. The company moved to implement these practices in response to the tangible effects of climate change that its growers have been experiencing.

“We’re seeing crop loss,” Swager said. “No grower – no farmer – wants to see their family farm disappear because of climate change.”

McCain is paying for a volunteer training program to teach farmers how to improve soil health by increasing crop biodiversity and reducing pesticide use, among other techniques. Around 60 percent of McCain’s growers have signed on so far. The company is also planning to provide non-environmental, skill-building opportunities for local families in Easton.

Swager said these efforts are meant to help connect McCain to the Easton community.

“It’s not just about having a facility in Easton – it’s about being good community members in Easton,” Swager said.

Rachel Schattman, an assistant professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine, believes that McCain’s efforts could have tangible effects. While combating climate change requires a multifaceted approach, she said, changes to energy production can create positive change.

“One of the biggest impacts that farms have (on climate change) is energy consumption. … Research shows us that we get the most bang for our buck by just not using as much energy and by really investing in energy efficiency and moving away from fossil fuels,” Schattman said.

Looking beyond its end-of-the-decade goal, the potato processing giant hopes to continue its push for sustainability throughout the nation.

“We will continue to reset and revamp and regrow and innovate, because, as it relates to climate change, until we collectively, as a whole, solve this problem, we gotta continue to push to solve it,” Swager said.


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