Food and Water

By John Piotti | Feb 27, 2014

Sometimes I’m amazed by what happens here in Maine. An event this past weekend made that point clearly in two distinct ways.

The event was the 27th Annual Camden Conference. The topic this year was “the global politics of food and water.” For those of you who have never attended one of these conferences, they are professionally-run three-day affairs that boast world experts and top-notch speakers. It’s so impressive that an event of this sort occurs right here in our backyard. (The live show is held at the Camden Opera House, with broadcasts to the Hutchinson Center in Belfast and the Strand Theater in Rockland.)

The other reason this year’s Camden Conference reflected well on Maine was because of the topic. Any conversation about food and water soon leads to a discussion about sustainable agriculture, and that’s an area where Maine has been a real leader. Even though the conference focused on global issues, Maine played a key role — as well it should.

Several of the speakers used Maine examples. Kathleen Merrigan, former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, called attention to recently released figures showing that the number of farms in Maine continues to grow, while the number of young farmers here is soaring. Gus Schumacher, vice president of Wholesome Wave, spoke about a trip he made to Maine more than forty years ago to visit Eliot Coleman, who had pioneered ways to grow crops in winter — techniques now used by 10,000 farmers across the country. And Maine’s own Chellie Pingree talked about how our small state has led the rebirth of small-scale farming nationally.

Of course, most of the conference dealt with broader issues. There were presentations about population growth and climate change, which both have such a bearing on future food production. There were sessions on what’s happening in the oceans, and in China and Africa. Some of what we heard was scary. All of it was fascinating.

For me, the most moving part of the weekend was Fred Kirschenmann’s keynote address on the first night. Fred is a farmer, philosopher, distinguished academic and activist. He explained how the future will be different from the past and how our current agricultural system is simply unsustainable. Farming today — whether organic or conventional — relies on cheap energy that will not be available for long. Fred articulated how we need to approach farming differently. But despite detailing some somber realities, his speech was full of optimism.

I played a role at the conference I did not expect. Bad weather prevented the invited moderator from leaving the Minneapolis airport, and I was asked to replace him. (I was known to the event’s organizers because I had had given two talks for them the previous fall, as part of the community events that led up to the conference.)

The moderator serves as a master of ceremonies, introducing speakers and facilitating Q&A. But because the man I was replacing, Jonathan Foley, was a well-known academic at the University of Minnesota, he had also been given a fifteen minute slot on the program to offer his own remarks.

An hour before the conference’s opening reception, I came to the Opera House to learn more about my role and was asked whether I wanted Foley’s slot the next morning. If I said no, they would fill the time with a video. So I had an easy out. I didn’t take it.

I’m never one to miss any opportunity to talk about farming in Maine. But this was a particular challenge. The conference organizes didn’t want my usual spiel. This was a conference about global issues, not Maine. I needed another angle.

I thought about what I’d do on my ride home late that night. But with my mind still reeling from Fred’s keynote, it was hard to focus on what I’d say the next morning. At 6 a.m., I sat down at our kitchen table and began scribbling notes. I decided I’d try to tie some of the global issues to Maine. By 8:45 a.m., I was onstage at the Opera House, doing so.

I began talking about energy, building off Fred’s remarks from the night before. When we think about how energy will affect farming in the future, it’s easy to see this as an issue for the plain states or other global breadbaskets — and it is. But the impacts will be felt everywhere. And I believe that great change could occur in Maine, which is positioned to grow far more food and get it to population centers far more efficiently, because of our location.

I then spoke about water. It’s abundant here, which is a blessing. But because of this abundance, we have tended to take it for granted. Maine has no comprehensive policy framework to help manage our water resources; and this is something that needs to be addressed soon.

A key question for the future is how we recruit new farmers: how we inspire and train them, but also how we get them on farmland. These are issues everywhere, but Maine is noteworthy because we have made such progress. I give a lot of the credit to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), which has done as much to inspire and train young farmers as any organization in the country. The next hurdle is to get these eager people on the land. That’s a high hurdle, given that the price of most farmland is far greater than what someone can earn from farming it. Maine Farmland Trust addresses this challenge with various programs, and with some success — though we do much less than what’s needed.

One of Fred’s points the previous night was that our current economic tools, which often reward short-term profit above all else, are not up to the task of creating the kind of farming that will be needed to serve the future. This is a big issue. To me, it is every bit as big as climate change, exactly because our current economic decisions are what drive climate change.

There are no simple ways to infuse long-term views into certain economic decisions; but some forward-looking folks are experimenting with new tools. One such tool is so-called “Slow Money.” It’s the idea of investing as if the future really mattered. This movement has informed and organized thousands of socially-conscious investors who are now providing patient capital to help rebuild our farms and food system. The Slow Money group in Maine is among the most active anywhere, having invested more than $8 million in support of local agriculture.

The final point I raised is how Maine is also at the forefront of another movement: “Ag Art.” Again, my starting point was Fred’s comments from the previous night. He spoke about how we need a new ecological consciousness around food, and how art — film, photography, drama, and more — can move us in that direction. He cited a few examples of what’s happening around the globe. And I naturally thought of what’s happening in Maine — all the artists who have shown at the Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, the photographs of Bridget Besaw and Lily Piel, the films of Cecily Pingree and Jason Mann, and so much more.

Energy; water; new farmers; new economic tools; how art can inspire an agricultural renaissance; these are all critical issues on the global stage, which are playing out right here in Maine.

It’s easy to attend an event like the Camden Conference and leave with a greater understanding of global issues, but little feeling of how you can make much of a difference.

Yet on the topic of food and water, there are so many ways for Mainers to engage, whether it be through organizations like Maine Farmland Trust and MOFGA, or through the decisions we make about how to invest our money, where to shop for food, and what we eat.

John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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