Making the case for farming
Regular readers know that my columns come in two varieties: stories about my family; and information about farming. One is far more popular. When I write about Susan, our kids, our house or pets, I often hear positively from readers. When I write about farming, I hear little.
So let me warn you: this is one of my boring columns about farming. But I won’t apologize for the topic, because the future of farming is important stuff.
I just completed writing the “case statement” for the next phase of Maine Farmland Trust’s big fundraising campaign. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a “case statement” is the document that an organization trying to raise funds uses to explain why funds are needed. Below, I outline the rationale for supporting farming.
After decades of decline, farming in Maine is growing and poised to blossom. Maine has abundant land, plenty of water, better growing conditions than most people think, handy access to good markets, and great farmers — including many beginning farmers who want to farm here. In short, Maine is well-positioned to build a vibrant farm and food economy and to become the “food basket” of New England.
But just because this could happen doesn’t mean that it will happen. The future of farming in Maine hinges on what we do now.
Despite long-term promise, farming in Maine is hindered by current realities. Today, the most profitable use of a 10-acre parcel with prime farm soils is all too often to drop a new house in the middle of it. At the same time, supermarkets and institutions often purchase food “from away” rather than Maine food, and do so based on savings of only pennies on the dollar. As a result, many Maine farm products do not now find their way to Maine consumers.
Over time, more Maine farm products will become cost competitive, as more of the real costs of imported food are incorporated into the price. And one day, the highest economic use of Maine farmland will clearly be to grow food. But we are not yet there.
Meanwhile, farming in Maine also faces a demographic crisis. The ownership of up to 400,000 acres of our best farmland will be in transition this decade, given the advanced age of many farmland owners. A similar threat holds for vast stretches of former farmland that could be returned to farming with the right forward-looking strategy.
Someday, we will want and need all of this land for farming, both the land that is currently being farmed and other good land that could be farmed again. Yet if we don’t take action, much of this land could be converted to new uses that remove the possibility of farming.
If during this critical time of transition we lose much more land to short-sighted development, or if we lose farming know-how because we aren’t helping existing farmers remain in business or new farmers get started, then farming will never realize its promise.
Much is at stake: our economy; our environment; the viability of our rural communities; and our ability to feed ourselves and help feed others.
Imperative 1 is to protect more farmland.
In the “boom years” before the recent recession, Maine lost a greater portion of its rural land to development than any state other than Virginia. That threat has not gone away.
There is a common misconception that development pressure is a thing of the past, except on parts of the coast or outside Portland. But farmland remains highly vulnerable across the state.
In southern or coastal Maine, the threat may be a new subdivision or commercial development. In central or northern Maine, the threat may be a single misplaced house that takes a large block of good farmland out of viable production. And everywhere, former fields that are not now being farmed, but could be again, get developed with little regard for what is being lost.
Protecting farmland with agricultural conservation easements does more than keep vulnerable land from being developed. Farmers who are compensated for easements use the funds to improve their farms, while land that has been protected will, when it sells, change hands at a lower price — often a necessity if beginning farmers are to buy such properties.
Simply put, protecting farmland has become a critical economic tool that supports farming. But this alone is not enough to secure the future of farming in Maine.
Imperative 2 is to provide services to help farmers thrive.
Yes, farming in Maine is growing and poised for further growth, but the full story is far more complicated and nuanced. Small diversified farms that raise produce and livestock for direct sale have soared in number in the past 15 years. But many established farms that sell products as commodities have not done as well, and the dairy sector has been in crisis. Struggling farmers need help to innovate or diversify.
Even farmers who are currently thriving want help navigating the future. For instance, many farmers who have built a successful business by selling direct are now seeing the need to sell wholesale as well; a transition that will not be easy.
More and more farmers are exploring how they might participate in new ventures that pool product from multiple farms. These so-called “food hubs,” some of which include processing, would re-create some of the community-scale infrastructure that once existed throughout Maine, back when small canneries, creameries and slaughter houses were common. This new direction is promising, but not without challenges. Farmers pursuing such strategies require guidance and support.
Then there are the beginning farmers. Increasingly, young people want to farm here. Maine is a magnet for beginning farmers, due in large part to the great work of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), which has inspired and trained so many young people. Beginning farmers need specialized help to find affordable land and secure financing.
So, at this critical time for farming in Maine, it is essential that we provide specialized services to both beginning and established farmers.
Responding to these two imperatives — protecting more farmland and providing more farmer services — is exactly what Maine Farmland Trust has been doing. To date, the organization has completed more than 400 projects, often in partnership with other groups, which together have protected 37,338 acres of farmland and supported more than 395 farm families.
The Trust still has a long way to go to meet its goal to protect 100,000 acres and support 1,000 farm families by the end of 2015, and that all takes money. So I spend a lot of time raising money, which is not nearly as much fun as writing columns, even boring ones. But the future of farming in Maine seems worth it.
John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.