Maine Farmland Trust on Jan. 11 announced its campaign to raise $50 million to permanently protect 100,000 acres of working Maine farmland by 2014.

“Maine agriculture is very well positioned for the future, but only if we protect the land base,” said John Piotti of Unity, executive director of the trust.

Seth Bradstreet, acting state agriculture commissioner, said, “Maine is poised for an agricultural renaissance, but only if farmland is preserved. Maine also needs more participation by landowners who donate easements.”

Their comments came at the Maine Department of Agriculture booth at the 2011 Agricultural Trades Show at the Augusta Civic Center.

Bill Bell, president of the Maine Farmland Trust board, said the trust already has preserved about 20,000 acres of farmland.

“That’s a lot but it’s only 2 percent of the farmland in Maine. Compare that to the 30 percent of farmland in Vermont that’s been preserved,” he said. “We have a challenge as to whether that land will transition to house lots and shopping centers or whether it will remain as open space and farmland.”

Taylor Mudge of Camden, founder of the State of Maine Cheese Co. in Lincolnville, is the campaign chairperson for the fund drive to preserve 100,000 acres of farmland.

“We estimate the cost of preserving 100,000 acres of Maine farmland to be $50 million. But that land will generate $50 million in returns every year from then on,” said Mudge. “We want to raise $10 million that will generate $40 million in matching funds. We already have raised $5 million.”

Dick Perkins, a dairy farmer in Charleston, said Maine Farmland Trust helped save his farm. Like many dairy farmers, the Perkins family relies heavily on large tracts of cropland they do not own. When they were about to lose some choice land, they approached Maine Farmland Trust, which stepped in and bought another farm in the area. The Perkins family now leases that farm with a plan to buy it.

The availability of the land not only helped Perkins out of a tight spot, he said it made it possible for his two children to join the business.

“This is not just about land. It is about working families,” said Piotti.

According to the trust, the number of productive farmland acres in Maine declined from 6.5 million acres in 1880, to 4.8 million acres in 1950, and to 1.2 million acres in 1997.

But the number of farms in Maine has increased in recent years and agriculture contributes about $2 billion to the state’s economy.

Piotti said it’s estimated that one-third of Maine’s farmland, or 400,000 acres, may change hands in the next 10 to 15 years as aging farm owners sell or die. “Right now is the critical time for preserving farmland,” Piotti said.

Piotti said Maine has the fifth-youngest farmer population in the nation, despite having the oldest population overall in the nation.

Maine reportedly has 85 farmers’ markets, many farm stands and an increasing number of restaurants and food stores that feature locally grown food products.

Piotti said the 100,000 acres will be preserved in five ways:

• Purchased agricultural easements — a voluntary, legal agreement between a land owner and a nonprofit land trust that permanently restricts use of the land to agricultural production.

• Donated agricultural easements — The same as the above except the landowner donates the easement without any money changing hands.

• Buy/Protect/Sell — A farm is purchased, permanently preserved through an easement, then sold, either whole or in parts, to a farmer at an affordable “farmland value.”

• Maine Farmlink — Connects farmers seeking land with retiring farmers and farmland owners who wish to see their lands remain in agriculture.

• Farm Viability Program — Supports current farmers. In exchange for some services, farmers will grant “term easements” to ensure protection of their farms for an agreed-upon length of time, usually 10 years.

Piotti said people interested in the programs of the Maine Farmland Trust can join the organization for a fee of $20. The trust, headquartered at 97 Main St. in Belfast, may be reached at 338-6575 or visit mainefarmlandtrust.org/.