Part I of 2

Feeding a vision

By John Piotti | Jul 31, 2014

Author’s Note: There is no doubt that Maine could produce more than enough food to feed itself — but will it? That’s the question I tackle in this two part column. If you are a member of Maine Farmland Trust, you may have already read this piece, as it was published in Maine Farms, the Trust’s new annual journal.

Russell Libby had a head for numbers. An economics major at Bowdoin who later served as statistician for the Maine Department of Agriculture, he could spot patterns and trends in figures not everyone saw. We frequently reviewed agricultural census data together.

But one fall day in 1995, Libby was applying his skill with numbers differently. We were driving south on the Interstate in his pickup truck, on our way to Boston for a first-of-its-kind Northeast Food System Leadership Congress, and Libby was checking license plates to see if he knew any drivers. To my amazement, he twice predicted who we would see behind the wheel, based solely on his memory of plate numbers. This was the kind of parlor trick that could only work in a place like Maine, where people you know are likely to be driving the highway with you; but I was impressed Libby could do it at all. I took this as a sign that he was the right kind of person to tackle the seemingly impossible. Good thing, too — because for most people back in 1995, the idea of revitalizing farming in Maine seemed impossible.

Libby and I were committed to farming’s future. Libby was the new executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), and I had recently launched the Maine Farms Project at Coastal Enterprises Incorporated (CEI). We knew how farms in Maine had declined in the last generation; yet we firmly believed that farming here could grow. We were inspired by organic innovator Eliot Coleman, chef Sam Hayward, and other Mainers who were leaders in a national movement advancing local food; we were impressed by all the Maine farmers doing their part on the ground. And now we were off to Boston to dream and plan with peers from other states.

Back in the mid 1990s, only a small circle of people saw a bright future for local food. The buzzword of the day was “globalization,” and the talk in Maine was all about call centers. Farming seemed downright anachronistic. The common view back then, the view that most people held, was that farming here was dead.

Fast-forward to today and you can see the difference. It’s now commonplace for Mainers to shop at farmers markets, participate in CSAs, and seek out local produce at stores and restaurants. Parents push school boards to incorporate local farm products into school lunches. State and local officials who once scoffed at the very idea of farms as viable businesses now promote farming as smart economic development. Candidates for governor talk about how Maine can be the food basket of the Northeast.

The statistics support this optimism: From 2002 to 2012, the number of farms in Maine grew by 13.5 percent. From just 2007 to 2012, the value of Maine’s farm production increased by 24 percent. During that same period, the number of young farmers (under age 34) in Maine soared, up nearly 40 percent.

It’s clear that good stuff is happening here, on multiple levels. But still, Maine is no Iowa. Is it realistic to think that farming in Maine—or any other part of New England—could ever be more than just a sideshow?

That’s the question addressed by Brian Donahue of Brandeis University, who assembled a team of researchers (including Libby) to explore how much of the food that New England eats could be supplied locally — given population trends, dietary habits, climatic conditions, and land availability.

The resulting report, A New England Food Vision, shows how the region could, by 2060, produce half to two-thirds of all its food (meat, fish, dairy, vegetables, fruit, grain, sweeteners, oils, and beverages), up from about 10 percent today. Doing so could yield significant economic, environmental, and social benefits throughout the region, but would require a major ramp-up in the amount of New England that is farmed: from 2 million acres today to 6 million acres or more by 2060. A good chunk of that land would need to come from Maine.

This vision is promising and possible, yet not supported by today’s economic realities. Maine has the needed land, yet cannot cultivate another million acres (let alone another 3 million acres) without also cultivating new markets. While there is great and growing demand for food produced close to home, there is not yet sufficient demand for that much local food at prices that work for farmers. That’s the nut that needs cracking.

Some people say that local food costs too much. A fairer statement may be that a lot of the food brought here “from away” costs too little. Consider, for instance, how fruits and vegetables grown in California rely on water systems — and come east via transportation systems — built and maintained with government funds. Consider, also, how the transporters pay less for fuel than its true cost.

In my next column, I describe how these and other price distortions keep Maine food products from being as competitively priced as they otherwise would be, before talking about how and why that is changing. Still, just because farming in Maine is moving in the right direction doesn’t guarantee that it will ever realize its promise — far from it. For that to happen, Maine needs to take the right steps at this critically-important time.

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

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