Cedar and Pearl

Some questions demand thoughtful answers

By John Piotti | Feb 16, 2018

The organizers of a conference I’m speaking at next month recently sent me a list of questions. They wanted only short answers, and that’s what I gave them — seldom doing justice to what they were asking. So, after I sent off my response, I continued to write. Here are my longer (and better) answers.

What originally inspired you to get involved in food and farm issues?

Almost 30 years ago, I found myself co-chairing the Comprehensive Planning Committee in Unity with Dick Perkins, who then operated a dairy farm on the Thorndike Road. (He now farms on family land in Charleston.) Dick challenged me to think about what farming meant and could mean for our community. Like many people back then, I didn’t see a future for farming in New England. How wrong I was!

Dick became the first of several farm mentors. From this group, I learned so much — and from this learning, I began to think about farming differently. I moved from thinking that farming in Maine was fast eroding to seeing how — in much of rural Maine — sustainable agriculture was the best hope for sustainable economic development.

It’s easy to forget how different things were a generation ago. Even in Waldo County — which had attracted so many back-to-the-landers and boasted a vibrant food co-op — today’s notion of local food was nowhere in sight. There wasn’t an active farmers market. There wasn’t a downtown full of eateries showcasing products from local farms. In fact, there was no appreciation that local farms were or ever could be a robust economic engine, let alone a draw for young people. Back then, all the talk was about “call centers” and how technology was going to change rural life. (Well, it has — but not as anyone then envisioned.)

How are you helping to build a better food system?

The organization that I run, American Farmland Trust, was founded in 1980, when most Americans took farming and farmland for granted. AFT created and then led the conservation agriculture movement. We wrote the laws that established new federal and state farmland protection programs. And we helped form new agricultural land trusts across this nation, from Colorado to Georgia to right here in Maine, where AFT’s research and support led to the creation of Maine Farmland Trust. Through all this, AFT helped protect millions of acres of America’s farmland.

But because protecting land is only one part of what’s needed, AFT also advanced environmentally-sound farming practices, working in partnership with forward-looking landowners to improve stewardship on millions of acres more. And we’ve helped thousands of farmers either stay on the land or get on the land, with programs that support farm viability and farmland access.

I say “we,” but as I’m only 18 months on the job, I can’t take credit for the great work AFT did years ago. Nonetheless, I’m proud to now be at the helm of an amazing organization, the only national group that takes a holistic approach to agriculture, recognizing the powerful connecting between the land, good farming practices, and the farmers who do the work to grow our food.

What is the most pressing issue in food and agriculture?

There are multiple issues, not one. Here are three interrelated issues that call out for immediate attention.

The Land: America is losing irreplaceable farmland at an alarming rate of 175 acres every hour — over 1.5 million acres every year! And we are losing our most productive, versatile and resilient land fastest.

How We Farm: Not nearly enough farmers are following the best conservation practices. The future demands widespread use of smarter farming practices that build soil health, improve water quality, and sequester carbon.

The Next Generation: The ownership of 370 million acres of American farmland will change hands in the next 10 to 15 years, given the age of the landowners. We are entering the most critical period in our nation’s agricultural history, where we must learn all we can from existing farmers, and take active steps to attract and support the next generation.

What innovations in agriculture are you most excited about?

As we learn more about soil, we are learning how to simultaneously improve a farm’s productivity and enhance the environment — often in powerful ways, including combating climate change.

Few people are aware of the direct connection between farming and climate change. Roughly half of all the carbon that has been released to our atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has come, not from burning fossil fuels, but from the soil — the result of poor farming practices. We can put a lot of that carbon back into the ground by following smarter practices (such as no-till methods that don’t disrupt the soil, and more active use of cover crops and rotations).

Of course, these practices alone will not reduce atmospheric carbon enough to stem global warming; but when coupled with other actions that reduce greenhouse gases, farming could tip the scales in the right direction.

What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?

I don’t think any one small change can make a big difference. People need to make big changes in their lives if they wish to make a big difference.

What might work? Well, if enough people actively pursued each of the following, that could prove big: 1) eat more responsibly; 2) raise more of your own food (for several good reasons, but one is to better appreciate what farmers do for us); 3) give your time and money to organizations doing work you can’t do alone; 4) push your city or town to adopt policies that protect farmland and support farmers; and 5) work for candidates for state and national office who put agriculture front and center.

This last point begs the question: Which candidates? Some are obvious. Chellie Pingree is a farmer who has made food and farming issues a centerpiece of her congressional agenda. Right in Belfast, I’ve been impressed by Jonathan Fulford’s insights on farming’s future, while Erin Herbig has established her farm credibility in multiple ways, including her work at Maine Farmland Trust.

Beyond that, it’s hard for me to say, as I don’t follow Maine’s election scene as I once did. But I would think that a growing number of candidates of all political stripes have their eyes open to the great needs and opportunities within agriculture. Your challenge is to find those who are both earnest and knowledgeable.

My suggestion: Start with a list of questions — and see if you get thoughtful answers.

John Piotti is president of American Farmland Trust. He splits his time between Unity and Washington, D.C.

 

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