Maine farms’ potential, obstacles topic of forum

Posted May 16, 2010, at 7:48 p.m.

WISCASSET, Maine — Increasing consumer demand for food grown or produced locally combined with a steady up-tick in the number of farms in the state bode well for the future of Maine’s agriculture industry.

But Maine farmers also face considerable challenges from a lack of “agricultural infrastructure,” rising land prices and a regulatory environment that creates a disconnect between people and their food.

Those were some of the key messages Saturday from farmers, agricultural experts and state officials who gathered in Wiscasset for a forum focused on how improved education can help support Maine’s more than $600 million agricultural industry. The event was sponsored by the Morris Farm Trust, an organic farm that also op-erates as a center for community education and involvement on agricultural issues.

Marge Kilkelly, a Dresden resident and former state legislator who serves as the Council of State Governments’ director of Northeast agricultural and rural policy, observed that Maine has the land, products and culture to help farms thrive.

As evidence, she pointed to the tradition of farm stands as well as the growing popularity of co-ops or community supported agriculture, where consumers buy “shares” of a farmer’s crops or other products.

“We are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the consumer interest in local foods. There is no question about that,” Kilkelly told the dozens of people attending the free forum at Wiscasset Primary School.

But potential growth in the agricultural sector is limited by a lack of infrastructure, such as available slaughterhouses, Maine’s geography and a “one size fits all” approach to regulation that doesn’t work well for the diverse types of farms in the state, she said. The industry and educators, she added, should work to reconnect people with their local food source and improve consumer education.

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“You can grow the best winter squash on the planet, but when people don’t know how to prepare it, it’s not going to sell,” Kilkelly said.

Contrary to popular perception, farming is actually a growing industry in Maine.

According to the most recent census data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly 1,000 new farms were added in Maine between 2002 and 2007 and the total value of farm-raised products grew from $463 million to $617 million.

But while the number of farms grew by 13 percent — from 7,196 to 8,136 — the average size of those farms shrank by 13 percent from 190 acres to 166 acres.

Stewart Smith, a professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine in Orono, said two of his sons exemplify the different types of farming in Maine. One son runs a traditional, larger operation while his second son — like many new college graduates he encounters — is more interested in small, organic farming of higher-value products.

Both types are important and viable parts of Maine’s agriculture industry that must somehow work together for the betterment of the industry, he said.

John Piotti, executive director of Maine Farmland Trust, pointed out that Maine has one of the youngest farmer populations in the country due to the new people interested in getting their hands dirty. While positive, that trend also poses challenges because the pressure to develop land is driving up the value of farmland.

Piotti said an estimated 400,000 acres of farmland in Maine likely will be in transition over the next decade as older farmers retire.

A younger person who buys that land may be growing the same crops and serving the same market. But the economic situation is more difficult if the farmer has to pay $500,000 more for the land because of its value as house lots, he said.

Piotti, who represents the Unity area in the Maine House of Representatives, said that is why farmland preservation through flexible agriculture easements is so important. Maine Farmland Trust is a statewide land trust.

“So obviously the time is right to do something,” he said.

John Rebar, executive director of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said that in the past, success in agriculture meant increasing productivity or profits. But Rebar said success in the future demands changing society’s attitude toward food.

He said that as public funding for agricultural research dries up, Maine farmers of all stripes — whether conventional or organic — need to work together with researchers and get past the “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality.

“You can’t look through your rifle [sights] and say you see the whole world,” Rebar said. “You have to look at the bigger picture.”

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