Recently, I attended the premiere of the documentary, “Meet Your Farmer” at the Strand Theatre in Rockland. The film told the story of eight farms in Maine and gave testament to the commitment and the possibilities the future of the industry holds. One common theme throughout the night was how young farmers hold the key to the next generation of the agriculture and farming industry in Maine.
I work part time at the Chase Family Farm and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. I know when I leave the farm every day that the people I work for (and with) are a part of supporting community health and sustainability. Being surrounded by young people daily who are involved in local agriculture, I see firsthand how many are coming out of college and are excited to live in Maine and start farming for the first time.
However, many end up choosing either to move out of the state or work for a company such as Bank of America or a local construction company because the fear of falling behind on their student loans is greater than their desire to farm. Because of this, we lose valuable future farmers, more often than not, to outsourced institutions that can pay their bills, and that have little accountability to the health of our communities.
As a young woman who was raised on a small farm in Montville, I was fortunate to travel out of the state for college. Since graduation, I have witnessed many of my locally raised friends head south to Portland, Boston and even the West Coast for jobs and careers that they feel they can’t find here in Maine.
To me this raises red flags, as we are at a pivotal moment in our state’s farming industry. There are many opportunities yet at the same time many risks regarding the future of farming and agriculture in Maine. Our elder population is increasing and soon many farms owned by them will be up for sale and potential development.
Not surprisingly, though, Maine has the fifth-youngest population of farmers in the country. But, we are still losing young farmers along with their energy and innovative ideas because they can’t make their student loan payments with the income they make at farming. Different from 50 years ago, farmers are starting off with massive debt instead of accruing it over a period of time.
Times have changed, that’s for sure. Today we young people wanting to live this simple life are faced with piles of paperwork, thousands of borrowed dollars, and a whole society tugging on us to live unsustainably and without intention.
But under all the debt, all the paperwork and all the hard work, farming and agriculture in Maine continue to exist as they have for hundreds of years. I see it as a key to unlocking old, valued traditions that have been severely lost among people my own age.
Young adults (without excluding myself at times) seem really to lack a sense of purpose and self-worth. No one in these mindsets is in a position to give back to their communities or societies. However I have seen firsthand how the responsibility and accountability of working as a team on a farm can change people. Farming is an obtainable option that initiates positive young energy, which can lead to building healthy and sustainable Maine communities.
Along with funding that preserves and protects the future of Maine farmland, I believe it is equally important to give breaks to those actually doing the farming. One idea for supporting young farmers with student loans is to have small-scale farming considered as a “public service” career under the federal guidelines for low-income repayment and reimbursement plans. Similar to working in education or a not-for-profit company, which already are considered public service careers and are eligible for many great repayment-forgiveness plans, farming, too, is a service to communities and societies that should also be rewarded.
Emily K. Horton recently graduated from Lesley University (Audubon Expedition Institute Program). She works part time at the Chase family farm in Freedom and at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.