June 21, 2018
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Farm group unveils plan to protect land

Sharon Mack | BDN
Sharon Mack | BDN
John Piotti, executive director of the Maine Farmland Trust. (BDN Photo by Sharon Mack)
By Sharon Kiley Mack, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — More than one-third of all of Maine’s farmland — 400,000 acres — will be in transition in the next 10 years because many Maine farmers will either retire or die, John Piotti, executive director of Maine Farmland Trust, said Tuesday.

“We need to protect that underlying land base,” Piotti said. “If we don’t step in, a lot of that land will be lost to agricultural use.”

To save the land for future generations, the Maine Farmland Trust has launched an ambitious $50 million campaign to secure 100,000 acres of that land, Piotti announced during the morning session of the 70th annual Maine Agricultural Trades Show.

“Maine is poised for an agricultural renaissance,” Maine’s Agriculture Commissioner Seth Bradstreet said. “But Maine needs support from landowners.”

Maine Farmland Trust estimates that the first part of the campaign will shoot for $10 million and that half of that amount has been raised. Piotti said the remaining $40 million will be leveraged over the next three years through federal grants, donations of land and ongoing private contributions.

He said the 100,000 acres are located across the state, in every county. “This amount of acreage will put us in a key position to make a significant impact,” Piotti said.

“That first $10 million will be critical,” he said, “because that will leverage the rest. Right now is the critical time.”

Yet, this campaign is not just about money, Piotti said. “This is about working farm families and what we can do to help.”

Maine Farmland Trust has preserved more than 20,000 acres of farmland, according to Bill Bell, MFT founder and current board president.

“But we are facing a huge challenge with the senior citizens’ retiring from farming,” he said. “The question is will their land become house lots and shopping centers or will it remain farmland and open space.”

Bell said that Maine Farmland Trust is well positioned for this campaign, increasing from 400 members four years ago to 2,800 today.

“The bottom line is that to protect farmland takes money,” Bell said.

In a state with the oldest population, it may surprise some to know that Maine has the highest population of young farmers. “But it is a question of affordability,” Piotti said. “If a young farmer has to pay a developer’s price for the land, it won’t work.”

Dick Perkins, a Charleston dairy farmer, said that two years ago he lost the rights to 117 acres of rented land. When Maine Farmland Trust purchased a nearby farm and allowed Perkins to lease it with an option to buy, it saved him.

“Without MFT’s help, we would have had to downsize or get out of the diary business,” Perkins said.

More information about MFT’s programs can be found at www.mainefarmlandtrust.org.

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