AUGUSTA, Maine — The most recent federal survey of a number of agricultural products — such as milk, eggs, and potatoes — reveals a mixed bag across Maine farmland, both in growth and success. Maine agricultural leaders said Tuesday the survey showed that the state’s farming industry is healthy and sustainable, both in retaining and growing farms.
“Agriculture right now in Maine is very exciting,” newly installed Commissioner of Agriculture Walter Whitcomb said Tuesday. “We still have the area and ability to feed the rest of New England and the rest of the Northeast. We have millions of people living a day and a half from Maine, and as fuel costs rise, it makes purchasing strawberries from California a lot less attractive.”
The survey, released March 4, was conducted by the New England Agricultural Statistics Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and compared 2009 and 2010 production of field crops, chickens, milk, cattle, renewable energy, potatoes, number of farms and farm labor.
Where most New England states’ largest crop is now horticulture (nonedible landscaping plants), the survey illustrates Maine’s diversity of food crops, a key ingredient to sustainability, experts said.
“I’m extremely optimistic,” Lauchlin Titus, an agronomist from Winslow, said.
Titus said he is particularly encouraged that the number of farms in Maine — 8,100, the highest number of all New England states — and the amount of land in farming — 1.35 million acres, more than double every other New England state — have remained stable, while the numbers have decreased on a shocking level across the country.
“Compared with the national trend, we are in good shape,” he said. “Maine has a lot of young farmers and a lot of initiatives to help farmers.”
The survey shows an increase in Maine’s production numbers for potatoes, eggs, cattle, oats, barley and corn. Tonnage of grasses — used for cow and cattle feed — and the number of chickens and dairy cows have decreased. Maine also was below three other New England states (Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont) in money saved by using on-farm renewable energy projects, such as wind turbines, methane digesters and solar panels.
Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner of the University of Maine’s Animal Health Lab, which is funded by Cooperative Extension, said the increase in cattle numbers reflects Maine farmers’ ability to make the most of their natural grazing capacity. In addition, Pineland Farms of New Gloucester is building a statewide feedlot industry, and many area farmers are part of that operation, raising cattle on individual farms. She said she also is seeing many small backyard chicken flocks of both meat birds and egg layers increasing to midsized farms.
Lichtenwalner said there is also a burgeoning hobby farm market in Maine.
“The buy local effort plays into the increase in cattle big time,” she said. “Maine has a branding reputation for good healthy food. We also profit from the perception of small farms being both beautiful and equaling healthy. Because Maine has such a diverse agricultural system, we can raise food here for the rest of New England as well as ourselves.”
Whitcomb said the diversity of Maine’s agriculture sector has always been its advantage.
“It is clearly one of our strengths and reflects the geographical size of Maine,” he said. “Diversity is also critical for our infrastructure. It is a very interwoven process.”
Titus said the most exciting thing on Maine’s agricultural horizon is the emphasis on buying local foods.
“As it costs more to bring food from farther away, we can capitalize on that,” he said. “Maine is a net importing state when it comes to food. The more we can sell locally, the more benefits for our farmers who can demand a higher price. This is a national trend that is playing out very well for Maine farmers.”
The only commodity crop featured in the survey is potatoes. Although the number of acres planted decreased, the amount produced on each acre increased, from 27,500 potatoes per acre to 29,000. The most exciting thing for the potato industry, however, is price. In February 2006, Maine farmers were being paid $7.90 per hundredweight. Last month, they were getting $10.30 per hundredweight — an increase of nearly $3,000 per acre. This jump brought the value of last year’s potato crop in Maine to $158,920,000, a $4.8 million increase.
“This is very, very good news,” Whitcomb said.