I was among those reading with great interest the recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 farm census. It revealed young farmers 34 years old and younger grew by 40 percent in Maine between 2007 and 2012, women-owned farms increased over 50 percent during the past decade, the value of our agricultural products increased 24 percent in just five years and the total amount of Maine land in farms increased by 8 percent in that same time.
Maine defies national trends. We have more farms, more farmers, more young farmers and more land being farmed. And that doesn’t fully reveal the effect in related areas such as farm-to-plate restaurants, wineries, breweries and hospitality. It does not reveal the effect on local farm and food supply stores, equipment dealers and renowned seed companies and their employees, who benefit when dollars stay local.
For those of us living the trend, the census is as much confirmation as it is news. In my case, several of those trends hit close to home. I’m a 29-year-old female farmer who moved to Maine a few years ago, but I’m also a native Mainer who grew up with a keen awareness that finding opportunity might mean living “away.” I was living and working in Colorado when a particularly savvy Maine farmer recruited me to return home.
And I mean “home.” That savvy farmer is my mom, and against what once seemed like fairly long odds, I’m now a third-generation Maine farmer and food promoter.
Our family business once focused on shipping milk commercially and feeding our family with food we grew. Now, we feed our family and more as we handcraft artisan farmstead cheeses and yogurt and bottle milk in our state-licensed and inspected creamery. We sell the food we raise at our farm stand, retail outlets, online and at farmers markets.
This opportunity to transition to a microdairy, and sell to a customer base interested in supporting small businesses, is an important trend. I didn’t study online markets when I was selling freezer beef as a teenager through 4-H auctions at the Windsor and Fryeburg fairs. Few of the farmers markets we participate in had as much visibility, and ideas such as community-supported agriculture were not as familiar and popular as they are now.
Farmers also have a growing network of resources and peers in the state and region due to a focus on farming and local food production. I participate in several product-specific groups and recently joined the longstanding Maine Farm Bureau to support its message that “Maine agriculture is not dying, it’s changing.”
That message seems vital to me. As the BDN has noted, the “consensus” has somehow become that Maine agriculture is in decline. The truth is that we have increased energy in what people typically consider farming, and we have young businesses focusing on produce, fiber, fisheries, flowers, honey and just about anything else that’s harvested from the land or sea here in Maine.
In most ways farms are just like any other business. We have the same challenges of adding value to our products and competing against, and sometimes working with, national operations. We consider how a specifically worded regulation will influence our future, for good or ill, and we contemplate how to preserve what we’ve built for future generations.
But in other ways farms are different. Because farms are food. We are unlikely to get another chance to blend cultural motivation and economic action that we find today in Maine agriculture. We must seize the opportunity to connect the dots.
In order for us to connect the dots and build a thriving economic development model that complements our state’s heritage, natural resources, creative minds and work ethic, there’s a simple question we can ask ourselves about the role we play in this plan. To measure the value, ask: Would you miss this when it’s gone? I think many of us would answer yes.
I suspect fellow Mainers would miss the quality of place and space that farming provides — from maintaining open land that gives us winter recreational opportunities to the fresh, local food in the growing and harvesting season.
I suspect we would miss the satisfaction of going to a restaurant or store where we can buy food that is fresh and local and includes a variety of healthy options such as local wheat, seafood, produce, meat and dairy.
Thankfully, there are many Mainers who know they would miss these things if they were gone. They are why Maine continues to be a leader in farming. We can take comfort in an important result of this trend: People are putting their money where their mouth is.
Anne Trenholm is a 29-year-old farmer. She operates Wholesome Holmstead Farm with her family in Winthrop.