For many sectors of the Maine economy, the story is one of decline and stagnation. But for Maine’s organic farms, growth is the theme.
Maine added the most new organic farms — 139 — of any state in the nation between 2008 and 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2014 Organic Survey found. Indiana, Iowa and Pennsylvania were next.
Maine had 517 organic farms last year. Although the number is growing, organic farms account for less than 10 percent of the 8,173 farms the U.S. Department of Agriculture tallied in Maine in 2012.
Driven in part by the growth of organic farms, the number of farms and the total amount of farming acreage has grown in Maine since 1997 while it has declined nationally. The total value of Maine’s crops has grown as well.
While government programs can help, many attribute the growth — especially in the ranks of young farmers — to innovative, private-sector programs such as an apprenticeship program run by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association; conservation programs such as those run by the Maine Farmland Trust, which lower the cost of farmland; and cooperatives that make it easier for growers to get their products to large buyers.
Maine’s organic farms are newer than average, with 35 percent of them having been in operation for less than 10 years. Nationally, 29 percent of organic farms are less than a decade old, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2014 Organic Survey.
MOFGA’s Farm Apprenticeship program is one major driver of Maine’s youth farming movement, drawing new farmers from other states. It connects people who want to learn about organic farming with experienced farmers. Apprentices work for room, board and a stipend. About 1,500 people have gone through the program. About 20 percent have continued farming.
The next step is MOFGA’s Journeyperson program, which provides two years of support to new farmers. The support includes a mentor, $600 toward help with business planning, access to MOFGA’s loan fund and used farm equipment pool.
Gaining access to farmland is also vital. Maine has a large number of abandoned farms, which are easier to convert to organic agriculture than operational conventional farms. Through its Beginning Farmer Program, Maine Farmland Trust helps new farmers find land, develop business plans and access loan funds. The state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry offers some of the same help through the Farms for the Future program. Protecting their land from development through agricultural easements reduces the cost of buying land for new farmers.
Ninety-five percent of Maine’s farms are classified as small. For these growers, gaining access to large markets or institutions — as well as getting their produce there — is a major hurdle. A cooperative like Crown O’ Maine lowers that hurdle. Based in North Vassalboro, the cooperative buys produce from small farms and, because it accumulates volume, can sell it to retailers such as Whole Foods, Natural Living Center in Bangor, as well as stores in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. It also sells to the University of Maine, Bowdoin College and numerous restaurants.
Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and a farmer, stresses the role of customers in Maine’s farm growth, organic and conventional. Maine people value produce from close to home, whether they buy it at a farmers market, farm stand or grocery store, he said. There are currently 125 farmers markets in Maine, up from 63 in 2007.
In 2008, Hannaford started its Close to Home program to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables and other products, including seafood, from producers in the northeast. The grocery chain works with more than 600 producers and carries about 4,000 Close to Home products.
Whitcomb notes that visits to farms, whether it be to pick apples, wander a corn maze or cross-country ski, have more than doubled in the last five years. Events like last week’s open winery day, organized by the Maine Winery Guild and promoted by the state, was a big success, highlighting Maine people’s interest in local products.
Maine’s organic farm growth shows there is no one answer to drawing people to Maine or to a specific industry. By working together to provide training, financing, land, market access and technical and moral support, Maine’s farm sector offers one model for success.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial stated that Crown O' Maine is based in Presque Isle. It is based in North Vassalboro.