FORT KENT, Maine — Galen Young has been on the land for a long time.
“My earliest photo of me is in a cloth diaper sitting in the sand, tied to a grapevine, and my siblings using me as a row marker for what row [of grapes] they were picking,” the 57-year-old Argyle homesteader said. “My family was migrant farmers. I grew up hearing stories of what happens to you when a drought happens or when the banks close or when lawyers come and take your farm away.”
Victims of the dust bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s. Young’s maternal and paternal grandparents took his parents — then children — from Oklahoma to California, where they worked whatever migrant farm jobs were to be found.
“The ‘Grapes of Wrath’ migration?” Young said. “That was them.”
His parents eventually bought a farm and settled in the Modesto, California, area.
“I grew up in that farming environment with my siblings,” Young said. “But I am the only one of [my siblings] who did not buy in to the conventional, modern lifestyle. I wanted to buy land with cash and not be dependent upon banks or the utility companies or an outside food supply.”
Following a military career he said he pursued to ensure a steady pension to help fund future homesteading plans, Young settled in central Maine about 10 years ago on 150 acres, where he and his wife Bonnie live off the grid and raise fiddleheads, fruit trees, berries, vegetables and free-range pigs for market-ready piglets.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 3,964 “farming operations” in Maine farming just over 14.5 million acres in 2012. The average size of a Maine farm in 2012 was 173 aces.
The average age of a Maine farmer, according to the USDA, is 57-years-old, which is slightly younger than the national average of 58-years-old. The number of farmers age 34 and younger in Maine grew by nearly 40 percent in the five years from 2007 to 2012, the last time the USDA did a comprehensive agriculture census. That growth surge — from 396 to 551 young farmers — far surpassed the 1.5 percent increase in the numbers of young farmers in the United States as a whole. But there are still barriers for those wanting to become farmers.
Challenges such as the price of land and lack of experience can make it tough for young people to get into large-scale farming or smaller scale food-producing homesteading operations. Still, there are groups in Maine looking to bring youth into the fields.
“We need farms of all sizes in order to create regional and local community food security,” Erica Buswell, project manager, land protection and beginning farmers with Maine Farmland Trust, said. “The folks I work with on a regular basis are usually in the beginning stages of setting up farms and getting them running. A lot have no experience on a farm and have a bit of a learning curve ahead of them.”
Maine Farmland Trust based in Belfast works to protect Maine farmland help new farmers get on that land.
“Our work does encourage small scale farming,” Buswell said. “We do not necessarily promote one form of farming over another, [but] when you are coming at it as a new career, smaller is often better.”
Buswell said her group estimates there are 400,000 acres of Maine farmland in danger of going out of production in the next five years because of development and economic pressures.
To keep that land producing food, Maine Farmland Trust works to establish agriculture easements and purchase the land outright to resell to working farmers.
“That is the main thrust of what we do, making sure our farmland remains available for the future,” Buswell said. “My work is about helping farmers coming into the industry and setting up another generation to become successful farmers.”
In northern Maine, Bradley Theriault is a third-generation farmer who got back on the land about eight years ago and today is raising vegetables, eggs, hay and beef on 170 acres in Fort Kent.
Theriault, 32, sells at local markets and directly from his farm and said working the land is in his blood.
“I was working in the woods and could not see myself doing that forever,” he said. “My dad had been pushing me to get into farming, and when I thought the time was right he told me to go for it.”
Between the weather and long hours, Theriault said there is nothing easy about farming but said the knowledge is his contributing to the local food supply makes it well worth it.
“I was raised on farming,” he said. “We knew where our food came from and that food tasted better than the food you get that comes from outside the area now. I have a family now, and I wanted to go back to that way.”
Producing food for their community has become a huge motivator for Maine farmers, according to Buswell.
“It is clear the conventional food productions system has betrayed us in many ways,” she said. “People see environmental degradation, health issues and they want something different, and that turns out to be fresh, local food.”
She said it’s a perfect fit for the growers who want to start small by supplying community farmers’ markets or sell directly to the consumer.
“Most of these growers are not doing more than 20 acres at a time,” Buswell said. “The reasons they get into growing are individual for every person.”
Buswell she has homesteaded in the Searsport area for 12 years on a couple of acres.
“I like being outside and being the only decision maker on the operation,” she said. “I love the food security that comes with that and the feeling of self sufficiency.”
Ted Quaday, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said anyone who chooses to grow food often come to it with their own reasons and philosophies.
“It’s hard to generalize why they do it,” he said. “Some people may get into it for the money, others for the opportunity to start and grow their own business. Whatever the reasons, you have to love it.”
MOFGA, Quaday said, works with farmers and growers around the state with training and education programs covering everything from planting to value-added marketing.
Young knows he will never make a living solely on his homestead, and that’s just fine with him.
“All we want is to feed ourselves and sell the surplus we have,” he said. “Unlike a per se farmer, we will never earn a living just on what we produce.”
Theriault, who does have a job off the farm during the winter to supplement his income, is focused on the goal of becoming a full-time farmer.
“We are getting there, and it’s going pretty well,” he said. “I love it and would not change what I am doing for anything.
When it comes down to it, Buswell said, “homesteading” and “farming” are just two sides of the same coin with all involved producing food and contributing to the state’s food security.
“It could just be a question of scale, [and] what are your intentions in doing it,” she said. “The way I think of it, a ‘homesteader’ is not trying to make a livelihood but is making a life, and a ‘farmer’ is working to make a living growing food. Both are putting seeds in the ground, and both are important to Maine.”