Homestead

Agriculture organizations reflect on 2016, look ahead to a new year

Posted Dec. 31, 2016, at 7 a.m.

Like everything else in 2016, agriculture in Maine faced a series of ups and downs, most notably because of a severe drought that posed a huge challenge for farmers in need of water for crops and livestock.

The drought left many midsize and small-scale farmers with parched fields and struggling harvests, having to select which crops to carefully irrigate.

However, the overall production rates of state’s major crop areas, such as potatoes, apples, blueberries and diversified vegetables, were consistent, according to the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, but questions linger about what the new year’s growing season will bring.

“It seems like we always end up saying it was a challenging year,” Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Walter Whitcomb said. “I don’t want to fly in the face of what was a huge problem for producers, which was the drought, but I think [the increased production] speaks to the resilience of farmers.”

But statewide agriculture organizations say that despite challenging conditions, 2016 was an exciting year for the overall realm of local food and farming in Maine — a year that gives hope to continued growth in the coming 365 days.

“There’s a very positive attitude about food and agriculture. It’s pretty exciting to be where we are,” Whitcomb said.

Over the last year Whitcomb said the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry worked to figure out how to channel this positive attitude around local food into increasing access and promoting awareness of Maine’s products.

In particular, the department spent 2016 in the development stages of a new labeling campaign that will focus around promoting and identifying products that are produced using sustainable farming practices, which many Maine producers are already using, Whitcomb said.

Participation in the labeling is voluntary, but Whitcomb said it’s another tool they can offer farmers to help make the consumer aware they are using sustainable soil practices and animal care.

“This is to talk about the good things that are happening on the land and with the animals,” Whitcomb said.

While the labeling is still in the development phase, the new marketing campaign will see growth in 2017.

Increasing exposure of Maine products was another goal that the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry tackled in 2016, including having a booth for Maine potato, apple and broccoli producers at the Produce Marketing Association’s international trade show in Orlando, Florida. This opportunity allowed these producers to network with wholesale buyers from around the globe. The department will have a booth at the 2017 trade show as well.

“We want to encourage new farmers, but also help existing farmers sell what they produce and refine their techniques in a world that is very competitive,” Whitcomb said.

Next month, the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry will release its first official agritourism map, which Whitcomb says will increase the exposure of small-scale and midsize farms to not only tourists coming into the state but for Mainers who want to know where they can buy local products. The map is compiled as a standard road map of the state of Maine, but bulleted across the map are 263 Maine farms, farmers markets and farm stands.

The map will be unveiled at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show on Jan. 10 and made available at rest stops and tourism centers around the state.

This year, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association turned 45 years old. Formed in 1971, the association is the oldest and largest state organic organization in the country.

“It was an exciting year in a lot of ways, and it was a challenging year,” Heather Spalding, deputy director of the association, said. “Overall, we’re very encouraged.”

With a demand for organic food products on the rise in Maine, as well as nationally, Spalding said the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association was busy in 2016 working with Maine’s community of organic farmers, gardeners and homesteaders, broadening its reach through county chapter development and increasing the association’s presence in Portland.

Organic farms must be certified annually by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association or another regional organic farming entity that is accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to certify organic farms. In 2016, the association certified 515 organic farms in Maine, slightly up from last year’s certification total. Additionally, while not record breaking turnout, more than 60,000 visitors attended the 40th Common Ground Country Fair. The association also enrolled 50 new farmers in its two-year Journeyperson program, which provides new organic farmers with mentorship and technical assistance ranging from soil science to business planning.

Over the last year, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association also worked toward helping consumers of organic products in terms of access and education. By managing the CSA aspect of Maine Harvest Bucks — a program that offers matching funds for supplemental nutrition assistance program users who buy local food — the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association helped low-income Mainers have access to organic products.

Spalding said consumer education has been a large focus in 2016 as far as helping consumers understand what the labels on products they buy actually mean and relaying the benefits of buying and eating organic food. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has compiled this information on its website.

While the association’s reach seems sweeping already, looking forward to the new year it hopes to engage more individuals outside of the realm of organic farmers.

“We want to do more to help consumers, homesteaders, gardeners, people who aren’t connected necessarily to large-scale farms find opportunities to engage and help the mission,” Spalding said. “We want to have more events and opportunities for people to get together and share ideas.”

Support for protecting the land from which agriculture sprouts also was on the up in 2016, with Maine Farmland Trust receiving its largest monetary donation to date, according to Maine Farmland Trust outreach coordinator Ellen Sabina.

For Maine Farmland Trust, the donation was a boost in the 17-year lifespan of the organization, which works to protect farmland and bolster farmers. The land trust purchases easements on farmland that permanently alter the legal deed of the land to protect it from future development or subdivision, ensuring that the acreage stays forever as farmland. Since the group’s organization, it has protected 55,000 acres of farmland across the state. In the last year, it has worked with 27 farms to protect 4,000 acres.

Sabina called this year’s large donation “transformative,” though she could not disclose the donor or the number figure associated with the donation. The donation is seeding a $50 million fundraising campaign that Maine Farmland Trust launched this year to come up with the funding to protect 125,000 acres of farmland by 2020.

The original goal was to protect 100,000 acres by 2020, but with the recent donation, Maine Farmland Trust feels it can save even more land.

“It’s a vote of confidence in the work that we’re doing,” Sabina said. “It’s also reflective of how for the local food and agriculture movement has come. People are really thinking about land in relation to their food.”

2016 was a year without Maine Farmland Trust’s annual Maine Fare, a two-day event that brings people together to celebrate local food through tastings and discussion. Maine Farmland Trust attributed cancellation of the Maine Fare to the amount of time that went into putting on the event.

However, Sabina said 2017 will see the semi-return of the Maine Fare, which will be brought back as a small event that “will look much different than the original festival concept.”

Meanwhile in 2016 Maine Farmland Trust expanded a program and began offering Maine Harvest Bucks at select retail locations. Like the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Maine Farmland Trust is an coordinator of the Maine Harvest Bucks program, which give matching funds to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program shoppers who buy local food so they can purchase more local fruits and vegetables.

Presently, the Harvest Bucks are only offered at a handful of small markets and food co-ops around the state, but in 2017, Maine Farmland Trust hopes to expand the program to include some traditional grocery stores.

“In our minds, down the line, it would be really exciting to have [Maine Harvest Bucks] be more in the mainstream,” Sabina said.

With a strong community of agriculture organizations and interest from consumers — despite weather challenges and uncertainties — there is a resounding sense of hope going into the new year surrounding the prospects of local food and farming.

“It’s a really exciting time for agriculture in Maine,” Sabina said.

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