For all that organic farmers do for the state, more Mainers should be buying their products by the bucketload. And to ensure that they not only survive but thrive, organic farmers will need to expand and diversify their markets.
Organic farmers’ success at growing vegetables or producing quality milk — not to mention supporting 1,600 jobs and keeping 41,000 acres of farmland in use — depends on their intelligence, creativity and work ethic. They will benefit the industry only by using their skills to make new connections, not just with customers who buy directly from them, but also with grocery stores, restaurants and distributors.
Operating any farm is grueling work, and the Maine Department of Agriculture, lending institutions and organizations such as the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association can help organic farmers by developing more financial tools to, for instance, cover significant start-up costs or track financial performance in order for farms to better set production goals.
This weekend the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity celebrates rural living and Maine farmers. Last year’s fair drew 59,000 people (larger than the combined populations of Bangor and South Portland, for perspective) and showcased 600 farms and businesses. All the vendors sell organic food.
This year’s fair is happening soon after a report was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that found organic products have no nutritional advantage over conventional foods. But the USDA’s National Organic Program has been clear all along that organic foods aren’t necessarily more nutritious. Still, there are many reasons to buy organic.
To be certified, organic crops can’t be grown using sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides or genetically modified organisms. Organic livestock can’t be given growth hormones, must be fed with organic feed and must be given access to the outdoors. The goal of organic growing is to cycle resources (such as by using cow manure or compost to fertilize fields or gardens) and promote ecological balance.
Organic farms tend to generate more value for their local communities than their conventional counterparts. On all Maine farms, net profits, wages, rent for land and property taxes represent $34 on every $100 of total output, according to MOFGA’s Nov. 2010 report “ Maine’s Organic Farms: An Impact Report.” In comparison, organic vegetable farms add $47 for every $100 of output; organic dairy and fruit farms add $42; and organic hay and maple syrup farms add $65.
Organic farming may be a relatively small part of Maine’s total agricultural industry. In 2007, Maine’s organic farms generated $36.6 million in sales compared with $675 million for all farm commodities. But the sector is growing quickly.
From 1988 to 2008, the number of organic farms increased 800 percent, from 41 to 339, according to MOFGA. But because farms with gross revenues less than $5,000 don’t have to be certified, the number is actually higher. The USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture reports 582 organic farms in Maine. In 2008, the state had the 12th-highest number of organic farms in the country.
Delicious fruit, vegetables and meat aside, local farms contribute to an area’s quality of life. Real estate agents use farmers markets as selling points. Want to help your local economy and feel good about what you’re buying? Don’t take our word for it. Try the carrots and pears yourself.