BELFAST, Maine — The longtime president of the Maine Farmland Trust soon will be heading to Washington, D.C., to do similar work helping farmers and protecting farmland on the national level as the new head of the American Farmland Trust.
John Piotti, 55, of Unity said he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“I am simply passionate about farming,” Piotti, a former state lawmaker who has served for a decade as the president and CEO of the Belfast-based nonprofit Maine Farmland Trust, said Wednesday. “I think farming is our future. I want to do everything we can do to make sure we have the farmers and the farmland that we need.”
The Mainer will be a boon to the American Farmland Trust, according to Barton “Buzz” Thompson, the chairman of the national organization’s board of directors.
“John brings to [American Farmland Trust] phenomenal leadership skills and a passion for the issues that motivate us,” he said in a statement released Wednesday. “Saving enough farmland for food production is a defining challenge for this century … equally critical is ensuring that there will be a next generation of farmers and ranchers to steward the land. John brings to [American Farmland Trust] invaluable experience in developing creative solutions to these issues.”
During Piotti’s years with the Maine Farmland Trust, the statewide organization grew considerably. It protected 40,000 acres of farmland, helped more than 480 farm families, increased its membership from about 400 to nearly 6,000 people, and grew its net assets from $122,000 to over $27 million. But he said he is proudest of being part of the revival of farming in Maine.
“If you go back 20 years in Maine, the conventional wisdom was that farming is dead,” said Piotti, who previously had worked as the director of the Maine Farms Project for the development group Coastal Enterprises Inc. “For 22 years now I’ve been trying to turn that around. Obviously, I didn’t do that alone, but it’s great to be part of the change.”
Both the Maine Farmland Trust and the American Farmland Trust have similar missions, he said. In fact, the 36-year-old American Farmland Trust helped to create the Maine group in 1999.
“They are the granddaddy. They’ve protected 5 million acres of farmland,” he said of the American Farmland Trust. “[American Farmland Trust] has a broad strategy about farmland protection, sound farming practices and keeping farmers on the land. Our missions are really very closely aligned. And this [move] will give me the chance to do the work on a national stage. I’m really excited to learn.”
A lot of the work he’ll be doing will be in the realm of helping to create national policy around farmland conservation and farming, a good fit for the former House majority leader. Piotti served from 2002 to 2010 in the Maine House of Representatives, where he also was the chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. In that role, Piotti helped to create the Maine Dairy Stabilization Program and also worked to incorporate Katahdin Lake into Baxter State Park.
“He’s done amazing work,” Tim Glidden, president of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, said of Piotti’s agriculture efforts. “He has helped develop some really wonderful tools to help farmers be more successful and successfully face challenges. Farming in Maine has always had huge challenges. But what we’re seeing in Maine right now is a resurgence in agriculture, and I think that’s going to be one of the keys to Maine’s healthy future.”
Nancy Smith is the executive director of GrowSmart Maine, a Portland-based organization that works to build prosperity here without sacrificing the state’s quality of life. She has been connected professionally to Piotti for a couple of decades and said that his move to the national organization is exciting.
“The strength that he’s brought to Maine Farmland Trust is that the focus isn’t just on the farmland,” she said. “It’s on the farmers and the communities as well, and that’s been really critical to its impact. The fact that he can bring that kind of energy to a national level is just really exciting for agriculture.”
Piotti and his wife, Susan Piotti, are not farmers, although they tend a garden, raise chickens and make maple syrup at their Unity home. He came to his work not through any lifelong commitment to agriculture but because of his abiding interest in rural economic development. Piotti grew up on Nantucket Island in the 1960s and 1970s. That was before real estate prices on the island went through the roof and made it next to impossible for regular folks to keep on living and working there.
“In the summer between college and grad school, it dawned on me that I could never go home,” he said. “Rural places go one of two routes — they wither on the vine or become hot and hip. Either way, it limits the opportunities for people who want to stay there.”
Helping farmers can turn that around, he said.
“We simply cannot hope for sustainable communities if we don’t have sustainable agriculture,” Piotti said. “There is so much important work to do all across this nation, and [American Farmland Trust] is working at the leading edge.”