Second generation farmer Tony Carroll has a pretty succinct view on the state of farming in Maine these days.
“It’s tough sledding,” the 69-year-old said. “It’s hard to know what to do this year.”
As the planting, hatching, calving and kidding seasons start, farmers have more stacked against them than many can remember ever seeing at a single time. Climate change, increased costs for fertilizer and fuel, pandemic-related supply chain disruptions and labor shortages, avian flu and the ongoing “forever chemical” issues are creating disastrous conditions for Maine farmers.
“We had 100 laying hens and I just shipped them out because of what’s happening with avian flu,” Carroll said.
Since it was first identified in Maine back in February, the highly pathogenic avian flu has spread to six counties and has been responsible for the death of more than 600 backyard domestic poultry birds. The disease is carried by wild waterfowl and, with the spring migration in full swing, there are concerns it will spread further.
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“We were trying to cut back a bit anyway on things and take that time to concentrate on things that may pay better.”
Up on his small family farm in St. Agatha, Alex Zetterman has decided on keeping chickens this year. He recently purchased 75 laying hens and hopes to order 100 meat birds. But he knows he’s taking a chance.
“There is so much going on with avian flu when it comes to bird farming,” Zetterman said. “Will they shut it down? What is going to happen?”
He also raises between 15 and 20 pigs to sell each year and he is preparing himself for the increased costs associated with that and making some tough business decisions.
“The price of corn is probably going to cut down on what we raise to sell,” Zetterman said. “We have no choice but to pass on those increased costs to the consumers and we don’t know right now what that will look like, but it would be a terrible business model to stay at the same prices we had last year.”
Zetterman is not ready to say it’s the worst time ever to be a farmer in Maine. But things are tough and he believes people are finally paying attention to the plight of farmers.
Not that anyone goes into farming thinking it will be easy, according to Kirsten Lie-Nielsen, who has a small family farm in Liberty.
Farmers are ready to accept those challenges but things are shifting, she said.
“Climate change as a whole is a big thing,” Lie-Nielsen said. “Last year was extremely wet and every year prior to that we have been here, we were in drought conditions.”
Those extreme fluctuations in weather are forcing Lie-Nielsen’s farm to constantly rethink what and how it plants. The weather has also changed how, and when, farmers have to deal with certain pests, as ticks now have year-round activity and browntail moths have infested the state.
“We are trying to do a lot of clearing and building trails and now there is no safe time to go out into the woods and we even need to be doing tick checks in February.”
Even getting seed into the ground is going to be tougher than normal this year, according to Zetterman.
“Last year we could not get some vegetable seeds due to a shortage from the big freeze in Texas,” he said. “We are still feeling the trickle down from that [and] there may be plenty of one variety, but then you have to chase another one if you want it.”
Fertilizing what seeds farmers do plant is going to cost more than it ever has this year thanks to price increases resulting from sanctions placed on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Maine imports fertilizer from Russia.
Last year Carroll paid around $345 a ton for fertilizer. He just bought 20 tons for $1,000 a ton.
That cost alone is going to make hay prices skyrocket just so farmers can break even selling it, Carroll predicted.
“People are talking down here about $10 a bale for hay,” he said. “It does not do us any good to have a barnful of hay you can’t get your money out of.”
Carroll’s hay crop took a hit last year from the extreme weather that refused to give him enough days in a row to harvest his crop.
“There was too much hot weather in July and it seems like things are getting warmer all the time,” he said. “Then we needed at least two good days in a row with no rain to get hay in and we got caught every time in rain.”
While he was able to get 10,000 square and 400 round bales of hay in, Carroll said none of it was of a quality he was happy with.
“I was not very proud of it,” he said.
Even on small, family operations, the ongoing labor shortage and supply chain problems are causing complications.
“There is no labor available at all,” Carroll said. “No one wants to work that hard.”
He and his son take care of the farming while his wife does the accounting and runs the farm store.
“Some of the biggest things for me is trying to find the stuff that people use every day on farms,” Zetterman said. “Used tractors, new tractors, machines or pipelines for irrigation — you just can’t get them easily no matter how much money you have.”
Carroll often finds himself ordering parts for his farm tractors from as far away as Pennsylvania because they are not available locally.
And all that machinery runs on gas or diesel, which is nearing an all-time high of $5 a gallon.
Despite the multiple crises facing Maine farmers today, Carroll, Zetterman and Lie-Nielsen are at least grateful that none of their land seems to be close to a source of “forever chemical” contamination that was spread with PFAS-laden sludge.
The chemicals — perfluorooctanesulfonic acid and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — found their way into Maine soil and groundwater after treated waste containing them was spread on farmland for decades. A serious human health risk, presence of the chemicals forced a central Maine farm to cease all operations earlier this year.
“Thank God I never put that on our land,” Carroll said. “I am sure that PFAS is going to be a problem for some time to come.”
Despite how bleak things may look right now, these farmers are in it for the long haul.
“I don’t think you have to be crazy to get into farming right now,” Zetterman said. “In fact, now may be a really good time to get into since a lot of people are realizing the benefits of raising food themselves.”
At the end of the day for Carroll, he can’t imagine not being a farmer regardless of the hardships.
“It’s my blood and it’s in my son’s blood,” Carroll said. “None of us knows what is going to happen, we just have to roll with the punches and figure it out.”