Category Archives: 2017

In blueberry country, two farms hand the rake to the next generation

by Rebecca Goldfine

Photographs by Sean Alonzo Harris

Blueberry season brings traffic to the remote barrens of Down East Washington County, and to Helen’s Restaurant, a Machias mainstay since 1950. At Helen’s, guests line up at the counter for the signature whipped cream-topped pie filled with a quart-and-a-half of fresh, uncooked berries. The berries in their nationally-famous pie are all tended to sweet plumpness from nearby Welch Farm’s foggy perch in Roque Bluffs. “Out by the ocean, the berries taste better,” Helen’s owner Julie Barker says of the hand-raked product Welch Farm delivers daily to the restaurant, in season. “They are always free of sticks and leaves, and never soggy.”

Washington County farms like Welch and nearby Moon Hill Farm constitute an otherwise mom-and- pop backbone of Maine’s 500-plus blueberry farms, working to transfer their enterprises to the next generation in an era of consolidation and depressed blueberry contract prices. Father-daughter duo Lisa and Wayne Hanscom run Welch Farm with help from relatives, including Wayne’s ex-mother-in-law. Their family has held the farm since 1912, when Wayne’s grandfather, Frank Welch, bought 1,000 acres. Frank initially raised livestock and grew grains. By the late 1920s, he had turned primarily to blueberries, once undervalued as commonplace like lobster, marketing his crop as “fog-nourished Bluff Point berries.”

Diversification has been critical to saving the farm. The Hanscoms are eagerly introducing agritourism and selling more “fresh pack” berries direct from their farm stand. Lisa and Wayne’s bond translates to a well-balanced business. When Lisa first suggested building tourist cabins on their land, Wayne was skeptical. When she proposed offering farm tours, he asked, “Why? Who would come?” But when a tour bus pulls in today, visitors enthusiastically pour out. And there is a further commercial side—after giving a farm tour, Lisa offers her berries and unbranded homemade jams for sale.

Welch Farm’s fresh-pack yield is still small— constituting just 12,000 of the farm’s total yield of 98,000 pounds in 2015—and Wayne plans to expand it. Instead of selling all their machine-harvested berries to frozen processors for only 38 cents a pound, Welch sets aside two to three acres to “spot rake” and sell directly for $5 a quart (1.5 pounds).

Due to financially-necessary waterfront land sales, Welch Farm has been whittled down to 340 acres. “I don’t want our farm to get any smaller,” Lisa stresses.

Lisa has always been Wayne’s obvious heir-apparent. Young Wayne was the same way when he trailed his grandfather Frank Welch around the farm making it clear Frank could pass it down with confidence. About a decade ago, Lisa started helping Wayne run the farm full-time. She hopes their efforts will allow her to pass on a durable farm to her daughter, Alexandra.

 

Twenty-five miles further Down East, the Beal family is sorting the certified organic wild blueberries they’ve raked since 1991 on Moon Hill Farm in Whiting. Only about 12% of Maine’s “wild” blueberries are organic, but “there’s a lot of potential” to grow this hot market through fresh sales, says University of Maine blueberry expert David Yarborough.

Tim Beal also has deep roots in Washington County where his family goes back four generations. Tim started raking blueberries when he was eight; his father, a Bangor Daily News bureau chief, took the month of August off each year when he put the family to work on his ‘vacation’ project. The Beals all worked for Wyman’s alongside a crew from Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq people. As they all toiled on the fruit, Tim’s dad assiduously reported on the blueberry business beat. In the early 1980s, he broke stories on the first mechanical pickers, as well as the wild blueberry industry’s transition from organic practices to its widespread embrace of pesticides to control the dreaded maggot fly.

Tim’s California-born wife, Lydia, met her husband at the University of Maine at Machias. As a young couple, they chose to homestead in Washington County. “We wanted land, and we wanted blueberry land,” Lydia said. “We wanted to be somewhat remote, to have space and the freedom to develop what we wanted to develop.” Their 260-acre farm is at the end of a dirt road; just at the moment you think that you must have overshot the place, a driveway curls up past the Beals’ 10 acres of blueberries to reach their barn and home.

Last winter, the Beals extended ownership of the farm to their children—Nick, Jay, and Clara, who grew up in the blueberry fields. The packing building walls still bear faint blue smears where as kids they threw berries at each other. With help from Maine Farmland Trust, the Beals recently formed an LLC, the first step in making each child an equal business partner. Both of the boys are building houses on the farm, ensuring, like the Hanscoms, that the business will be in local family hands for at least one more generation of blueberry production.

rebecca goldfine is a Maine native who reports on student life for Bowdoin College communications and writes the trail guide site | mainebyfoot.com

Additional reporting here by Laura McCandlish.

Fresh Blueberry Pie

The legendary blueberry pie at Helen’s Restaurant in Machias is made with Welch Farm berries

and was featured on Food52.com last summer. Helen’s owner Julie Barker, whose father processed blueberries on his Washington County farm, says this original recipe, handwritten and stenciled, is unchanged since Helen and Larry Mugnai opened the restaurant in 1950.

For 6 servings

 

BLUEBERRY GEL

3 tablespoons frozen blueberries

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

½ cup water

½ ounce cornstarch

 

PIE CRUST

3 cups flour

1 ½ cup shortening 1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons water

 

BLUEBERRY PIE

1 ½ quarts fresh Maine wild blueberries

1 cup blueberry gel

1 quart heavy whipping cream

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

 

 

1. Make the blueberry gel. In a double boiler over medium-low heat, mix together the frozen blueberries, sugar, water and Let simmer until thickened. Remove from heat and let cool.

2. Mix together the flour, shortening, salt, and water for the pie dough just until fi Shape into a 9-inch pie pan and crimp the edges and chill it for at least 30 minutes. Preheat your oven to 325°F. Then, once you are ready to bake, dock or prick the chilled dough all over with a fork and bake it for 25 minutes or until golden brown around the edges. Let cool.

3. Combine the blueberries and cooled gel together in a large bowl and add the mixture to the pie crust.

4. Whip the whipping cream with the sugar and vanilla and then spread a thick layer all over the top of the blueberries.

5. Garnish the whipped topping with extra blueberries. Chill until solid and can be easily cut with a Cut into six generous pieces!

 

Enjoy.

This article is from the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

Searching for Sustainable Scale

by Melissa Coleman

Photography by Greta Rybus

Having grown up on an E.F. Schumacher small-is-beautiful homestead, my heart can’t help but beat with admiration for the grit and self-confidence of the small farmer. Is it possible—we Schumacher types want to know—for these farmers to cultivate a viable business without losing that trademark grittiness and connection to the land?

This quest for the secrets of sustainable scaling up led me down winding country roads to the following Maine farmers. While growing their businesses in size and profit, they’re continuing to foster their communities, families, and land.

The Groundbreakers:

Stewart Smith in his carrot field in Starks, Maine.

Asked to name, off the top of his head, the efforts that have made the most difference for Lakeside when creating a viable business, Smith easily offers the following strategies.

First, he advocates choosing two or three high-volume crops to pay the bills, and a handful of high-value specialty crops to make a profit.

“You can budget a larger tractor with tillage equipment for your high-volume crops, but also use it on the supplemental crops,” he says.

This leads to the importance of finding the right equipment at the right price, and taking the time to maintain it. Big-ticket items include the irrigation system and root vegetable harvesters, which he advocates buying used from commercial farmers.

“Equipment is your biggest expense. You need to have the ability and technical knowledge to maintain it, and you need to enjoy being in the shop tinkering with it to keep it running.”

Finally, he stresses forming strong relationships with buyers, and making delivery a priority.

“Bigger buyers are not as flexible,” he says. “You have to get them the amount they want, marked the way they want it, at the time that they want it. And if anything changes, let them know ASAP.”

Leaving the glow of the Lakeside farmhouse, I can feel rather than see the fields spread around me in the darkness, settling into winter slumber as they have for generations. There’s hope that these fields will be productive for many generations to come.

Stewart Smith and Sarah Redfield Lakeside Family Farm

Heading to Lakeside Family Farm, I leave I-95 behind in the November dusk and enter the fertile farmland  of the Sebasticook Lake basin in Newport. What I notice first about Stewart Smith’s gently-aged profile is an assured wisdom in the curves of his smile. Recent accolades include a SOURCE Maine Elder Award for shaping “a locally focused, environmentally con- scious, 21st-century approach to Maine agriculture.”

As a third-generation Newport farmer, Smith determined while an economics undergrad at Yale that he would work in government, education, and farming over the course of his life. This he did at the USDA under Carter, the Joint Economic Committee of Congress under Clinton, and as a Maine Commissioner of Agriculture. In between, he taught and did research at Tufts and the University of Maine.

With wife and partner, Sarah Redfield, he returned to farming and founded Lakeside Family Farm in 2005. It has since become a role model for a successful mid-size sustainable farm that, while not certified organic, follows best practices to minimize the use of chemical inputs. Lakeside now provides 100-some vegetable options to buyers and distributors including Hannaford and Crown of Maine, restaurants such as The Black Birch in Kittery, and the University of Maine. They also deliver workplace CSA farm shares.

“I’m in charge of the farming and production, and Sarah works with the buyers,” Smith says, with evident gratitude for a partner who is dedicated  to the business.

Smith works with his crew to repair equipment used for harvesting carrots. As his midscale family farm grew, it became more productive to rely on equipment.

The Evolvers:

Chris Cavendish, Gallit Sammon, and their daughter Calliope take a moment to pose in their carrot field in Bowdoinham.

Chris and Gallit Cavendish Fishbowl Farm

The trip to Fishbowl Farm leads me, with photographer Greta Rybus, 45 minutes north of Portland to the inland estuary of Merrymeeting Bay, its soil rich in organic matter.

We track down curly-haired Chris Cavendish at a shared processing facility and are immediately drawn into his bright-eyed enthusiasm for this work. Following him to a 12-acre field that he leases affordably from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, we witness rows of carrots miraculously lifted from the ground by the tractor-towed Scott Viner harvester.

“I’m anticipating that with the new harvester, we can process 1,500 pounds in an eighth of the time, with two rather than three workers,” Cavendish says, though his data is still speculative.

While there are many inspirations and guiding forces that led Cavendish to Fishbowl Farm (meeting his wife and partner, Gallit; MOFGA; Russell Libby), there’s also the 1973 movie that inspired a runner up name, Seventh Wave Farm. As Cavendish tells it, Steve McQueen’s character Papillon, a prisoner on a remote island, notices that every seventh wave in a set is strong enough to carry a man out to sea, and he rides that wave to freedom.

The seventh wave for Cavendish and Gallit (formerly chef de cuisine at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport), has been the decision to focus on wholesale production of just a few favorite crops. These include greens (spinach, kale, arugula, lettuce mixes) and seasonal vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions).

After ten years in business and the birth of their first child, Calliope, Chris and Gallit were feeling the pinch. They didn’t want to sacrifice family life to the 80- to 90-hour-a-week demands of supplying farmers markets and their CSA.

The decision in 2012 to change direction led to a Maine Farmland Trust workshop with Jed Beach of FarmSmart, a Maine-based consulting firm that assists farms with goal-setting, record-keeping, and business planning. The following takeaways have stayed with Cavendish over the past four years.

Know the breakeven point for any given week. “Jed Beach helped to compile our budget, crop enterprise worksheets, and income projections to give me one important number,” he says. “That’s the number of cases a week that we need to sell during the 25-week grow- ing season to be able to end the year in the positive.”

“Chris put this large black number above his desk where he sees it every day,” Beach says.

Grow slow. “I found it important to identify and resolve problems before putting myself in front of a large audience,” Cavendish states. “The most important being creating production and harvest systems to efficiently produce high-quality product and developing easy and efficient ordering, order-tracking, and washing/packing/handling systems.”

Identify non-farm goals and place them before farm goals. “For me that means ensuring we have a certain degree of normal in our family life during the growing season,” Cavendish states.

“If a major decision will significantly and negatively impact our family balance, we don’t do it.”

The results have been commendable, with income tripling from 2013 to 2016. Fishbowl’s recognizable labels can be found on greens and vegetables at Rosemont’s markets and Bow Street Market in Freeport, among others, while bulk orders are sold to Maine Specialty Foods, Flatbread Company, and other Portland restaurants.

When Gallit and Calliope arrive to check on the progress of the carrot harvest, the Cavendish family poses for a photo, sitting together in the fields that sustain them. They appear happy and relaxed, comfortable with their lifestyle—a model farm family, riding that seventh wave to farm-family balance.

After Cavendish uses a harvester to gently uproot carrots, he and his family get to work collecting and cleaning them.

The New Guardians:

Phillip and Lisa Webster North Star Sheep Farm

Upon arrival at North Star Sheep Farm, I’m directed to the Welcome Center to meet owners Lisa and Phillip Webster. Well appointed with leather sofas and space for product sampling and hosting events, it sends the message to any visitor or buyer that North Star is a serious operation.

“People make the decision whether or not to do business when they first arrive,” Lisa tells me. “The impact of a well-maintained farm is key.” Blonde and of strong stature, she’s dressed in a smart business suit because she goes to Augusta to advocate for farmers as past-president of the Agricultural Council of Maine. The rest of the time, Lisa manages North Star’s sales and marketing, and Phillip, her tall and amiable husband and business partner, oversees the farm operations and employees.

Over 3,000 sheep roam the pastures at North Star Sheep Farm.

Chris Cavendish packages clean salad greens for distribution around Southern Maine.

While North Star has only become a go-to for grass- fed lamb in the past five years, the couple bought their first sheep in 1984. Fifth-generation sheep farmers, both Lisa and Phil’s families have raised breeding stock and meat lambs since the early 1800s. The decision to buy 225-acre Stevens Farm in 1997 brought with it the land for a bigger sheep operation and a $400K mortgage, so they decided to pay the bills with a landscaping business and keep the sheep at a loss.

It wasn’t until 2007, after their son graduated from college, that the Websters felt ready to downsize the landscaping business and upsize the sheep farm. They traveled the country to gather ideas from other farms and wrote a 10-year business plan. They banked on their finding that New England has the largest demand for lamb in the US, due to the high number of white-linen restaurants. So, the Websters reasoned, if you add in New York City and Washington DC, the buyers for 60% of all lamb purchased in the US were within their reach.

More Perspectives:

Phil Webster pauses while feeding his sheep.

Despite challenges around establishing viable harvesting, packaging, storage, and transporta- tion systems, in 2010 they secured a deal to sell Whole Foods 12 lambs a week, or more than 1,000 lambs a year, and everything began to fall into place. Foodservice distributor Dole & Bailey and the American Lamb Board began marketing North Star lamb, and they added pork and rabbits.

Today their products can be found at Portland restaurants and markets including Fore Street, Back Bay Grill, and Rosemont Market & Bakery, as well as throughout New England and in select DiCicco Family Markets in New York.

To meet the demand, North Star raises 3,000-plus sheep a year on their farm in Windham, as well as on Collyer Brook Farm in Gray (a property protected by Maine Farmland Trust) and Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. They cross-mate several breeds  that do well on pasture-based grazing in the Maine climate, to create an ideal whole-lamb product.

Phil and Lisa’s advice:

“Don’t let your guard down as you scale up,” Lisa says. “Keep the quality and standards at the same level no matter how you scale. We’re in this because we love sheep farming, not because we want to see how much poundage of lamb we can get to market.”

“You’ve got to love what you do,” Phil agrees. “You’ve got to be able to look across the pasture and feel good every day. If you’re not happy, change what you do, or get out.”

Most of all, Phil and Lisa are loyal to the legacy handed down by their family. “We use all the experi- ence of generations past to ensure that today will be successful and tomorrow there will still be a family farm here,” Lisa says.

Bonnie Rukin, the funding fairy godmother of Slow Money Maine, reminds me that scaling up isn’t just about the money. Bonnie has helped numerous small to mid-sized farms, fisheries, and enterprises to focus on larger infrastructure on the path to becoming not just self-sustaining, but sustainable.

“There is no denying the value of material and financial capital, but we don’t want to forget the value of community in the process,” Rukin says. “We’re seeing several farms that rely on people in their community and collaboration with other farms to bring quality produce to a larger number of people in a more consistent and satisfying way than through corporate markets.”

Fred Kirschenmann, president of the board at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture and winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from IFOAM, upholds a similar perspective to Rukin.

“We are now faced with transforming into a more ‘regenerative,’ resilient food and farming system that is grounded in community relationships designed in creating shared values,” he told me via email.

Kirschenmann is quoting from Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s article “Creating Shared Value” in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review. He also recommends John Thackara’s book How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today. It “describes how the transition from an indus- trial economy to the next ‘bioregional’ economy is not just about farms, but how we all need to work together in our own bioregions,” he says.

Businesses and individuals alike are in the process of evolving the understanding of what it means to “do business” in the 21st century. The farms mentioned here have found relative financial reward in their respective paths of growth, but they have also, as Rukin and Kirschenmann emphasize, kept a connection to the communities, families,  and acres that sustain them.

melissa coleman grew up on a back-to-the-land farm near Blue Hill, Maine. She is the author of a memoir about the experience, This Life is In Your Hands, and writes for publications including The New York Times, Boston Globe, Travel Weekly, and Maine Home + Design.

This article is from the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

Moving the Needle on Rural Wellness

Personal Essay

by Stacy Brenner

Each winter, when the snow is deep on our quiet fields, I sit in meetings with “service providers.” Over the years the meeting topics vary: land preservation, ways to increase markets for local products, cooperative marketing, wholesale marketing, farm employment, rural development, food sovereignty, and the best sustainable farming practices.

The service providers—non-profit people, policy wonks, advisors, and academics—are thoughtful and working hard to align us all.

They ask my humble opinion as the farmer  in the room about topics I spend hours thinking about and discussing at the dinner table. We think collectively and then move back into our spheres to make good work happen. They glean farmers’ opinions and look at studies by university researchers. I keep cultivating and harvesting and Instagramming, trying to grow products and our markets. But change is slow and money is tight and human behavior is fickle. Sometimes we have successes and sometimes we realize we are still talking about the same issues 16 seasons later.

Sometimes, while I’m sitting in these meetings, I pull out my phone to check for emergency texts from the farm. I might check my Instagram feed (this is work, mind you!). Did I get any likes on that post about the pregnant cow? Do people like that flower arrangement with the peony? How are berries ranking? Puppies…good grief people love a baby animal! Social media is the outlet that many of us farmers are using to tell our story to customers. We market this rural goodness and these romantic tales of farm life in an attempt to garner support to maintain a cherished way of life. The majority of Americans are no more than five generations removed from farming for subsistence. Not long ago, we all had a connection to the great agrarian way of life. We had a purposeful need to engage with what we now call rural life. And, if you dig deep, most people still crave this connection.

We want our suburban home to be on the edge of farmland; we want to commute past agriculture on our way to somewhere. Our customers sit in their city offices and look at farming Instagram feeds, wondering what it would be like to cash in, leave it all, move to the country, grow flowers.

I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, in a development with 800 homes. Every fourth home looked the same, 200 of each variety. The land, developed in the ‘70s, was once a profitable farm, feeding larger South Jersey towns. The original farmhouse remained in the middle of a sea of suburban ubiquity. I would ride my yellow Schwinn banana seat bike past this farmhouse with my friends, stopping out front to stroke my handlebar streamers, make up stories, imagine a life that once was. I’d head home at dark and watch reruns of Little House on the Prairie. Farming was my dream.

Today, my husband and I, with our two daughters, farm and homestead in Scarborough. So I still live in the suburbs, defined as living within commuting distance to a city. Our little slice of preserved farmland is an oasis that rests at the gateway between the rural communities to the west, the tony beach communities to our east, and the small, vibrant metropolis of Portland 20 minutes northeast. If our land had been developed in 2004 when it was for sale, it would be similar to the neighborhood of my childhood. The farmhouse I live in now would be like the one I rode past and looked to wistfully as a child. The suburbs are something I know well. They are in my fabric.

As a farmer in the suburbs, I borrow time from rural neighbors, learning the roots of agriculture that have existed here since before this area was defined as a suburb. I listen to their stories, they lend us farm equipment, and I feel a sense of belonging in our shared vision of rural wellness. Together, we borrow technology from our urban comrades, using social media to sell the image of our rural lifestyle with a hope that the romanticism of farm work will sell our products. We are looking to create relationships; we are looking to build alliances, understanding, empathy, and awareness. At the root of it, farmers produce food to feed people, to alleviate hunger, and to invite one more person to the table for dinner. I need the knowledge and farming legacy of my rural neighbors and the financial support of my suburban and urban neighbors to continue the good work of agriculture in Maine and to develop markets to sell products.

All distinctions are relative, of course. According to the USDA, Scarborough is classified as rural with regard to economic development programs. It’s true that with our farm’s acreage protected by a conservation easement, folks visiting the farm from Portland are certain they’re in the country. But many of our farming colleagues from towns north and west of us would disagree. With its housing developments, commuter traffic, and tight zoning regulations, Scarborough is a prosperous suburb. When we look at demographic statistics, we note that 1.3 million people call the state of Maine home. Half a million of these residents live in the Greater Portland Metropolitan Area, which includes Scarborough. The bulk of the state’s remaining population hugs the coast. To compare, the population of the Boston metro area is 4.7 million people. Two hours south of our farm, there are three-and-a-half times the number of eaters than in all of Maine. To our Boston friends, Scarborough is rural and downtown Portland, with a mere 66,000 residents, is quaint.

From a policy perspective, the Farm Bill is the federal tool to fund agricultural programs. Initially, rural development (farming) and hunger relief (food welfare) were tied together as a way to achieve political buy-in from rural and urban factions. The idea was that if you built in the need for congressmen from both sides of the aisle, and all geographical regions, to cooperate, you would have more leverage.

To accomplish this, the food stamp program, which in its inception targeted urban poverty, was tied to farm subsidies. Politicians drawn to a social agenda of feeding America’s neediest citizens would collaborate with pro-big ag business politicians from the corn, soy, and cotton states. Initially, the number of qualifying households in urban areas far exceeded those in rural regions. Now, that’s changed. Since 1995, there has been a measurable increase in the number of rural households that access Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

By 2014, 14.6% of rural households received SNAP benefits compared to 11% of urban households.

The funding for most major rural development programming is written into the 2014 Farm Bill, amounting to two one-hundredths of 1% of the Bill’s $489 billion five-year budget. For the sake of comparison, nutritional programs, including SNAP, comprise 80% of the Farm Bill budget, and 19% is used to support and subsidize programs for farmers, including crop insurance payouts and conservation cost share programs. What  was historically designed as a tool to address rural development and urban poverty now struggles with a reality where rural poverty and urban development are both on the rise, and there is a grand disconnect between the two.

Without reiterating everything that has been written since the last presidential election, I will simply say yes, the disconnect is real. The lack of commitment to rural development programs is now painfully obvious. And yet, in what may be the most profound irony of all, those living in rural poverty, using SNAP, may themselves also be involved in agriculture. Perhaps the answer lies in tying SNAP money directly to farm businesses in our rural communities, for instance, providing cost-saving incentives to use SNAP to purchase local products.

Federal relief for rural communities, however,  is only one element of a solution. In Maine, where farming is experiencing a renaissance, there are young, talented entrepreneurs creating diversified businesses. Young farmers are re-populating Maine’s farmscape, offering promise. These young farmers bring social media know-how and story-telling skills. But reinvigorating rural communities with a fresh agricultural approach will only be successful if those new businesses have a market  for selling their products. Here, I see a real pos- sibility of bridging the disconnect between rural development needs and urban market demands.

Outside of federal support programs, the  most feasible route to rural development is a concentrated effort to bring urban and suburban communities into the discussion, mobilizing their eagerness to be connected to the land. It will take creativity to market the importance of rural wellness to the populace living in these metro areas. But, looking through the social media lens, I see a captive audience. Leveraging these new avenues of communication, and highlighting Maine’s rural landscapes rich with tillable land and clean water, would be a great step toward defining and connecting authentic values.

Portland, with its solid restaurant culture, is a fine start, but to move the needle Maine also needs to consider the Boston metro area as a major market. Returning Maine to its former status as the breadbasket of New England is a large-scale proposition; but if it is done with an eye towards diverse markets offering fair prices (with or without subsidy) our renewed farming culture will find huge opportunity. Growing successful farms throughout the state creates jobs. Sustainably scaled agriculture can be an economic driver for a region. This is rural development. As a farmer, the best way I can imagine this happening is through building relationships around food and farm products with a market large enough to support the farming potential of the great state of Maine.

As a state and a region, Maine and New England stand poised to lead the way in alleviating rural poverty through federal, state, and local initiatives. We have thoughtful, creative talent in our service organizations and our nonprofits. In Vermont, the Rural Vermont program provides a great example  of an effective partner service organization.

They have been successful at marketing the idea of rural wellness throughout the state and have created effective ways to fund their organization. They approach communities to determine their goals and aspirations and then work to leverage the talent within other organizations throughout the state to meet those needs. Maine is rich with organizations that have interest and intentions  to support our rural communities and address rural poverty. Unfortunately, the one organization focused solely on rural communities in Maine, the former Maine Rural Partners, closed when its funding dried up. But Maine Farmland Trust, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Maine Farm Bureau, and other like-minded groups have the potential to collaborate on a strong marketing campaign to attract the interest, money, and support of urban centers in Maine and in the Boston metro area, and build markets for Maine’s rurally produced products.

Marketing rural Maine will allow our urban neighbors to participate and be meaningful partners in our cherished heritage. If successful, the original goals of the U.S. Farm Bill, to connect rural development with urban health—to leverage the well-being of all our communities—might finally be met.

 

stacy brenner lives, farms, and flowers at Broadturn Farm in Scarborough with her husband, John Bliss, and two daughters, Emma and Flora. They raise cut flowers and organic vegetables, host weddings, and operate a summer day camp that connects a young community  with nutritious and sustainable food. She’s devoted to understanding and improving farmland preservation, farmland tenancy arrangements, and organic agriculture as an economic driver for Maine. Stacy has worked as a barista, an orchid greenhouse caretaker, a cotton farmer, and a nurse-midwife. She holds degrees in agriculture and nursing. She is a contributor to Taproot Magazine, and is a MOFGA Board Member. Stacy has been farming in Maine since 2002.

This article is from the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

Up in the County: From Spuds to Grains

By Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Photographs by Mark Yaggie

Up in Maine’s Aroostook County, farming is generational, part of the regional DNA: families proudly trace links to the land that go back sometimes for a century or more. Take Aurora Mills and Farm in tiny Linneus (population just under 1,000), not far from the Houlton county seat. At Aurora, the pitchfork is held high by veteran farmers Matt and Linda Williams, capably supported by their 30-something daughter, Sara, and her husband Marcus Flewelling. Marcus and Sara’s baby, Annabelle, represents the next generation. When I visited, Annabelle was fast asleep in a plastic baby carrier nestled next to her grandfather’s feet as he carefully maneuvered a rattling combine harvester through a sun-bleached field of ripening late summer oats, part of the 200 acres the Williamses have under grains.

The Williamses also harvest and mill wheat (including an experimental patch of hard durum, for pasta), emmer, spelt, and rye, all of it human-food grade, and most of it sold in Maine where a burgeoning market of brewers, bakers, chefs, granola producers, and home consumers demand whole grains, preferably organic and grown in-state. (Aurora’s organic oats do travel as far as Boston University’s mess halls, through Grandy Oats’ distribution networks.)

The Williams family are not the only grain farmers in The County. In Benedicta, an unorganized township on the outskirts of Baxter State Park, Andrew Qualey’s forebears have farmed potatoes since they arrived from Ireland in the 1840s. And potatoes remain a quintessential harvest on Qualey’s broad fields that slope westward to the brooding silhouette of Mount Katahdin. But today, partnering with his son-in-law Jake Dyer, Qualey has shifted to more valuable organically-farmed grains, as well as field peas, soybeans and Japanese black buckwheat.

Qualey and Dyer began their grain experiments  in 2008. Last summer’s drought ironically created near-perfect grain harvest conditions. The yield was light but the quality was high, Qualey said: “In general, we’re shooting for quality, not quantity.”

When I asked why the conversion, he laughed. “Our generation,” Qualey said, “ate potato chips. His generation”—he pointed to Jeff Dec, a lean, young baker who with his wife operates Brazen Baking in Camden and had accompanied me to The County—“they don’t eat chips anymore.”

I got the point. National potato consumption has declined in recent decades, although potatoes remain the number one vegetable consumed by Americans. For this and other reasons, potatoes are no longer the unchallenged mainstay of The County’s wealth. While no one would abandon the crop entirely, it’s time to look at productive alternatives, such as organic grains. But potatoes will always be important, admits Dyer, who works for the Potato Board developing crops for diversifying Aroostook potato farms.

Another advance in the Aroostook grain game is taking place in Mapleton, just west of Presque Isle, where the Buck brothers, Jake, Josh, and Jaret, are pioneering their Maine Malt House enterprise, pro- cessing barley into high-quality malt for the scores of sprightly breweries mushrooming in Maine. Malting is a complicated process that makes you wonder how beer was invented. First, grain is steeped in water to soak, then spread in a thick layer to germinate: the

germination is stopped by heating and drying  in a kiln. Enzymatic activity increases the sugar in the grain, lending sweetness to the beer and giving the yeast something to feed on.

Not every brewery uses local malts, but a growing number tout Maine-grown ingredients. Vaunted Allagash, Oxbow, and Rising Tide are among a good 20 breweries setting the pace for using Maine-grown grains, malts, and hops. Allagash brewmaster Jason Perkins is especially proud of “16 Counties,” a creamy, flavorful ale that boasts entirely Maine ingredients, including Maine-grown organic hops. Oxbow uses the Maine Malt House product in its forthcoming “Domestic” farmhouse IPA, and has a 100% local beer spontaneously fermenting for two-plus years underway, made of all Buck Farm, Maine Grains and Alna Hops-sourced ingredients.

From Left to Right. Katahdin rises above fields of oats at Benedicta Grain Co. In 1987, as the town’s population dipped to around 200 residents, Benedicta surrendered its plantation status and became an unorganized township.

Spelt in the auger. Spelt is an ancient wheat that is naturally lower in gluten.

Sara Williams Flewelling behind the wheel of a swather, cutting buckwheat into windrows so the grain can dry down in the field prior to being picked up for processing.

 Sara, Marcus, and baby Annabelle in a field of Japanese buckwheat. Aurora is working with Takahiro Sato, chef/owner of Yosaku in Portland, to develop a soba noodle made with Maine buckwheat. The noodles will be available in his restaurant this summer.

But while Oxbow is experimenting with Maine malts and grains, the brewery still sources most of its malt from France and Germany. “We’re working towards using more and more Maine grains—and malts,” Tim Adams, co-founder and head brewer at Oxbow, told me—a statement that holds true for many other breweries as well.

About a quarter of the Bucks’ 1,000 acres is planted to barley; the next step will be hop vines, another critical element in beer-making. “The potato market is mature,” Jake Buck explained as we toured the malt house. Like Qualey and Dyer, the Buck brothers are diversifying from total reliance on potatoes.  “We count on working with local farmers to spread the risks around,” Jake said. But they could do a lot more, he admitted. Right now, despite producing  240 tons of malt annually, they can’t keep up with in-state demand. And with just two maltsters in Maine (the Bucks’ place in Mapleton and Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls), there’s room to grow.

Coincidentally, on the day I watched Matt Williams harvest oats, I caught up with Amaral, there at Aurora to take pictures for his new cookbook celebrating 25 years of Borealis. “When you’re making bread, you’re basically working with just four ingredients,” Amaral told me, “flour, water, yeast and salt. So it’s important to understand where each of these is coming from.”

As far as consistency, moisture in the grain is a key factor. Wheat, for instance, harvested at 18% moisture, must be dried down to 12 to 14% for safe storage. Otherwise, the grain starts to sprout, leading to the development of amylase, an enzyme that is undesirable, especially for baking. Grain high in amylase produces sticky bread; too low, on the other hand, and the bread will be unacceptably dry. “Variations in protein levels are just the nature of small-scale milling,” says Jim Amaral, who established Borealis Breads (then known as Bodacious) back in 1993. Larger-scale millers can blend various flours to a steady consistency to satisfy bakers’ needs, but the scale of grain growing in Maine, he said, has not yet arrived at that point.

Black Crow Bakery in Litchfield, turning out some of the most stunning bread in Maine over the last 25 years, uses some Maine grains but consistency crops up in any conversation with baker Mark Mickalide. Mickalide is unusual because he himself grinds the flours he uses. The biggest problem is what he calls bitterness in Maine-grown grains: “It doesn’t ripen to a real strong sweetness,” he said, adding that to get the flavor he wants, he blends, in equal quantities, Maine-grown grains with sweeter wheat from the High Plains and ordinary unbleached white flour.

Blending, then, is an issue of capacity. Yes, Maine could grow a lot more grain to supply the needs of both brewers and bakers—and it might well lead to greater possibilities for millers to blend flours. But reaching that capacity is not a quick process, especially not for organic grains, which are what bakers require.

Anyone involved in this revival of Maine grain growing agrees the movement began with Aurora’s modest Matt Williams, in symbiotic relationship  with Borealis’s Jim Amaral. Amaral first got Williams involved in grains on a commercial scale. In the late 1990s with Borealis Bread a success, Amaral decided to enhance his line with a Maine-grown product.

“I kept asking, why aren’t we growing wheat in Maine?” Amaral recalled. Williams, who was then the Aroostook County Extension Service specialist in small grains, had been experimenting with grains in rotation on his Linneus farm. As Amaral pushed, Williams planted, first, a crop of hard red winter wheat harvested in 1998. With no milling capacity in Maine, the grain was trucked across the border to New Brunswick. That continued until the border crossing became difficult after September 2001, at which point Williams added a grist mill to his grain operation.

Amaral now uses Aurora wheat for all his sourdough starters, but he is particularly proud of “Aroostook,” a grainy loaf made 100% from Maine grains, mostly wheat, and mostly from Aurora.

Nor can you talk about grain in Maine without mentioning Amber Lambke and her vision of a “re- generative economy” for Central Maine. In 2012, she co-established the Maine Grains mill in Skowhegan in the old Somerset County jail, where Qualey Farms in Benedicta is among some 24 growers sending their grains in for processing. Maine has just two commercial stone grist mills, in Skowhegan and the one at Aurora. For a decade, Lambke, with a number of like-minded confederates, organized the annual summer Kneading Conference in Skowhegan. What the Common Ground Country Fair is for Maine’s organic farmers, the Kneading Conference has become for Maine’s grain farmers, brewers and bakers.

From Left to Right. Inspecting hops outside Maine Malt House in Mapleton. As the stalwart potato market continues to mature, young farmers like the Buck brothers are looking for ways to diversify, and Maine’s booming craft beer industry offers new market opportunities.

Jake Buck checks the “chitted” barley on the malting floor at Maine Malt House. The Aroostook County malt house is one of just two malt houses in Maine helping to bring locally-grown grains to Maine brewers.

Sara Williams Flewelling holds a prized French heritage wheat, ‘Rouge De Bordeaux,’ known for its excellent baking quality and superior flavor. Over the past few years Aurora has been restoring the grain seed to marketable quantities and expects to have it available to customers this fall.

Maine bakers like Jim Amaral of Borealis have paved the way for more local grain production. While working with local flour can be less predictable than the standard King Arthur, bakers and eaters are enthusiastic about using Maine grains in breads and baked goods.

The Kneading Conference spurred the Maine Grain Alliance, now headed by Tristan Noyes, another young Aroostook native who, with his brother on the family farm in Woodland, is experimenting with several grains, including Sirvinta, a hard winter wheat from Estonia whose potential has a lot of Maine growers excited.

Noyes is equally enthusiastic about a new project for the Maine Grain Alliance, an 8-month feasibility study to look at creating drying, storing, and sorting facilities in four separate Aroostook County locations. This will take the onus off the shoulders of individual farms and farmers, and incidentally take a lot of the guesswork out of grain production.

Here in Aroostook (as in other parts of rural Maine) local and farm-to-table are not just fancy terms to sprinkle on chic restaurant menus. Local means community and an inter-connected economy. But there is still not enough local grain being grown and milled to serve Maine’s needs. I think of those 18,000 fallow acres up in the County where the climate is so good for grains—cool nights make sweeter wheat—and where taller varieties with better flavor and better baking quality can be grown. “Our biggest challenge is simply getting more land in production,” Matt Williams noted. “And it’s been the challenge from day one.”

Allagash’s Perkins cites a statistic from the University of Maine at Presque Isle—there are 18,000 acres of fallow or idle agricultural lands between Presque Isle and Caribou, all suited to grain cultivation. In fact, Aroostook farmers havegrown grains for a very long time, but almost always in rotation with potatoes (sometimes legumes, too). Such crops are either turned under as green manure or sold as low-value feed for chickens, pigs and cattle. What’s new in recent years is the focus on food-grade (as opposed to feed-grade) grains.

In the last decade or so, Maine has been fortunate to see an explosion of artisanal bread- and beer-crafting. We’ve come a long way since enriched sliced white breads (the Cushman’s and Nissen’s of my Camden childhood) and Haffenreffer and Narragansett fizzy brews. As of last winter, Maine had about 85 craft breweries, members of the Maine Brewers Association, and an estimated 51 craft bakeries, according to the Maine Grain Alliance, producing densely-grained, whole-meal loaves, often from wood-fired ovens, like the superbly nutty rye bread made with Aurora’s rye  by Tim Semler at Tinder Hearth in Brooksville or the variety of breads and pastries at Standard Baking in Portland where, under Alison Pray’s direction in 2016, they used some 47,600 pounds of local wheat, oats,  rye, cornmeal, and spelt, which represents 15% of their total grain use; and the number is climbing annually.

So why aren’t all of Maine’s brewers and bakers using Maine-grown grains? The answer is complex, but it boils down to three factors: 1) capacity, 2) consistency, and 3) price. On that last point, flour from the Skowhegan mill, says Camden baker Jeff Dec, is double the price of King Arthur flour—“and they’re really giving a good price to farmers.” Making grain profitable for farmers is obviously an important piece of the equation, but when bakers and brewers, who operate on similarly slim margins, can get good-quality flour, or malted barley, for half the price, it’s hard to argue with the choice. Still, bakers like Dec, Semler, Pray, and many others acknowledge their customers recognize the value in locally grown grain.

This article is from the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

Young Dairy

Photographs by Jenny Nelson

Text by Ellen Sabina

in many ways, dairy farms are a cornerstone of Maine’s farming community. Dairy farmers steward large tracts of farmland for feed and forage, while supporting the equipment retailers, feed stores, large animal vets, and other agricultural services that all Maine farms rely upon. Yet, while there are indicators that farming in Maine is growing, Maine’s commercial dairy industry has not seen the same kind of growth. The number of midsized dairy farms has steadily decreased over the past few decades, as has the number of acres of farmland managed by dairy farms, due to the high cost of production, infrastructure, and the volatility of the milk market. The average age of Maine’s dairy farmers is 54, and within the next decade, many will be reaching retirement age. At the same time, very few young farmers are choosing to go into dairy farming, deterred by the unpredictable  price of milk and the high start-up costs inherent in the land base and infrastructure needed to establish a successful dairy farm. Without young dairy farmers, what will happen to all of the land currently in dairy, and to the infrastructure and communities that Maine’s dairy farms support?

The few young farmers who are bucking the trend and have decided either to become first-generation dairy farmers or to continue their family’s farm have a vital role to play  in ensuring that dairy farms remain a foundational piece of Maine’s farm and food system. These are some of those farmers.

the milkhouse

SOUTH MONMOUTH

Caitlin Frame, Andy Smith, with son Linus, first-generation dairy farmers

For Caitlin and Andy, producing good food “is extremely gratifying work. It’s amazing to think of all the people who are nourished by what we produce on our farm. All that milk, meat, yogurt—that incredibly rich, nourishing animal protein—starts with just sun, soil, grass, and water, and we get to be part of stewarding it.”

Caitlin and Andy feel fortunate to be able to pursue their dairy farming dreams. The support

of organizations like Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine Farmland Trust helped them access education, and eventually, a farm of their own. When they think about the future dairy farms in Maine, their hope is that “small and midsize dairy farms can become profitable again…we’re counting on it. And we’re counting on organizations like MFT to make the large land base necessary for such operations accessible.”

 

santy dairy

SKOWHEGAN

Brad Santy, second-generation dairy farmer

When he looks ahead to the future of his farm, Brad Santy is hopeful. He feels good about the decision  to be an organic dairy farmer, and thinks that will help put the farm in a better position for his kids, who he hopes will want to take over someday. “It’s tough to start a farm with such huge overhead involved—land, infrastructure, equipment, and a herd,” said Brad. “It’s incredibly hard to start small, too, with one tractor and 10 cows. I don’t really know anyone who started a dairy farm from scratch without taking on an

enormous amount of debt.”

Taking over an established family farm may be a bit easier than starting from scratch, but dairy farming will always be challenging. Equipment is expensive, milk prices go up and down, and access to enough land for pasture and feed is often a concern. And yet, if you love dairy farming as much as Brad Santy does, the decision to take on those challenges is an easy one. As Brad’s tattoo reads: “Farm on.”

fletcher farm

PITTSFIELD

Austin and Walter Fletcher, fifth and fourth-generation dairy farmers, respectively

Though Austin Fletcher grew up on his family’s dairy farm, he wasn’t always sure farming was what he wanted to do for a living. “There was a time in high school when I definitely wanted nothing to do with it,” he said. “I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think I wanted to do it.” But after leaving Maine and working other jobs and on other farms, Austin felt the pull back to his roots.

At 33, he’s happy to be back in Pittsfield, working alongside his dad, and preparing to continue the

family business. The plan is for Austin to take over the farm gradually as Walter transitions away from farming full-time. “There is a personal satisfaction,” said Walter, “a sense of accomplishment, when your children look at what you have done and see some- thing worthwhile. And when one of them says, ‘I see what you’ve done and I would like to be a part of it, to build on it and carry it forward,’ it is the greatest com- pliment that I could receive. It makes me very proud.”

bo lait farm

WASHINGTON

Conor and Alexis Macdonald, first-generation dairy farmers

While neither Conor nor Alexis grew up on dairy farms, they both “really love cows and love working with large animals, so we wanted to start a business doing just that,” said Alexis. “So many of our friends and family tell us they never would have thought we’d have become dairy farmers, but it seems to embody so many of the things that are important to us: animals, nature, hard work, community. It can be exhausting and maddening and frustrating at times, but it’s also empowering and rewarding.”

While their decision to become dairy farmers was relatively easy,

being dairy farmers is anything but. Without a background in dairy farming, their learning curve has been steep, and making it work is a constant challenge. “There’s so much to know when you’re running a farm. You’re a vet, plumb-  er, carpenter, accountant, manager, electrician, mechanic … the list goes on. Most dairy farmers we know still claim to have only learned the tip of the

iceberg, even with decades of experience under their belts. It’s no exaggeration to say we learn something new every day, whether we want to or not.”

This article is from the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

Land & Sea

A FRESH LOOK AT OUR REGION’S FOOD FUTURE

By Amanda Beal & Robin Alden

Illustrations by Sarah Wineberg

On September 29, 2016, the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries (formerly Penobscot East Resource Center) and Maine Farmland Trust hosted the Land & Sea Colloquium at Bowdoin College to explore a whole-system approach to increased food production in Maine. The discussion also examined the connections between economic growth potential in the food sector, good natural resource stewardship, and the overall health of our communities. More than 70 people were engaged in the discussion. The following is based on the transcript of the event (a video of the presentations and panel session can be viewed here).

Maine and New England food production is experiencing a renaissance. New farms are cropping up across the region and the average age of our farmers is declining, signaling that younger farmers are moving into the picture. Maine has a thriving inshore fishing fleet, and there is great interest in aquaculture expansion. Direct farm- and boat-to-consumer markets have expanded, and more and more eaters want to know where their food comes from. All of this is reinvigorating our rural landscapes and contributing to a growing local food culture.

Our region is widely viewed as a land of opportunity for increased land- and sea-based food production and harvesting over the coming decades. Maine is a national leader in river restoration, which is positively impacting marine systems, and has a significant amount of coastline adjacent to the Gulf of Maine. We have good farmland, a moderate growing season, and communities throughout the region that value locally grown and harvested food. Maine has the potential to be a major source for the New England food market, and many predict broad and positive economic impact.

But what exactly does sustainable expansion—economically and environmentally—of the region’s food production look like? How can major change take place in a manner that strengthens local communities, improves individual well-being, delivers economic benefit to producers and others along the food chain, and strongly supports the land and water resources upon which all production and harvesting depend?

All of these questions, considered simultaneously, create a complex and challenging puzzle that we must work to solve to ensure that we create real and lasting benefit for Maine’s people into the future.

MAINE PRODUCES

Currently, about 90% of the food we eat in New England comes from outside the region.(1) We have the potential to produce a lot more food in New England—perhaps half of what we eat or even more—but to do so, Maine needs to play a major role in expanding food production.

Over the past 25 years, Maine has seen a positive trend in the number of farms and land in farms reported by the USDA Census data. The last count, in 2012, reported 8,174 farms and 1,454,104 acres categorized as farmland. These numbers are encouraging, particularly after the long and steep decline that began in the middle of the 20th century, when Maine counted just over 42,000 farms encompassing 4.6 million acres. Meanwhile, we have done well in effectively managing our natural resources, recognizing that they are an essential foundation for increased production now, and for sustained production into the future.

With over 5,300 miles of coastline, Maine’s fisheries support approximately 5,000 commercial fishermen. In addition, about 90 companies operate 180 aquaculture farms, which employ approximately 600 more people in the fisheries sector.(2) It’s known that fishing can be an incredible economic engine, providing jobs that help to sustain coastal communities, but it’s also true that ongoing success for our fisheries requires a healthy environment. These two factors are inextricably linked. The ocean is downstream from all human activity; in Maine, we are fortunate that by global standards our water quality is still remarkably high.

We have many reasons to be excited about the potential for Maine’s food production to grow to feed ourselves as well as the region, and beyond, but for Maine’s food producers to achieve livable wages, while also supporting their stewardship activities and making sure the food they grow is accessible and affordable, it is clear that numerous shifts are needed within our current food system.

The potential to significantly expand Maine’s food production is real, and there are signs of progress in some areas. But it’s important that we not only look at the positive and exciting data trends that show growth in sales or pounds of food produced. For instance, we would not want to increase land-based production by reclaiming farmland in an area or in a manner that leads to runoff that would endanger the productivity of our marine waters or in a way that prohibits farmers from being able to cover their costs and pay themselves and their workers a fair wage, impacting overall farm viability.

This second example has been a long-standing issue in the commercial dairy sector, where farmers operate at the mercy of the fluctuating federal milk price, leading to an ongoing decline in the number of mid-scale commercial dairy farms. These farms are an important anchor for services that other farmers rely on, which will create challenges for all farmers if this trend continues. Likewise, overfishing a species when a new market emerges, as we did with sea urchins, may bring short-term economic benefit to a few, but limits the longer-term productivity of this fishery and affects the ecosystem for other important commercial species.

These are just a few examples of how looking at only one piece of the system without considering the whole can limit our ability to see the longer-term implications of our decisions and to foster an overall productive, viable, and healthy food system that works for all.

CURRENT CONDITIONS AND CHALLENGES

Farming and fishing in Maine today are benefiting from a more engaged public that has a growing interest in knowing where their food comes from, who grows and harvests it, and how they can play a role in supporting the producers’ efforts. More than at any other time in recent history, Mainers value food producers as important members of our communities. Yet, even with this level of support, we still have challenges to overcome to make sure that our food businesses can thrive now and in the future.

On land, many farmers still struggle to make a living, largely due to the rising cost of doing business and the small portion of the food dollar (which in 2015 reached its lowest level in a decade) that is paid to producers.(3) This economic trend of rising costs and lower returns affects the system on down the line, making it challenging to build and sustain the needed infrastructure to process and distribute farm products, to allow entrepreneurs to develop value-added products, and to make Maine-grown food more widely available to institutions and larger markets. Without the intentional will or some other force that inspires consumers to pay more for food, these challenges will continue to affect the future of our food system. Without addressing the underlying economic dynamic, it will be difficult to achieve broad economic benefits for the agricultural food sector as a whole.

In fisheries, if we look at the aggregate haul of Maine commercial landings, the overall trend looks really good. But looking more closely, we see that the majority of the upswing is due to lobster production, which in 2016 saw record-level landings of 130 million pounds, valued at $533.1 million.(4) It’s believed that the continued growth in lobster production can be attributed to a decades-long decline in lobster predators like cod, warming waters, and strong management and conservation efforts within the lobster fishery.(5) As a result, many rural coastal towns now depend almost entirely on lobstering to support their local economy. The lobster industry seems to be faring better than farming, but this dependence on one species creates a vulnerability in our fisheries economy. Also, lobsters have a cold temperature threshold, beyond which they cannot survive their larval stage, when they float on the ocean surface.

So, although we are currently in a sweet spot, the fact that the Gulf of Maine continues to warm raises concerns about how long lobster production can remain at the current, high level. Climate change impacts create uncertainty for both land- and sea-based food production. While the changes we see in the ocean include warming waters, increasing acidification, and some shifting of species habitat, on land we see changes to the growing season, less predictability of warming and cooling cycles, issues with water availability, new pests and diseases, and an overall heightened risk of crop failure due to these factors and others, such as increases in intense weather events. Because food production relies on an ecological foundation, as that foundation becomes less stable and predictable, our ability to project what food system changes are possible is increasingly challenged.

COMPLICATING THE PICTURE: CONNECTIVITY AND INTERCONNECTEDNESS

We are producing food in a profoundly complex and dynamic ecosystem that includes a complex and dynamic economy. We also know that Maine’s natural resource economy is the lifeblood of literally hundreds of Maine communities. It is vital that as we invest in the new agriculture economy, or modern fisheries and aquaculture opportunities, we do so in a way that takes into account the many system interactions and that supports values such as long-term sustainability, equity, and community health.

It is daunting to consider our food production from a systems perspective, and in the past we have not even tried. Policy is compartmentalized, with agriculture, water quality, aquaculture, and fisheries in separate agencies and university departments.

Agency and academic science have, of necessity, made assumptions to simplify the issues, to enable management schemes that are now, in a changing climate, no longer valid. Fisheries science for regulation setting, for example, has been treated like a math problem, predicting broad scale future abundance on the basis of random surveys and past patterns. Not only is this no longer wise in a rapidly changing ocean environment, but it also overlooks new knowledge about local ecology populations of fish and shellfish.

It is, of course, important to understand the functioning of each of the many systems as well as the individual components at play. But we also need to pay attention to key interconnections, otherwise the result will be that we operate with a skewed under- standing of the whole picture and we risk not seeing trends that may tell us an important part of the story.

When thinking about the food system, we need  to consider the markets—local, regional, national, international—and how they fit together. We need to recognize who, and what, drives change. For instance, policies can impact the food system as a driver, as can market demands, access to capital, and technology.

Remembering that our food system is, well, a system, we need to understand what ties these pieces together—the farmer, the delivery truck, marinas, etc.—and think about what effects any one action might have on these connected parts of the system. We need to acknowledge potential competition for resources, like land and space in the marine environment, and the fact that different places in the ocean have different ecological functions.

Finally, as we consider these and other questions, we must make ourselves aware of the consequences of any actions, intended or unintended. Keeping these questions and intersecting concerns in the forefront of our planning can increase our understanding of the underlying system, which can lead us to effective and meaningful change.

HOW TO MOVE FORWARD IN A COMPLEX SYSTEM

So, where do we go from here? How do we make and support changes in our food system that have real, positive impact and take into consideration the complexities of today and the unknowns about the future?

The Land & Sea Colloquium was a call for us all to go a step further in our thinking about how to navigate the complex interconnected human-natural system that is our food system. We know we must understand the components, and the relationship between them, within this dynamic system. It is important that we work to develop institutions that understand and embrace these interconnections, fostering thinking that cuts across sectors, holds multiple values at the center of decision-making, and establishes tight feedback loops that enhance our ability to adapt as things change, such as in a future of more agriculture, more aquaculture, restored river fisheries after dam removal, shifting markets, and climate change.

On land and sea, we would do well to take a management approach that allows for shared learning to provide the capacity for adaptation and adjustment along the way. We need to build flexibility into our regulatory structures and management strategies that allows for shifting ecological and economic conditions. Enabling flexibility and adaptability in any planning helps to minimize risk and swiftly respond to new opportunities in an unknowable future.

It is crucial that we look at various ways to accumulate and assess information. It is just as important to gather and understand farmers’ and fishermen’s knowledge as it is academic knowledge. Farmers and fishermen have a fine-scale understanding of their environment and the day-to-day conditions that impact their success. All of this knowledge taken together provides a powerful way to understand how changes to any part of the food system impact the whole.

On land and sea, different values and interests can lead to conflicts about how resources are best used. Taking a comprehensive look at overall goals for our landscapes, watersheds, and the people in them can help us to reconcile various viewpoints, and to connect otherwise isolated conversations about land and aquatic environment use. Although it is incredibly challenging, we should move toward coming up with multiple-interest and multiple-use guidelines for these resources.

We must also keep an eye on the whole system to avoid making unintentional trade-offs, and to increase the positive potential of our collective efforts. A powerful example of this is unfolding before us, as our understanding of the systemic impacts of damming rivers has become clearer. Beginning in 1790, we installed 202 dams in 210 years, almost a dam a year for two centuries. This has been problematic for several reasons, including the impact on fish that must travel upriver to reach their historical spawning grounds. We saw a significant collapse of forage fish after the Veazie Dam was built at the head of tide on the Penobscot River, where alewives, blueback herring, and other migratory fish once were plentiful.

According to an article in the New York Times last fall, two years since the removal of the Veazie Dam, nearly 8,000 shad were counted swimming upstream, along with more than 500 Atlantic salmon and almost two million alewives.(6) This gives us insight into the potentially significant impacts of ecological restoration, which could greatly benefit future generations by encouraging greater species richness and diversity in the Gulf of Maine.

It is not a given that we will realize the highest potential for Maine’s food producing future. Known and unknown challenges will require us to be adaptable, to actively share knowledge across our areas of expertise and immediate interest, and to work together strategically. As we think about opportunities to increase food production in Maine, it’s important that we rigorously address all of the values that we want to ensure are built into that growth. How will we address change and build a model of equity?

How can we assure that, while supporting growth, we still live within the bounds of our ecosystem, supporting the productivity of our connected land and marine systems to the highest degree possible?

Maine has an opportunity. By looking at our past mistakes and at the challenges other regions face where management of land and sea resources are at odds, we know that Maine can be an innovative world leader in building a robust environment for food production that addresses the whole system, and that can be sustained for generations to come. Maine Farmland Trust and the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries are committed to working together to continue this dialog. We invite others to join us, as we acknowledge that no one organization, business, or person can create and sustain the kind of systems change that is needed, and that ongoing connectivity is the key to helping us all to understand the broader picture while we each work to do our parts.

Amanda Beal is the president & CEO of Maine Farmland Trust and a Ph.D. candidate in the Natural Resources and Earth Systems Science program at the University of New Hampshire. Robin Alden is the founder and executive director (retired in 2017) of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries and a past Maine Department of Marine Resources commissioner under Governor Kings administration.

Other speakers at the Land & Sea Colloquium whose remarks contributed to this article included: John Piotti, past-president of Maine Farmland Trust and now president of American Farmland Trust; Tim Griffin, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment graduate program at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy; Bob Steneck, professor in the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine; and moderator Jo D. Saffeir

notes

  1. Donahue, Brian, and Joanne Burke, Molly, D. Anderson, Amanda Beal, Tom Kelly, Mark Lapping, Linda Berlin, A New England Food Vision: Healthy Food for All, Sustainable Farming and Fishing, Thriving Communities (Durham, NH: Food Solutions New England, University of New Hampshire, 2014)
  2. Bell, Tom, “Maine Aquaculture Industry is Snagging Investors,” Portland Press Herald, January 15, 2015, posted January 15, 2015, http://www.pressherald.com/2015/01/15/ maine-aquaculture-snagging-investors/
  3. USDA Economic Research Serv “Food Dollar Series.” Last updated March 16, 2017. https://www.ers.usda.gov/ data-products/food-dollar-series/
  4. Overton, Penelope, “Maine Lobster Catch Tipped the Scale at a Record 130 Million Pounds in 2016,” Portland Press Herald, posted March 3, 2017, http://www.pressherald.com/2017/03/03/ maine-lobster-landings-set-records-in-2016/
  5. Steneck, Robert , et al., “Creation of a Gilded Trap by the High Economic Value of the Maine Lobster Fishery,” Conservation Biology, Society for Conservation Biology, Volume 25, Issue 5, (2011): 904–912
  6. Carpenter, Murray, “Taking Down Dams and Letting the Fish Flow,” New York Times, posted October 25, 2016, https://www.nytimes. com/2016/10/25/science/ penobscot-river-maine-dam-removal-fish.html.

This article is from the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

A sneak peek of the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms annual journal

In the next week or two, the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms annual journal will be arriving in mailboxes across the state and beyond. (Hot tip: If you’re not yet a member, or haven’t renewed in a few years, join today to make sure you get your copy of the journal!)
Here’s a sneak preview of some the stories you’ll find inside the new issue:
  • Nancy Harmon Jenkins heads north to find Maine-grown grain on the rise in potato country
  • Melissa Coleman considers the sustainability of scaling up
  • Farmer Stacy Brenner imagines the potential for savvy marketing to sync rural farmers and urban customers
  • Machias landmark Helen’s Restaurant shares a recipe for the very best blueberry pie
…and much MORE. 
 
By sharing the stories of Maine farms and food, we aim to cultivate a curious and informed community of people who are passionate about the future of farming in Maine.
We’re happy to offer this lush, informative, one-of-kind publication to our members. But the real benefit of joining MFT is knowing that you are taking an active and real stand for the future of farming in Maine. Your membership gift goes directly to helping protect farmland, support farmers and grow farming. We simply can’t do what we do without you!