Category Archives: Local Food Access

As dairy farms struggle, organizations and farmers collaborate to find alternate solutions through new feasibility study

At a time when dairy farmers in Maine and across the country are facing numerous challenges affecting the milk market and resulting in low prices to producers, multiple Maine organizations have joined with Maine organic dairy farmers to investigate alternative market opportunities. A Local Foods & Farmers Market Promotion Program (LFPP) grant from the USDA was recently awarded to MFT, written in collaboration with the Maine Organic Milk Producers, Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association, Coastal Enterprises, Inc., and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, to execute a feasibility study to determine whether in-state processing could enable better market stability for organic dairy farmers. This successful proposal was also bolstered by support from the Maine Dairy Industry Association, Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, Maine Farm Bureau, Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment, and the Congressional offices of Sen. Collins, Sen. King, Rep. Poliquin, and Rep. Pingree.

“Dairy farms play a keystone role in Maine’s farm and food economy,” said Amanda Beal, President and CEO of Maine Farmland Trust. “This feasibility study has the potential to benefit all dairy farms in Maine, as losing even one dairy farm can have a sizable impact on the agricultural sector and economy, and we know that having multiple market options increases the resiliency of these farm businesses.”

Milk produced by the dairy sector represents Maine’s second most valuable agricultural product; sales value reached nearly $125 million in 2017. All of Maine’s dairy farmers face challenges due to existing political and market forces, which MFT and other partner organizations actively work to address on an ongoing basis through state and federal policy.

However, certified organic farms, which account for nearly one-third of Maine’s dairy farms, face additional challenges as Maine lacks in-state processing infrastructure for their milk.  While the organic market was once relatively resistant to the fluctuating price, supply, and sales of milk and milk products, this is no longer the case.  Adding to the unease for organic producers is the fact that all bulk organic milk produced in Maine is shipped out of state for processing.  This creates a dependence on processors operating in the national milk market, who can get milk elsewhere. This dynamic recently resulted in several organic farmers losing their contracts with an out-of-state processor.

The feasibility study will examine the current needs of Maine organic dairy farms, estimate market-size for in-state processing infrastructure, evaluate various business models and run financial analysis to determine the viability of business models. The study will draw from the experience of MOOMilk, an in-state organic processor that closed in 2014. While many factors contributed to MOOMilk’s closing, the processor’s sales showed strong consumer support for a Maine organic dairy brand.

“Exploring the idea of in-state processing is so exciting for those of us currently in the organic dairy industry,” said Annie Watson, co-owner and farmer at Sheepscot Valley Farm in Whitefield. “This is an opportunity to take an in-depth look at the current landscape of Maine organic dairy. If there is a market for our product on its own label, or in conjunction with a larger processor, we owe it to the future of dairy in our state to seriously consider the possibilities.”

Due to the urgency of the current dairy crisis, partnering organizations plan to finish the study within six to seven months, in hopes to inform some near-term action to expand in-state processing opportunities for our dairy farms.

Maine Farmland Trust Awards Blue Hill Peninsula Grants

MFT recently awarded 22 Blue Hill Peninsula Community Food Grants, totaling more than $55,000. The average grant received was just over $2,500. Grants were awarded to projects or programs intended to increase food sustainability and improve the health and well-being of Blue Hill Peninsula residents. MFT recognized programs that create a more just and sustainable local food system through production and education within both the immediate and surrounding communities.

Tree of Life food pantry was one of this year’s grantees. Betsy Bott, a volunteer at the pantry, explains, “The Community Food Grant and Good Shepherd’s Mainers Feeding Mainers have made it possible for us to put the best our local farms have to offer onto the plates of our community’s food insecure. Due to this support, the Tree of Life has returned 8-10 thousand dollars a year back to local farmers. It’s a win-win, as cliché as that is. That’s what’s so great about these grants. They get really good food to our neighbors, and give farmers a payment.” Healthy Peninsula’s Healthy Eating Initiative received one of the other grants.

Awards were also given to individuals and businesses. “Receiving this grant is enabling us to accelerate the growth of our home garden through the purchase of essential tools, cold frames, and a small greenhouse. As a family of five that wants to eat organic, non-gmo, local food our grocery bill is very high – so being able to grow more of our own food is a high priority for us. Working with our children cultivating the land and showing them how to provide for themselves is one of the most important lessons that we can teach.” says Alycia Brown, of the Blue Hill home garden project.

Other projects awarded grants involved purchasing produce from local farmers to share with food insecure neighbors, construction of farm stands, purchasing farm equipment (as well as home garden tools and improvements), and summer camp garden programs for kids. MFT would like to congratulate everyone who was awarded a grant and thank everyone who applied.

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

Maine Fare 2018 heads for Maine’s Western Foothills

Maine Fare is a month-long series of hands-on field trips and workshops throughout the month of June, culminating into a unique finale feast on June 30th.

Formerly a food festival that drew thousands of local food lovers to Belfast, MFT has re-imagined this popular event to provide more in-depth food experiences that highlight different regions throughout our state. This June, organizers have planned five events throughout the month in Maine’s western foothills region on various topics central to Maine’s food landscape. The 2018 workshops will cover topics that reflect the region’s unique food culture. Workshops include: indigenous foodways with GEDAKINA, mushroom foraging and cultivation, farmstead cheesemaking and lamb butchery.

“Western Maine’s historic and current food system is defined by the geography and landscape– the woods, freshwater lakes and streams, and hillside pastures well-suited to sheep and other livestock,” says Meg Quinn, event manager at MFT.

All workshops and the finale feast are individually ticketed, and tickets will be available April 30 on MFT members receive a 10% discount on all tickets!

click on the dates to purchase tickets!

Workshops Include:


June 3rd: Indigenous Foodways

The presentation will cover indigenous food system recovery work happening in different parts of the state and offer the opportunity to sample foods from the tribal community.


June 10th: Foraging and Growing Mushrooms

This workshop will focus on the basics of the mushroom life cycle, production, and different types of fungi- specifically oyster and shitake mushrooms.


June 17th: Farmstead Cheesemaking

Nezinscot Farm will host a hands-on class that allows students the opportunity to gain skills and understanding of both soft and semi-hard cheeses.


June 24th: Whole Lamb Butchery

Students will learn from and work with a butcher from Rosemont Market & Bakery to breakdown and butcher a lamb from Stoneheart Farm.


June 30th: Finale Feast

The event will feature a casual tasting of small plates prepared by some of Maine’s finest chefs, paired with local beer, wine and cider. This will be followed by storytelling in the lamb barn.

Not a member? Join today and receive 10% off your ticket!

House Agriculture Committee Farm Bill is a Mixed Bag for Maine Farmers

On Thursday, April 12th, the House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway (R-TX) introduced his draft of the 2018 Farm Bill, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2). On Wednesday, April 18th, the Committee voted the bill out of Committee on a strictly party-line vote (26-20). The full House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill in May. This bill is very much a mixed bag for farmers in Maine. Although it contains some important provisions for farmland conservation, beginning farmers, food access, and organic research, it either eliminates mandatory funding, does not increase funding, or makes problematic administrative changes to many programs that are vital to Maine farmers.


Funding for Farmland Conservation


  • Restores $500 million in mandatory funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which provides funding for easements on agricultural land.
  • Makes some administrative changes to ACEP that will make the program easier to use for farmers and conservation organizations.
  • Increases baseline funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which provides funding for conservation activities through public-private partnerships.


  • Cuts funding for working lands conservation programs by nearly $5 billion over 10 years.
  • Eliminates the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which provides farmers with comprehensive support to address natural resources concerns on their property while keeping their land in production. Replaces CSP with Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) stewardship contracts that do not have the core features of CSP and will not have an equal amount of funding.
  • Allows 100% forested land to be eligible for ACEP, diluting the funding available for easements on working farms.


Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers


  • Reauthorizes and continues existing mandatory funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which provides competitively awarded grants to academic institutions, state extension services, producer groups, and community organizations to support and train new farmers and ranchers.
  • Expands the focus of BFRDP to include food safety training, land access, and succession planning.
  • Includes a new Farmland Tenure, Transition, and Entry Data Initiative to collect important data on farmland ownership, tenure, transition, barriers to entry, profitability and viability of beginning farmers in order to improve policymaking and analysis.
  • Reauthorizes and maintains level funding for the Transition Incentives Program (CRP-TIP) to help facilitate the transition of farmland coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to the next generation of farmers. But it does not make needed administrative changes to improve the effectiveness of the program.


  • Farm Service Agency (FSA) guaranteed operating loan limits are increased without increasing overall program funding, thereby decreasing the opportunity for small-scale and beginning farmers to access loans.
  • No increases to FSA direct farm ownership loan limits.


Local and Regional Food Systems and Rural Development


  • Increases mandatory funding to $275 million over 5 years for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives Program (FINI), which provides competitive grants to projects that help low-income consumers participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables through incentives.


  • Provides no mandatory funding for the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP), which is a competitive grant program to help farmers and processors comply with new food safety requirements.
  • Provides no mandatory funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP), which is a competitive grant program that funds direct-to-consumer marketing strategies as well as local and regional food business enterprises.
  • Provides no mandatory funding for the Value-Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG), which provides competitively awarded grants to producers to create or develop value-added producer-owned businesses.
  • Eliminates the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP), which helps small and mid-sized organic farm businesses afford annual certification costs.




  • Provides a $10 million increase in mandatory funding for the Organic Agriculture Research & Extension Initiative (OREI), which supports research projects that address the most critical challenges that organic farmers face.


  • Reauthorizes the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), which provides funding for farmer-driven research, but provides no increases in funding.
  • Reauthorizes the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which provides competitive grants to researchers to solve pressing challenges facing farmers and society, but provides no increases in funding.
  • Reauthorizes the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), which provides competitive grants for regional and multi-state projects that conduct research related to specialty crops, but provides no increases in funding.


Although there are many aspects of this bill that need to be improved for the benefit of Maine farmers, the vote by the House Agriculture Committee is just the first step. The full House of Representatives is supposed to vote on the bill in May. We urge you to contact your representative, either Congresswoman Chellie Pingree or Congressman Bruce Poliquin, to make your voice heard about this bill.

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

Farm Fresh Rewards

MFT is rebranding its innovative nutrition incentive program under the name Farm Fresh Rewards. Farm Fresh Rewards offers bonus local fruits and vegetables to low-income shoppers at participating retail stores.

Farm Fresh Rewards is currently offered at 16 retail locations around the state of Maine, with more to come in the next year. This program is part of a growing number of nutrition incentive programs that help low-income shoppers access healthy food across the country by connecting them with local produce and the farmers who grow it, building sales for farmers. Farm Fresh Rewards can be used by shoppers using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, previously known as food stamps) at participating retail stores. Farm Fresh Rewards complements the Maine Harvest Bucks program that offers incentives to shoppers at farmers markets and CSA farms.

The goal of this program is to expand the number of locations where shoppers can access local food—to make it more convenient, and therefore more attractive. “We are so excited to be working with Maine Farmland Trust to enable more people access to all the fresh, local produce we have to offer in Maine,” says Tina Wilcoxson, Owner of Royal River Natural Foods.

This rebranding comes at a pivotal time for the program. MFT established the program over the past three years largely under a Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant from the United States Department of Agriculture and with support from the Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare Foundation. MFT is excited by how the program has developed and is currently seeking new funding to allow Farm Fresh Rewards to continue to grow.

“We’re really seeing an impact.” says Shannon Grimes, Nutrition Incentive Project Manager at MFT. “Customers are buying more fruits and vegetables, trying new ones, and noticing health benefits—and sales of local goods are going up too. It feels like we’ve caught some momentum and we hope to amplify these successes.”

MFT looks forward to finding new ways to improve and spread the word about the program as it continues to expand under the new Farm Fresh Rewards brand. For a list of where to find the program and more information, visit For a list of all sites that offer nutrition incentives in Maine, visit


If you would like to support this program, please contact us.

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

Representative Chellie Pingree Introduces the Local FARMS Act

On October 4, 2017, Maine’s own Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME), along with Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Representative Sean Maloney (D-NY), introduced HR 3941, the Local Food And Regional Market Supply Act (The Local FARMS Act). Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has also introduced a companion bill in the Senate. Maine Farmland Trust is proud to support this bill. As MFT President Amanda Beal stated at the time of the release, “Maine Farmland Trust is excited to endorse The Local Food and Regional Market Supply Act (The Local FARMS Act). This Act provides the financial support, infrastructure development, and technical assistance that farmers in Maine need to grow the local and regional food economies. At the same time, it increases access to fresh, healthy, and locally-grown food for low-income communities in Maine. Simply put, the tools in this bill will strengthen our economy and nourish our communities. We are grateful for the sponsors of this bill, and especially Representative Chellie Pingree, for working to include these important changes in the next Farm Bill.”

Although the U.S. agricultural economy has experienced an economic downturn in recent years, growing interest from consumers has enabled farmers in Maine and across the country to connect with expanding local and regional markets and find economic success. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2015 over 167,000 U.S. farmers sold $8.7 billion worth of food to local consumers, retailers, institutions, and distributors. In addition, these local and regional food markets can have a significant impact on revitalizing rural communities and keeping families on the farm. However, despite this economic potential, there are barriers that prevent farmers and food entrepreneurs from fully participating in these markets. Such barriers include a lack of infrastructure (e.g. storage, aggregation, transportation, and processing capacity), as well as a lack of associated technical support (e.g. training, marketing, and business planning services).

The Local FARMS Act removes many of these barriers and helps to unleash the potential for greater growth of local and regional food economies in Maine and beyond by:

  • Creating a more comprehensive and efficient program called the Agricultural Market Development Program that merges the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and Value-Added Producer Grants Program. The new Program includes support for farmers’ markets, farm to retail marketing, local food enterprise development, value-chain coordination, food hubs, planning and feasibility studies, producer-owned value-added enterprises, and regional planning through public-private partnerships.
  • Creating a new Food Safety Cost-Share Program to help family farmers comply with new food safety rules and regulations by upgrading on-farm food safety infrastructure and becoming food safety certified.
  • Expanding the Food Safety Outreach Program, the food safety training program for small and medium sized family farmers, by increasing funding and prioritizing projects led by community-based organizations.
  • Reauthorizing the Organic Cost-Share Program for farmers and handlers.
  • Expanding the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program to include low-income military veterans and increased program funding.
  • Piloting a new program called the Harvesting Health Program to demonstrate and evaluate the impact of fruit and vegetable prescription projects in addressing food insecurity, supporting local agriculture, and reducing health care costs.
  • Making it easier for schools to procure locally and regionally produced food by allowing schools to use “locally grown,” “locally raised,” or “locally caught” as a product specification.
  • Expanding the ability of Rural Development and Farm Service Agency grant and loan programs to be used to support livestock, dairy, and poultry regional supply chain infrastructure.

The text of the bill can be found HERE.

Maine Farmland Trust is currently working to create a more interactive webpage for our policy program. Sign up HERE to be alerted when the page is live, and to receive policy updates and action alerts.

Low-income shoppers purchase $100,000 more of local fruits and vegetables through retail nutrition incentive program

A recently developed nutrition incentive program is proving successful at making healthy local food more accessible to low-income shoppers. Through the program, launched in 2016 by Maine Farmland Trust, low-income customers have purchased $100,000 of bonus local fruits and vegetables at 20 participating retail markets throughout the state.

The program is part of Maine Farmland Trust’s 3-year Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive USDA grant intended to increase SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps) recipients’ purchase and consumption of healthy food, and also made possible with support from Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare Foundation. The Trust’s program is designed to help more Mainers buy local food: for every $5 purchased on local products with SNAP/EBT, customers get another $5 to purchase local fruits and vegetables. “It’s like winning the lottery every time I go to the store,” said one customer who uses the program.

Nutrition incentive programs provide bonus fruits and vegetables to low-income shoppers, and have been used in Maine for close to a decade, primarily at farmers’ markets. They have shown to be effective in growing low-income access to local foods, as well as growing the customer base for locally-grown food. In 2016, Maine Farmland Trust expanded the successful concept to local food retailers, such as food co-ops and farm stores, with the goal of connecting the dots between Maine farmers who sell their products wholesale and customers who want to buy more fresh, local food but have limited financial capacity and use SNAP/EBT.

Heide Purinton-Brown, the farmer at Toddy Pond Farm in Monroe, says that she and her family  “love that our local food co-op, The Belfast Co-op, offers nutrition incentives. It is a win for our farm and fellow farmers in that more people are encouraged to buy local products (including Toddy Pond Farm yogurt and kefir), great for our community that folks can utilize these programs to support our local coops and small businesses, and fantastic that families get to see their benefits stretched further and are able to enjoy fresh local fruits and veggies grown in their communities.”

Participating stores have been able to integrate this program into their existing systems, and are excited to be part of something that helps the broader community. As Shawn Menard, General Manager at the Gardiner Food Co-op, notes, “The Maine Harvest Bucks nutrition incentive program has enabled us to successfully reach a larger percentage of our community. By offering incentives to SNAP users who purchase local products, we have advanced in our mission to be open to everyone.”

There’s economic benefit, too—one participating market saw sales of fruits and vegetables to SNAP/EBT customers double in the first year of running the program, and other stores are experiencing similar trends. SNAP sales of other local products, such as dairy and meat, have also increased. This translates into increased sales for all of the local farmers selling to those markets. The $100,000 in incentive dollars that MFT’s program has generated equates to $100,000 more local fruits and vegetables that low-income Mainers were able to bring home thanks to this program, and $100,000 that goes back into the local economy.

Looking ahead, the Trust hopes to attract more new customers to participating markets. “Outreach to new customers is a challenge,” says Shannon Grimes, Nutrition Incentive Project Manager at the Trust. “We’ve been expanding and streamlining our program over the past year—now we need more people to help us spread the word that this is out there as a resource. Many stores and markets continue to have an abundance of local produce throughout the fall, and fall is a great time to stock up on goods for the winter.”

Nutrition incentives are also available at farmers’ market, CSA farms, and more around the state in collaboration with other partner organizations. For more information about where to find sites near you, visit, or contact Shannon, or 207-338-6575.

Harvest season is in full swing! Help grow access to local food.

Harvest season is in full swing (peaches! tomatoes! blueberries!) and the markets participating in our nutrition incentive programs are working to get the word out and encourage all shoppers to store up for the winter during this bountiful season. Help spread the word to your community about where SNAP shoppers can  go to shop for bonus local fruits and vegetables! Nutrition incentives serve everyone: SNAP shoppers can buy more healthful food; Maine farmers gain new customers; More food dollars stay in the local economy.

Find a location in your neck of the woods:

The business of seeds

by Hannah Holmes    photographs by Stacey Cramp   shot on location at Johnny’s Selected Seeds

The soil in the hoop houses at Johnny’s Selected Seeds should be stone-hard in mid-December. But inside, rows of winter chicory unfold glossy leaves of mottled green and maroon. The door stands open to the sullen, gray sky. “Look, this one has a lot of frost damage,” Dr. John Navazio observes cheerfully.

“Look at all the ladybugs on that one. It must have aphids or something. Ideally, 80-85 percent of these will die.

”By pitting these radicchio plants against the cold, renowned plant breeder Navazio hopes to unmask a few variations that can take winter on the chin. He’ll let the survivors go to seed, then send that seed through another winter for an additional round of selection. By the same ancient process that produced such varietal extremes as black tulips and Labradoodles, winter chicory will become Maine-winter chicory.

With Mainers craving a locally grown menu that stretches from soup to nuts and includes a tasting flight of beer, the need for Maine-worthy plant varieties is sending seed breeders back to the well of diversity. They need to come up with seeds that thrive in a climate that’s in the throes of climate change, and still more seeds suited to the hydroponic and hoop house systems their customers are investing in.

A century ago, this wouldn’t have presented such a challenge. Many farmers saved their own seeds, choosing them from the individual plants that performed best on their particular patch of ground. What seed they couldn’t grow they could buy from small, regional seed dealers who were familiar with the local peculiarities of pests and soil. But decades of consolidation in the national seed industry have reduced seed diversity to a few varieties that work the best for the most. Maine, with short growing seasons and wet autumns, isn’t among “the most.”

Hence Navazio’s experiment: he bought a packet of radicchio seeds from Italy, where consolidation has made less headway. At Johnny’s research farm in Albion, he gave them room to express themselves. The plants are remarkably varied, with some forming firm heads, some flat as dinner plates, some frost-browned and dispirited. Only time will tell if one holds the genetic key to Maine—four to seven years’ time, at least. But the result?

“If farmers make money on this in midwinter, that’s my goal in life,” says Navazio, who came to Johnny’s to address the need for better seed. “Gettinga salable crop through the winter: that’s new.”

In experiments large and small across the state, farmers and plant breeders are now tinkering in earnest in a quest for appropriate seed. In a greenhouse next to Navazio’s, Emily Rose Haga is pushing the limits of tomatoes and peppers. As farmers yearn for more hardy and disease-resistant vegetables, Haga is producing a crop of crossbred seed to field-test next spring.

In addition to the plant breeders, a team of trial technicians at Johnny’s is testing still more plant varieties, including some that will perform in greenhouses and hydroponic systems. In closed gardens, higher humidity and stagnant air encourage a new coterie of diseases. And human tenders who walk among the close-packed plants can brush mold spores off one plant and deposit them on another as they pass. So, to the list of traits any northern-plant breeder must incorporate—flavor, vigor, disease resistance, yield, low-light tolerance—add “upright architecture.”

“There’s a huge, and a growing, demand for new varieties,” Haga says. “Our customers are experimenting out ahead of us.” Haga crossbreeds plant varieties in hopes of combining their traits in the next perfect tomato: the disease-resistance of this parent, the flavor of that parent, and perhaps color variation from another contributor.

The time and expense of this work is considerable. In 2015 Haga was shepherding six new tomato types through real-world testing to reveal one new seed offering. And 37 pepper varieties, plus nine lettuces. All told, Johnny’s had dozens of species in some stage of development in 2015.

The slow pace of vegetable life contributes to the expense. Vegetables are decidedly seasonal beings; loathe to sprout a new generation before their seeds are stimulated by the customary day length and temperature. Only rarely is it possible to shorten an experiment by assessing immature plants, says Haga. She did recently breed a new tomato whose resistance to disease was linked to a distinct “marker gene” in its DNA. In such a case, she can send seedling samples out for genetic testing to see which contain the coveted gene. But for the most part, nature dictates the speed of this science.

“The time and cost of developing just one variety means we can’t be too local,” Haga notes. “We’re trying to identify plants with wide adaptation and appeal, while providing more of that locally sourced seed.”

One enthusiastic source of assistance is the community of Maine farmers. When Haga has nursed a few generations of a new variety in the greenhouse, she sends the next generation out for trialling. Local farmers voluntarily take about 20 of the plants to see how they fare in the real world, and in real farmers markets.

Haga seeks out farmers who are using organic soil practices and crop rotation, in the hope of testing her plants against a range of challenges. Maine has the fastest growing population of young farmers under age 35, giving her excellent options:“We had a lot of talented and passionate growers that helped us test our new tomatoes this year.”

Another source of support is farmers outside of Maine. Although Johnny’s was founded in 1973 to locate and distribute seeds to cold-challenged New England farmers, the company quickly became known across the northern latitudes for high-quality seed. So paradoxically, in this “buy local” era, Johnny’s is expanding its trialling network to a number of far-flung farmers who are just as eager as Maine farmers to serve their own “eat local” customers. And this network now extends into the South, Northwest, and Canada. If a plant that grows well in Maine can also perform well in Georgia, that helps to spread the cost of development.

Although the bright vegetables of farmers markets or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms are the most visible elements of the locally grown menu, the demand for homegrown grains is just as intense. And just as challenging.

Sean O’Donnell exemplifies the kind of farmer who is pushing the limits of local production. As the Parkman farmer puts it, “I have a giant
green thumb, and I like to be very diverse. If I think I can grow it, I’ll try it.”

O’Donnell was growing grain to feed his livestock at Rusted Rooster Farm when he decided to try saving his own barley seed instead of buying it each year. That worked so well that he was soon supplying seed to Fedco, another Maine seed company. He tried new grains and expanded his acreage. When a Belfast tofu maker sought local soybeans, O’Donnell was happy to plant some of that, too. And when he heard someone was looking for farmers interested in breeding a better wheat, he fired up his tractor.

Like most staple crops, the wheat plant originated in a very un-Maine-like part of the world. Its colonization of the temperate world is the result of farmers carrying it around for thousands of years, gradually breeding new strains to suit each new location.

But wheat struggles in New England. The weather is too wet, winters too cold, and the fusarium fungus too bold. What’s more, modern wheat varieties were bred for an agricultural system that spoon-feeds them fertilizer, and applies herbicide to kill competing weeds. Organic farming requires a wheat plant to jump out of the ground on its own power and throw big leaves over the weeds. It’s a tall order to breed such a wheat, nevermind “rogueing” each seedcrop to remove any plants that stray from the genetic game plan, and harvesting the seeds at the ideal moment: Hence a new model of plant breeding, which brings professional researchers into the field.

Lisa Kissing Kucek, a PhD student at Cornell University, is heading up a “participatory breeding program” to help New England farmers like SeanO’Donnell shape the wheat seed they need. Kucek’s colleagues and farmers have spent a few years crossbreeding candidates, hand pollinating the plants and tying a bag over each precious head to prevent the wind from meddling in the process.

From 2014 to 2015 O’Donnell and four other organic farmers grew 25 brand-new lines of wheat on their farms, watching for the plants that performed the best. In 2016 these favorites will be more widely grown and tested by bakeries. O’Donnell, however, is not done tinkering. He has boggy spots on his acreage that are crying out for a wheat that is still more waterproof. And the winter wheats he has tried to grow still can’t be called Maine winter wheat. O’Donnell plans to continue the selection process solo, until he can add a strain of wheat to his own seed offerings. “It’s time consuming,” he says. “But I’m willing to take the time and the risk. If I can produce a variety that works well here, I can make money selling it to other farms.”

The demand is certainly there, says Amber Lambke, co-owner of Maine Grains (a Skowhegan gristmill) and co-founder of Maine Grain Alliance. “What I see at the mill is a doubling of the number of growers every year. Oats, wheat, emmer, rye, spelt, buckwheat, triticale, red fife—the diversity, the acreage, and the number of farmers are all growing.”

Just ten years ago, Maine bakers began shopping for Maine grains—and found none. The non-profit Maine Grain Alliance was born, to bring together farmers, bakers, maltsters, and researchers. Lambke has been in the middle of it all, barely keeping up, and seeing nothing but amber waves of Maine grain that stretch into the future. She says, “The next decade is going to be a really exciting time.”

Alice Percy, who heads the Organic Growers Supply division of Fedco, agrees. Fedco saw a doubling of grain seed sales to farmers in the past few years, coinciding with a rise in demand for food with an organic, local pedigree.

Will the trend last, or will Mainers drift back to consuming beer from the Midwest and cabbages from California?

“I don’t think this is a fad,” says Percy. “Given the amount of good land available, and the fact that a young generation of farmers is interested in exploring new crops, I think this is sustainable.” 


Hannah Holmes is the author of several science books; the most recent,
titled Quirk, is an exploration of personality variation. |

New stores added to Nutrition Incentive Program

June welcomed 7 more stores to our nutrition incentive programming all across the state, as well as an increase in incentive match at some of our current markets, so SNAP/EBT shoppers now receive $5 of bonus fruits and vegetables for every $5 they spend on local food at almost all of our participating markets. New this year are 4 Season Farm Market in Auburn, 47 Daisies Farm Store in Vasselboro, Eat Local Eastport in Eastport, Frinklepod Farm Store in Arundel, Sheepscot General Store in Whitefield, Spice and Grain in Fryeburg, Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport, and a few more yet to come!

We were also pleased to offer matching funding for seedlings this year, which wasn’t available last year due to a funding restriction—SNAP customers not only can use their benefits to buy seeds and seedlings, but they can use their fruit and vegetable vouchers to purchase even more, and grow their own fresh food! Unity Food Hub offered a special seedling sale through Villageside Farm to showcase this policy change (and provide seedlings to their Harvest Share customers), to the delight of many.

We’re looking forward to a fantastic growing—and selling—season with our markets and customers! For a full list of participating retail markets, visit: