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Chappells lend name, acreage to farm trust

By SETH KOENIG

KENNEBUNK – Maine Farmland Trust officials first approached Tom Chappell about lending some name recognition to their land protection campaign. They got much more than that.

One hundred fifty-four acres more, to be exact. Chappell, best known as the “Tom” of the environmentally friendly soap and toothpaste maker Tom’s of Maine, was so intrigued by the trust’s goals that he donated agricultural easements protecting farmland over two properties in Kennebunk that he owns with his wife, Kate.

Chappell’s latest venture is Rambler’s Way, a producer of environmentally friendly clothing made from the super-fine wool of Rambouillet sheep. He uses the two newly protected farm properties, which include more than a mile of Kennebunk River frontage, for the sheep and for hay harvesting.

He agreed to be the campaign’s honorary chairman, giving the effort much-needed prestige during what Maine Farmland Trust Executive Director John Piotti called a potentially dangerous period of transition for agriculture in Maine.

“Having Tom as an honorary chair makes a huge difference,” Piotti told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday. “We’re well known in the agricultural community, but we’re still a relatively new arrival in the broader public psyche. … We like the connotation of a respected business leader saying, ‘These guys have a good business model.’

The organization aims to place agricultural easements on 100,000 acres of farmland by the end of 2014, legally protecting the land for farming.

The 100,000-acre goal is ambitious considering that the trust has covered about 26,000 acres over its 12-year existence, but Piotti said it’s necessary to be aggressive because of the increasing uncertainty facing farmers over the next several years.

Piotti reiterated the oft-cited statistic that 400,000 acres — about one-third — of Maine’s best farmland is due to change hands over the next five to 10 years as older farmers retire.

While the generational transfers account for one pressure point in the pursuit of farmland protection, Piotti noted that the stagnant economy promises to complicate the next half-decade further.

Adding to the number of farmers leaving the business because of old age, he said, will be others forced out by poor markets or the sale of the land from underneath them.

Piotti said the trust will announce protection of another 2,000-plus acres in Dover-Foxcroft in the near future.

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