By John Piotti
May 1, 2013
In my last column, I wrote about the crisis facing dairy farms, noting how Alan and Doug Millay were forced to stop milking at Rocky Acres Farm in Liberty.
I described the underlying problem as a failed federal pricing system. Not many people realize it, but the base price paid to dairy farmers who sell to processors like Oakhurst or Hood is set by the federal government. For several years, that price has generally been below these farmers’ cost of production. This means that they have been losing money every day. More and more dairy farmers have no choice but to close down.
One reader asked me whether organic dairy farms were doing any better. Dozens of Maine dairy farms have transitioned to organic production in the past 15 years, and now sell to major organic processors like Stonyfield; but the financial benefits of doing so have been modest in some cases, elusive in others. Organic farmers get paid a higher price for their milk, but the cost of organic grain is also higher. With milk prices and grain prices always fluctuating, it only sometimes pays to go organic.
Another strategy is being pioneered by Maine’s Own Organic Milk—or “MOO Milk.” This small processor—which now serves a dozen organic farms—is committed to returning 90% of profits to the farmers. So even if MOO farmers are getting paid the same prices as other organic farmers, they stand to see profits as well. But the great promise of MOO has not yet been realized, because the company is a young start-up and not yet profitable.
So sadly, all Maine farmers who sell milk to processors are now struggling.
But don’t get the wrong idea. The decline of dairy farms here in Maine is not because Maine isn’t a good place to make milk, but because of failed federal policies.
I remain bullish on the future of dairy farming in Maine. I’m optimistic in part because Maine is relatively cool and wet, ideal for raising cows and the grass they eat. I’m also optimistic because I know how—when the fundamentals are sound—things can turn around fast.
It was not too long ago that many Mainers—including a fair number of farmers—believed that farming here was dead. When I began working with farmers professionally in 1995, I found myself spending a lot of time trying to convince people that farming had any future at all.
As we now know from the agricultural statistics, farming in Maine bottomed out in the mid 1990s, and has been growing ever since. In fact, farming has grown significantly since then despite declines in dairy. And in the last few years, public opinion has caught up with what’s happening. There is now an accepted belief that farming in Maine has a future.
As the public’s awareness grew, I began to refine my message. I no longer needed to get as many people over the initial hurdle of seeing farming’s promise. So I began to get into more details, and to explain some subtleties.
My message became this: farming in Maine is both thriving and threatened.
Yes, there is great opportunity for the future, but only if we take the right steps in the next few years. The fact that the number of farms is growing is no guarantee that growth will continue. And if we lose our dairy industry now, we risk losing a lot of good farm infrastructure, farmers, and farmland. (Though dairy is less than 20% of Maine’s agricultural output, it represents about 50% of working farmland.)
Yes, the fundamentals are good. (Maine has plenty of good land for raising crops and livestock, lots of water, better growing conditions than most people think, and handy access to markets). But in some cases (as with dairy) federal policies upset what farmers get paid, while in other cases (as with many fruits, vegetables, and meats) consumer prices do not reflect the food’s real cost, keeping many local farm products from being cost competitive.
Moreover, current economic realities still dictate that the highest and best use of 10 acres of prime soil is often to drop a house in the middle of it.
On top of all that, Maine is facing a major demographic challenge, because the ownership of about a third of Maine’s farmland will be in transition in the next few years, given the age of farmland owners; much of this land could be lost to farming without active intervention.
Farming in Maine does indeed have great promise, but that does not ensure that the promise will ever be realized. We need to get through whatever period of time it takes (10 years? 20 years?) before smarter federal policies prevail, and before enough externalities are internalized into food costs so that prices are driving more local production.
During this transitional period, we need to do whatever we can to keep farmland, farmers, and farm infrastructure intact. Or we will regret it later —because if Maine doesn’t retain these assets, we will lose the opportunity to create a prosperous future built around sustainable agriculture (that would otherwise one day be possible).
This has been the primary message I’ve been communicating in talks and writings for the past five years. But I think that people who have heard and understand that message are now ready to hear a more refined and broader argument. And here it is:
The steps that Maine takes in the next few years will determine more than Maine’s future. It may well determine New England’s future.
I firmly believe that within 50 years, any region that can produce a good portion of its own food in a sustainable manner will have a significant competitive advantage over regions that do not.
I envision agriculture playing an increasingly bigger role in Maine, perhaps becoming a dominant economic force in the not-too-distant future. And yet, farming will never become Maine’s only major economic activity. At the same time, Maine’s economic fate will likely remain closely tied to what happens in the New England region. This means it is in Maine’s best interest to help New England remain vibrant.
That is where Maine farming comes in.
New England is in a position to be growing much of it own food within 50 years, as recent research by Brandeis University’s Brian Donahue and others suggests. But the only way that can happen is if Maine is doing much of the growing. We have the land to do that. In 1880, Maine had 6.5 million acres in agriculture, where today we have only about 1.3 million acres. Much of this once-farmed land has gone to trees, not development. Perhaps as much as 4 million acres could be farmed once again. Not all of this land is suitable for row crops, but some of it is; and the remainder often works for livestock, to which Maine is so well-suited. Maine in the future could not only feed itself, but help feed New England.
I’m now adding this piece to some of my public presentations. (See the talk I gave at Harvard Law School in late 2011, by googling “TEDx Piotti Harvard.”)
There is real power in this vision of a more prosperous and sustainable future, one where Maine’s farms—by serving New England—help strengthen the regional economy that in turn strengthens Maine.
But as noted above, the fact that this future could occur does not mean that it will occur. Making it happen is up to us. And it all starts—at this critical time—by demanding that our policymakers in Augusta do all they can to support our dairy farms.