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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.
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 King’s 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
- 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)
- 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/
- USDA Economic Research Serv “Food Dollar Series.” Last updated March 16, 2017. https://www.ers.usda.gov/ data-products/food-dollar-series/
- 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/
- 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
- 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.