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Maine Farmland Trust: Protecting Farmland, Supporting Farmers and Advancing Farming

Portland Press Herald

Thursday May 16, 2013 | 07:09 AM

Posted by Sharon Kitchens

At first glance, those acres of green or brown fields stretching out along the horizon are simply beautiful landscapes. Examine them closer and they represent a way of life, this country’s history, and the food on your table. Acres of farmland are an extraordinary visual, but their stories told by generation after generation of families who farm them run even deeper. It is with gratitude I am writing today’s post about Maine Farmland Trust (MFT), a non-profit organization working to permanently preserve and protect the agricultural lands in Maine. Since their founding in 1999, MFT has participated in over 146 land transactions that have preserved more than 27,000 acres of farmland. Through FarmLink, a linking service that helps those seeking farmland connect with those who have it, they are placing next-generation farmers on land. To find out more about Maine Farmland Trust I asked their Executive Director, John Piotti to share information about MFT with The Root’s readers.

I understand a majority of MFT’s agricultural easements are those a landowner has donated.  Aside from donations, how does MFT find land?

We do this across four program areas: farmland protection; farmland access; farm viability, and outreach and education.

We pursue farmland protection in 4 ways:

  • We accept donations of agricultural easements from farmers or other farm landowners who wish to see their farms remain as farms.
  • We help find compensation for farmers who wish to protect their land but are not in a position to donate an easement.  (There are funds available for this purpose through both state and federal programs, and through charitable gifts that flow into MFT).
  • We purchase a small number of farms ourselves, with the goal of protecting them with easements and then re-selling them at more affordable prices to new farmers.
  • We support many local and regional land trust that do their own farmland protection projects, by providing technical assistance (sometime modest, sometime substantial) and (at times) funding.

What is the process MFT follows to decide whether land is viable for farming (e.g. are specific soil test results required for funding)?

MFT’s focuses on protecting good farmland that is capable of supporting a viable farm. Our criteria for protecting land includes the soil type (as determined by federal mapping, not soil testing). We do projects statewide, believing that that there exist opportunities for farming all across the state.

How do people seeking land find out about Maine FarmLink aside from partner organizations and Maine Farmland Trust’s website? 

I think FarmLink is now fairly well known. At present, we have about 325 “farmland seekers” enrolled, so there is no shortage of folks looking for property.  MFT promotes FarmLink at events (like Ag Trades Show and various talks we give) and, of course, the partner organizations with which we work with (e.g., MOFGA, UMCE) also help spread the word.

To date, FarmLink has resulted in 87 matches—that’s 87 farms that have an enthusiastic and capable new operator and stand a good chance of success.  The program is impressive. (And when last we checked, it’s made more matches than any program of its type in nation.) But we have so many MORE people who are looking for farms. The problem is that many farms are not affordable for beginning farmers. That’s one place where farmland protection comes in, because farms that are protected with a permanent agricultural easement change hands at a “farmland price” rather than a “developer’s price.”  As we protect more farmland with easements, we increase the pool of affordable farm properties.

Food Hubs and Four Season Farming are listed as programs on MFT’s website under Farm Viability – but there was not a description of either one of them. What are MFT’s goals for these programs in the future?

We’ve been working on developing a food hub in the Unity area that will help several small farms aggregate product (and in so doing, realize some efficiencies). We’ve also been supporting other groups working to develop similar facilities elsewhere in the state.  I think these kinds of facilities are a big part of the next wave of agricultural development in Maine.

We will be working with Clara Coleman, who is a daughter of Eliot Coleman and an experienced four-season farmer herself, to help introduce some of Eliot’s proven season extension strategies to more Maine farms. We have not yet raised all the funds necessary to launch this effort, but we hope to be in a position to begin work soon.

How did MFT decide to create the Shared-Use Farm Equipment club?  Tell me about how the program is working and why MFT and MOFGA chose to create it.

Our Farm Viability program is open to any activity that may support farmers. This one seemed a natural in the Unity area, given new farmers experimenting with new crops or with scaling up.

MFT reached out to MOFGA to help, because we needed a location to store equipment and an entity to do maintenance. MOFGA has proven an ideal partner (in this and in other areas as well).

As the Executive Director of Maine Farmland Trust, you must work with a wide range of farmers. Based on your experience, what do you think is required of a farmer to turn a romantic idea into something fiscally sustainable?

From my experience, there is no special formula for a successful farm.  Sometimes size helps, sometimes it hurts. Sometimes diversification helps, but sometimes some specialization helps. The key is that a farmer needs to smart, flexible, and multi-talented.  Clearly, many of the emerging opportunities have been is selling direct to local markets. That requires farmers who are both good at production and good at marketing.

All images provided by Maine Farmland Trust. (From top to bottom: Six River Farm in Bowdoinham, 138 acre farm for sale in Jefferson in Lincoln County.)

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