Personal Essay

by Stacy Brenner

Each winter, when the snow is deep on our quiet fields, I sit in meetings with “service providers.” Over the years the meeting topics vary: land preservation, ways to increase markets for local products, cooperative marketing, wholesale marketing, farm employment, rural development, food sovereignty, and the best sustainable farming practices.

The service providers—non-profit people, policy wonks, advisors, and academics—are thoughtful and working hard to align us all.

They ask my humble opinion as the farmer  in the room about topics I spend hours thinking about and discussing at the dinner table. We think collectively and then move back into our spheres to make good work happen. They glean farmers’ opinions and look at studies by university researchers. I keep cultivating and harvesting and Instagramming, trying to grow products and our markets. But change is slow and money is tight and human behavior is fickle. Sometimes we have successes and sometimes we realize we are still talking about the same issues 16 seasons later.

Sometimes, while I’m sitting in these meetings, I pull out my phone to check for emergency texts from the farm. I might check my Instagram feed (this is work, mind you!). Did I get any likes on that post about the pregnant cow? Do people like that flower arrangement with the peony? How are berries ranking? Puppies…good grief people love a baby animal! Social media is the outlet that many of us farmers are using to tell our story to customers. We market this rural goodness and these romantic tales of farm life in an attempt to garner support to maintain a cherished way of life. The majority of Americans are no more than five generations removed from farming for subsistence. Not long ago, we all had a connection to the great agrarian way of life. We had a purposeful need to engage with what we now call rural life. And, if you dig deep, most people still crave this connection.

We want our suburban home to be on the edge of farmland; we want to commute past agriculture on our way to somewhere. Our customers sit in their city offices and look at farming Instagram feeds, wondering what it would be like to cash in, leave it all, move to the country, grow flowers.

I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, in a development with 800 homes. Every fourth home looked the same, 200 of each variety. The land, developed in the ‘70s, was once a profitable farm, feeding larger South Jersey towns. The original farmhouse remained in the middle of a sea of suburban ubiquity. I would ride my yellow Schwinn banana seat bike past this farmhouse with my friends, stopping out front to stroke my handlebar streamers, make up stories, imagine a life that once was. I’d head home at dark and watch reruns of Little House on the Prairie. Farming was my dream.

Today, my husband and I, with our two daughters, farm and homestead in Scarborough. So I still live in the suburbs, defined as living within commuting distance to a city. Our little slice of preserved farmland is an oasis that rests at the gateway between the rural communities to the west, the tony beach communities to our east, and the small, vibrant metropolis of Portland 20 minutes northeast. If our land had been developed in 2004 when it was for sale, it would be similar to the neighborhood of my childhood. The farmhouse I live in now would be like the one I rode past and looked to wistfully as a child. The suburbs are something I know well. They are in my fabric.

As a farmer in the suburbs, I borrow time from rural neighbors, learning the roots of agriculture that have existed here since before this area was defined as a suburb. I listen to their stories, they lend us farm equipment, and I feel a sense of belonging in our shared vision of rural wellness. Together, we borrow technology from our urban comrades, using social media to sell the image of our rural lifestyle with a hope that the romanticism of farm work will sell our products. We are looking to create relationships; we are looking to build alliances, understanding, empathy, and awareness. At the root of it, farmers produce food to feed people, to alleviate hunger, and to invite one more person to the table for dinner. I need the knowledge and farming legacy of my rural neighbors and the financial support of my suburban and urban neighbors to continue the good work of agriculture in Maine and to develop markets to sell products.

All distinctions are relative, of course. According to the USDA, Scarborough is classified as rural with regard to economic development programs. It’s true that with our farm’s acreage protected by a conservation easement, folks visiting the farm from Portland are certain they’re in the country. But many of our farming colleagues from towns north and west of us would disagree. With its housing developments, commuter traffic, and tight zoning regulations, Scarborough is a prosperous suburb. When we look at demographic statistics, we note that 1.3 million people call the state of Maine home. Half a million of these residents live in the Greater Portland Metropolitan Area, which includes Scarborough. The bulk of the state’s remaining population hugs the coast. To compare, the population of the Boston metro area is 4.7 million people. Two hours south of our farm, there are three-and-a-half times the number of eaters than in all of Maine. To our Boston friends, Scarborough is rural and downtown Portland, with a mere 66,000 residents, is quaint.

From a policy perspective, the Farm Bill is the federal tool to fund agricultural programs. Initially, rural development (farming) and hunger relief (food welfare) were tied together as a way to achieve political buy-in from rural and urban factions. The idea was that if you built in the need for congressmen from both sides of the aisle, and all geographical regions, to cooperate, you would have more leverage.

To accomplish this, the food stamp program, which in its inception targeted urban poverty, was tied to farm subsidies. Politicians drawn to a social agenda of feeding America’s neediest citizens would collaborate with pro-big ag business politicians from the corn, soy, and cotton states. Initially, the number of qualifying households in urban areas far exceeded those in rural regions. Now, that’s changed. Since 1995, there has been a measurable increase in the number of rural households that access Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

By 2014, 14.6% of rural households received SNAP benefits compared to 11% of urban households.

The funding for most major rural development programming is written into the 2014 Farm Bill, amounting to two one-hundredths of 1% of the Bill’s $489 billion five-year budget. For the sake of comparison, nutritional programs, including SNAP, comprise 80% of the Farm Bill budget, and 19% is used to support and subsidize programs for farmers, including crop insurance payouts and conservation cost share programs. What  was historically designed as a tool to address rural development and urban poverty now struggles with a reality where rural poverty and urban development are both on the rise, and there is a grand disconnect between the two.

Without reiterating everything that has been written since the last presidential election, I will simply say yes, the disconnect is real. The lack of commitment to rural development programs is now painfully obvious. And yet, in what may be the most profound irony of all, those living in rural poverty, using SNAP, may themselves also be involved in agriculture. Perhaps the answer lies in tying SNAP money directly to farm businesses in our rural communities, for instance, providing cost-saving incentives to use SNAP to purchase local products.

Federal relief for rural communities, however,  is only one element of a solution. In Maine, where farming is experiencing a renaissance, there are young, talented entrepreneurs creating diversified businesses. Young farmers are re-populating Maine’s farmscape, offering promise. These young farmers bring social media know-how and story-telling skills. But reinvigorating rural communities with a fresh agricultural approach will only be successful if those new businesses have a market  for selling their products. Here, I see a real pos- sibility of bridging the disconnect between rural development needs and urban market demands.

Outside of federal support programs, the  most feasible route to rural development is a concentrated effort to bring urban and suburban communities into the discussion, mobilizing their eagerness to be connected to the land. It will take creativity to market the importance of rural wellness to the populace living in these metro areas. But, looking through the social media lens, I see a captive audience. Leveraging these new avenues of communication, and highlighting Maine’s rural landscapes rich with tillable land and clean water, would be a great step toward defining and connecting authentic values.

Portland, with its solid restaurant culture, is a fine start, but to move the needle Maine also needs to consider the Boston metro area as a major market. Returning Maine to its former status as the breadbasket of New England is a large-scale proposition; but if it is done with an eye towards diverse markets offering fair prices (with or without subsidy) our renewed farming culture will find huge opportunity. Growing successful farms throughout the state creates jobs. Sustainably scaled agriculture can be an economic driver for a region. This is rural development. As a farmer, the best way I can imagine this happening is through building relationships around food and farm products with a market large enough to support the farming potential of the great state of Maine.

As a state and a region, Maine and New England stand poised to lead the way in alleviating rural poverty through federal, state, and local initiatives. We have thoughtful, creative talent in our service organizations and our nonprofits. In Vermont, the Rural Vermont program provides a great example  of an effective partner service organization.

They have been successful at marketing the idea of rural wellness throughout the state and have created effective ways to fund their organization. They approach communities to determine their goals and aspirations and then work to leverage the talent within other organizations throughout the state to meet those needs. Maine is rich with organizations that have interest and intentions  to support our rural communities and address rural poverty. Unfortunately, the one organization focused solely on rural communities in Maine, the former Maine Rural Partners, closed when its funding dried up. But Maine Farmland Trust, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Maine Farm Bureau, and other like-minded groups have the potential to collaborate on a strong marketing campaign to attract the interest, money, and support of urban centers in Maine and in the Boston metro area, and build markets for Maine’s rurally produced products.

Marketing rural Maine will allow our urban neighbors to participate and be meaningful partners in our cherished heritage. If successful, the original goals of the U.S. Farm Bill, to connect rural development with urban health—to leverage the well-being of all our communities—might finally be met.

 

stacy brenner lives, farms, and flowers at Broadturn Farm in Scarborough with her husband, John Bliss, and two daughters, Emma and Flora. They raise cut flowers and organic vegetables, host weddings, and operate a summer day camp that connects a young community  with nutritious and sustainable food. She’s devoted to understanding and improving farmland preservation, farmland tenancy arrangements, and organic agriculture as an economic driver for Maine. Stacy has worked as a barista, an orchid greenhouse caretaker, a cotton farmer, and a nurse-midwife. She holds degrees in agriculture and nursing. She is a contributor to Taproot Magazine, and is a MOFGA Board Member. Stacy has been farming in Maine since 2002.