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New breed of Maine farmers say survival depends on optimism, ingenuity

By David Harry

May 02, 2012 12:00 am

FREEPORT — Ralph and Lisa Turner have owned Laughing Stock Farm on Wardtown Road since 1984, and have sold their produce commercially since 1998.

Less than half a mile away, husband and wife Steve Burger and Sarah Wiederkehr have managed Winter Hill Farm for less than a year, and have expanded the operation from raising Randall cattle to include vegetables, eggs and pigs.

Development beyond the pastures of both farms is evident, and both couples share in the hard, daily labors rewarded by the joys of selling what they have grown or made.

“People who do this are incorrigible optimists,” Lisa Turner said after a North Yarmouth forum at Westcustogo Hall examining methods for preserving farm land and encouraging new farmers to work the land.

Wiederkehr was part of the forum, hosted by the Royal River Conservation Trust. She was joined by Steve Sinisi, owner of Old Crow Ranch in Durham, and Justin Deri, who leases fields in North Yarmouth to operate Deri Farm.

“I got into farming when I was 18, and I was stupidly hooked, Wiederkehr said.

Moderated by John Piotti, a former Maine legislator from Unity who is now executive director of the Belfast-based Maine Farmland Trust, the forum explored what has worked and what could work to expand local farming.

As farming veterans, the Turners said they would like to incorporate a wider scope of discussions about how to keep farmland from becoming subdivisions while allowing local farmers to profit.

“We are trying to challenge the concepts,” Lisa Turner said.

The three farmers sharing the stage represented three methods used locally to develop or keep farms going.

Sinisi bought his farm in 2008 with assistance from the Royal River Conservation Trust and Land for Maine’s Future.

Land for Maine’s Future is part of the State Planning Office and supplies public funding to conserve land.

Sixty-five of the farm’s 70 acres were placed in an agricultural easement to prohibit other development and create the possibility he can pass the farm on to his children.

“I’m taking care of something now so someone can do it later,” Sinisi said.

Deri was once a software engineer in greater Boston. He said he began farming as an apprentice in Maine in 2006. He leases two fields at Skyline Farms in North Yarmouth and a third nearby to grow organic produce.

Before leasing his fields, Deri also worked with Lisa Turner to better understand the commercial and marketing aspects of farming, a component the farmers agreed is critical to success.

Serving as managers of Winter Hill Farm, Burger and Wiederkehr said they also gain equity in the farm and share in its profitability. Land prices in southern Maine are so high they could not have afforded to buy a farm here, they said.

Land for Maine’s Future and the Freeport Conservation Trust are negotiating an easement at the farm, which has been sold to Winter Hill Farm LLC by former owners James Stampone and Katherine P. Leroyer.

The couple, who re-established the dairy farm with the rare breed of Randall cattle, wanted to ensure farming continued there. Freeport Conservation Trust Executive Coordinator Katrina Van Dusen said the trust board hopes the easement will be purchased by the end of the year.

The billing address for Winter Hill Farm is listed in Manhattan, and the Turners wonder if taxpayer funds are going to support a corporate entity instead of independent farming.

The couple said they are wary of lease and rental arrangements leaving young farmers with no real stake and reward from their work, and serious potential liability for medical costs stemming from hard work.

“This is an arrangement that works for us,” Burger said, because the couple and their children are earning equity.

Ralph Turner said he worries that valuing land below potential development values affects his ability to get the financing needed to annually plant crops and buy farm equipment.

“There is a lack of understanding about the need for capital,” he said.

The Turners also suggested the Freeport Conservation Trust should encourage reducing local rural zoning requirements of 2.5-acre lot sizes to reduce sprawl and leave more land available to farm.

The Turners drive as far south as Wells to sell their organic vegetables, and Ralph Turner said discussions about farming need to include assessments of market conditions to ensure profitability.

“We all need to work on increasing the markets,” he said.

At Winter Hill Farm, Burger and Wiederkehr sell raw milk, and farm-made yogurt to markets south to Scarborough, and constantly worry about how to make more money from their land.

“It is fully 50 percent of our time,” Burger said about marketing what they grow and make. “That is the trade-off.”

Burger was raised on a large farm in northeastern Missouri. Wiederkehr grew up in Brunswick and said working on a farm operated at the University of New Hampshire changed her life.

“It gave me a different sense of structure,” she said.

Stephanie Gilbert of the Maine Department of Agriculture said local land trusts are the parties required to apply for Land for Maine’s Future grants to buy land easements.

Piotti said the farmland trust prefers private ownership for farms.

“It gets complicated for a nonprofit to run a farm in a way that works well for the land, the people farming it, and the broader farm community,” he said.

Piotti said the easement model for farming is based on flexibility, instead of a stricter conservation easement that limits land to specific purposes.

“Well-crafted agricultural conservation easements will allow any activity that appropriately supports agriculture on a property, including fencing, land cleaning that follows soil conservation guidelines, and construction of hoop houses, greenhouses, barns, sheds, support buildings, ” he said.

Alan Stearns, Royal River Conservation Trust executive director, said more forums are needed, especially for trust members and its board to determine how the trust can best work with farmers in the future.

“What’s most obvious is policy issues we are trying to get our hands around are very new and very fresh,” he said. “The anxiety in the room was about who will be the farmers in the next 10 or 20 years. We need conservation models that succeed no matter who owns the land.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow David on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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