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and rethinking how we farm
BY JOHN PIOTTI
Philip and Heather Retberg of Quills End Farm in Penobscot have a lot in common with other young couples I’ve seen repopulate old farms: a clear commitment to good farming practices and good food, to improving their community, and through it, our planet.
Yet different farmers take different paths. A decade ago, when I first met the Retbergs, they were doing something that was rare in those days: reclaiming former farm fields that had grown up in trees. Pioneers in more ways than one, the Retbergs were staking a claim on their future.
It’s easy to forget the vastly different perception of farming’s future held by most Mainers—including many farmers—just a few years ago. When I began working with farmers in the mid 1990s, conventional wisdom held that farming in Maine was dying.
The first statistics that hinted at farming’s potential re-birth appeared in the Federal Agricultural Census of 1997, with stronger signs evident in 2002. From 2002 to 2007, the number of farms in Maine increased by almost a thousand, from 7,199 to 8,136. By 2012, the value of farm production was up 24 percent over 2007, showing that new operations were not all small hobby farms, as some had suspected. Meanwhile, from 2007 to 2012, the number of beginning farmers jumped nearly 40 percent. Clearly, something positive was happening.
Yet these statistics, as informative as they are, can’t capture the complexities undergirding farming’s renaissance. A deeper look at farm operations would reveal that some farms are thriving, while others are struggling, and many more only remain in business because the farmers are willing to work exceptionally hard for little money.
While there is more to the issue, it is safe to say that farming in Maine is growing, if unevenly, and that public perception is more positive than it’s been in generations. There’s a newfound conviction that farming is here to stay.
farming more land
The idea that farming in Maine is poised to expand is nothing new, but it was thrust into the spotlight last spring with the release of A New England Food Vision. The widely-circulated study showed how New England could produce as much as two- thirds of its own food by the year 2060, but only if the region expands its agricultural production by 3-4 million acres. A good chunk of that land will need to come from Maine, simply because it isn’t available anywhere else in New England.
But just because something could happen, doesn’t mean that it will—or that it will in a way that serves Maine well. As history shows, Maine farmers do not always benefit more from growing more. And clearing millions of acres of woodland for local food production could either help the environment or hurt it, depending on how it’s done.
The bottom line is that it will take real effort to get this right. And we won’t get it right unless we think differently and act smartly. We can’t expect that expanded farming will necessarily benefit farmers, unless we address some of the underlying issues that
prevent farmers from making a decent living. Beyond this, we can’t think about expanding farming simply by returning overgrown woodland into farm fields. For one thing, we can’t afford to cut trees without paying attention to carbon emissions and water quality. For another, we can’t succeed at any of this unless we see the big picture—how fields and woods can each play a role in food production, and how any sustainable food system relies on the health of the broader ecosystem.
Reclaiming former fields is clearly central to the future of farming in Maine. But we also need to move beyond our current thinking that fields are the only places where we can raise crops or livestock.
Unlike a decade ago, today I know many farmers who are reclaiming former fields from woodland, and many more who are thinking of it. Farmland reclamation is driven by both current economics and future possibilities.
The market for biomass (i.e., the woody fiber that comes from cut trees and brush) is now such that a landowner can often clear a swath of land for no cost—even a swath of low-value species like alder or pasture pine. Overgrown fields also appeal to a subset of farmers: those who can’t outlay enough cash for an open parcel, but are willing to invest sweat
returning woodland to agricultural production. Meanwhile, the broader factor driving farmland reclamation is that Maine boasts millions of acres of once-farmed land that could be farmed again.
In the 1880s, 6.5 million of Maine’s 20 million acres was cleared land used for farming—either for growing crops or grazing livestock. Today, only about 700,000 acres of land are used in this way. Of the remaining 5.8 million acres, some has been lost to development, but probably not much more than a million acres or so. Over 4.5 million acres of once-farmed land has reverted to woods—and very little of that land is part of Maine’s great northern forest, on which our paper mills rely. Here is a way that Maine could contribute millions of acres to the emerging vision that New England might someday grow most of its own food.
Still, the goal should not be to simply transform millions of acres of woods into fields, but rather, to utilize that land for food production in new ways. There is a subtle yet important difference here, stemming from the fact that open fields are not the only way to grow food.
growing food in woods
Most of us acknowledge that woods are good places to collect maple sap and perhaps pick a few wild berries, but we seldom think of woods as a potential source of staple food products. And yet, many of the fruits and nuts we eat—though now harvested from orchards and fields—come from trees and woody shrubs with forest origins. Likewise, we may gather mushrooms or fiddleheads in the woods, but never think of raising traditional vegetable crops under a forest canopy. Yet many vegetables grow well in partial shade—including garlic, peas and greens.
We could utilize our woodlands to grow more fruit and nuts, while cultivating vegetables in the understory. This concept of intermixing food-bearing trees with understory crops is the idea behind “forest farming.” Rooted in practices that stretch back centuries, forest farming was formally advanced in the 1930s, and more recently embraced by some of the advocates of permaculture. Though still rare in Maine, forest farming fits well with our soils and growing conditions.
Woods can also feed livestock, which can thrive off the shoots of many trees, including poplar, locust, and beech. At one time in the South, mulberry was common fodder for pigs; while in Europe, pollarded willows were once customary winter feed for cattle. (In fact, the product was called “pollard hay.”) Slowly, greatly by using “management-intensive grazing,” in which animals are frequently rotated from one small area to another. This reduces runoff, while retaining nutrients and building soil carbon. It’s a smart practice, even if it does run counter to the romantic image of a farmer releasing sheep or cattle into a large pasture for the summer.
Another common notion we need to move beyond is that a field, once cleared, should stay a field. Farmers have become accustomed to the idea of raising crops on a rotating cycle of, say, three years; but there is also value in thinking about far longer rotations of a hundred years or more, during which the very use of the land would change, not just the crops. During such a long period of time, a suitable woodland parcel may be either partially or fully cleared for livestock and/or crop production. (The decision of how much to clear would be driven by many factors, including soil qualities.) The parcel could then be managed to revert back to a wood, though perhaps one containing more fruit and nut trees than it had before. Perhaps 50 years in the future, this land could be cleared in some fashion again, starting the cycle anew.
Such a system would bring with it some of the same kinds of benefits of short-term crop rotations, including reducing soil erosion and increasing organic matter, only on a whole different level.
It could also serve to sequester large amounts of carbon, since neither land clearing nor farming, if done right, need result in net carbon emissions.
In this light, the new wave of Maine land clearing that is now beginning could be viewed as the beginning of something much broader, and far more beneficial, than just creating new farm fields. Here is an opportunity to craft a dynamic and innovative system for sustainably producing more food.
Maine should never have been farming 6.5 million acres in the 1880s—or at least not those particular 6.5 million acres in that manner. The landscape across much of southern and central Maine during that period was basically devoid of trees, except for orchards. Land was often cleared right up to the banks of rivers and streams. Pastures were often over-grazed and crops worked with little regard for soil conservation. As a result, we depleted our topsoil and despoiled our waterways.
It’s a common story for our species: We push things beyond where they can be sustained, until the point where they collapse. But it doesn’t need to be this way.
from “best practices”
to “next practices”
As Maine now moves to farm more, we need to learn from past mistakes. For instance, if we are to clear more land—whether fully or partially— it’s critical that we do so in ways that prevent soil erosion. Loss of topsoil not only constrains farming’s future, but results in the silting of brooks and streams, destroying spawning habitat for critical fish species. And if we are farming more, we need to be far more conscious of any fertilizers and pesticides we use, because their harmful residuals invariably end up in our waterways.
This makes good sense on more than environmental grounds: After all, if a major reason to expand farming in Maine is to grow more food, it’s foolhardy to grow more food on land at the expense of food that could be harvested from our waters. Yet as we expand farming, we don’t know exactly what practices to follow to ensure that we are doing things smartly. Consider, as just one example, how we can’t say with any certainty
what size buffer strip is required to maintain water quality downstream from a newly cleared farm field. It depends on so many factors, such as the vegetation in the buffer, the way the farm field is managed, the nature of the terrain, and more. Beyond this, it’s critical to design any buffer strip to not only meet the needs of today, but the needs of the future, when extreme weather events are likely to be more dire and more frequent. No standards of this sort have yet been developed, because the research has not yet been done.*
Farmers are used to the notion of “best agricultural practices,” various operational standards articulated in farm publications and, at times, in law. But when it comes to farmland reclamation, the standards that exist are insufficient, either because they weren’t designed to take the full ecosystem into account, or because they don’t respond to the realities of a changing climate. We need to move beyond our current “best practices” to what I call “next practices.”
One of many reasons to step up our game is that we can no longer ignore the impact of carbon emissions. It may seem that clearing woodland would result in a net increase in atmospheric carbon, but that need not be the case. Any wood that is suitable for lumber could be utilized in a way that ties up that carbon for 100 years or more. Some of the other wood could be converted into bio char, a soil amendment that sequesters carbon while increasing the fertility of the new field. And any remaining biomass could be used as heating fuel or to generate power, replacing fossil duel now used for those purposes. In addition, there’s a range of ways in which to clear land, each with a different carbon footprint. For instance, pigs can be pastured on partially cleared land as an alternative to using heavy equipment to remove roots. Beyond all this, any newly-created field could be farmed in a manner that sequesters more carbon than did the pre-existing woodland by utilizing no-till methods, aggressive cover cropping, and other regenerative practices.
restoring our planet
If we are smart about it, Maine could simultaneously advance local food production and environmental health, while also making strides to reduce carbon emissions. The strategy would involve clearing land—both fully and partially—in accordance with forward-looking environmental standards, and then pursuing production practices that wisely steward that land. Partially cleared parcels would become laboratories for forest farming and silvopasture. Fully cleared parcels would be farmed in ways that both produce high yields and sequester carbon. And wherever livestock are pastured, we’d see widespread use of management-intensive grazing. The whole system would be managed on a multi-generational rotation of 100 years or more.
Of course, that is only part of what’s needed. Despite increased demand for local farm products, there is not yet sufficient demand to support significant increases in production at prices that work for farmers. For an assortment of reasons, often political, many of our farmers don’t make enough money to cover their true costs of production. To abridge my extensive writing on this topic. I’ll simply say that I’m confident that more economically viable markets will develop over time. But until that happens, the last thing that makes sense is for those farmers to grow more.
Still, perhaps it’s good—in a way—that we have time to think things through before we reclaim millions of acres of former farmland, time to further study and refine “next practices.”
Maine has the chance to do something truly significant, something that is powerful on its own and even more powerful because it could be a model for others. Maine can do far more than feed itself and help feed New England: Through our farmers, Maine can lead the way to restoring our planet.
Heather and Philip Retberg were among the farmers featured in From the Land: Maine Farms at Work, my 2009 collaboration with photographer Bridget Besaw. In it, Philip offered these thoughts:
The farm itself is an ecosystem. Our crop is grass. Our harvesters are chickens and cattle and pigs and lambs and all the microbes and earthworms that live off what we do as we rotationally graze our animals. The entire ecosystem benefits… It increases the fertility of the soil, increases its ability to capture sunlight and do that incredible photosynthesis thing that feeds all life. Our job is to steward the land with the resources we are given: sunlight, water, earth, and photosynthesis.
Our future lies in farms like this.
*This is a focus of a PhD dissertation now being undertaken by Amanda Beal, a long-standing food systems advocate who serves as Maine Farmland Trust’s Policy and Research Fellow.
**Photos from the collections of nylander museum, courtesy of vintagemaineimages.com