by Christine Parrish
Ared-tailed hawk screamed from a treetop then flew low over the newly mown fields at Rokes Farm in Camden, hunting for voles. The coolness of the early morning and the sweet clover scent of hay cut the previous afternoon didn’t disguise that a hot, clear day was coming. It was perfect haying weather. Behind the big red barns, the farmhands were completing last-minute adjustments to the mower and hay machines before moving into the fields.
For 40 years, farmer Horace Rokes ran an egg farm at the top of Mechanic Street, just about a mile out of downtown Camden. In the 1970s, Rokes had thousands of chickens, supplying Bowden’s wholesale and selling flats of 30 eggs for $1.50 a flat straight from the farm. After his daughter got involved in a 4-H sheep project, Farmer Rokes decided to keep a hundred head of sheep and sold the lambs and wool.
When he shut down the chicken operation in the 1980s, Rokes turned the barns into rental storage lockers and continued to grow and sell vegetables and gladiolas for another 25 years. And he continued growing thick, sweet hay for the better part of 60 years.
Younger folks remember the glads for sale in front of the red barn on the way out to Hosmer Pond and the Snow Bowl; older ones, the eggs. All of them, the fields.
Buying locally grown food fresh from the farm has caught on nationwide. The crowds at the Saturday morning farmers’ market behind the old Knox Mill in Camden indicate the local food trend has caught on big locally, too.
But active farms in affluent coastal towns are in short supply. Farmland with good agricultural soil is rare in the Camden-Rockport area; the same sites that make good farms also make good housing developments and the area draws high real estate prices, even in a slack market. The children of farmers, who may want land to stay agricultural, have sometimes sold to developers because the sale value of straight farmland was simply too low.
That’s just starting to change. Small farms in Maine have had a renaissance in the past decade. Young farmers are moving into the state, or coming back after college, to settle in to work the land and forge new farming communities. There are over 8,100 farms in Maine today, up 1,000 farms from a decade ago.
But it can be tough finding affordable farmland.
“There is lots of land in transition right now,” said John Piotti of the Maine Farmland Trust (MFT), a statewide organization based in Belfast that was started in 1999. Many farmers are getting older and Piotti estimates that 400,000 acres of Maine’s best farmland will change hands in the next five to ten years. Piotti is on a mission to keep all of it as productive working farms before it’s too late.
MFT uses a lot of different methods to do that, all of them voluntary on the part of the farm owner. One way is to help farm owners designate their land as farmland forever, so no matter who owns it, it will remain a working farm. The farm can be changed, sometimes dramatically. New farm buildings can be added, or subtracted, new fields can be cleared, staff or family housing can be built, and the farm can change from one kind of crop or livestock to another. In short, the farm can do what farms always do: change depending on markets, the family and farming interests. It just can’t be subdivided or grow a housing development.
Rokes Farm and the adjacent Spear Farm, which used to be a dairy farm with frontage on Simonton Road across from the golf course, were going to go up for sale due to financial reasons. MFT recognized the properties would be under intense development pressure, given the location, so they bought them with the intention of reselling them as farmland.
Tom, Horace Rokes’ son, sold the Rokes place to MFT.
“After all the hard work my father put into the farm, I’d like to see the fields stay open,” said Tom Rokes, who inherited the farm along with his wife, Monica, but didn’t want to farm it or continue to run the storage business.
“We didn’t want it developed,” said Monica Rokes, who used to walk the half mile through the woods from the Cobb Road place to the farm to get eggs. “If we had developed it, Horace would have come back to haunt us.”
Now Rokes Farm is for sale by Maine Farms Realty.
Last fall, MFT decided try something new to help keep farmers farming. They opened a real estate brokerage dedicated to farming.
Maine Farms Realty has six farms listed for sale. For now, it is a subsidiary of MFT and shares the goal of keeping farms for farming, but it is set up as a for-profit brokerage and plans are under way for it to be established statewide and be self-supporting within the next several years. Beth Wade, a realtor with 18 years’ experience, heads up Maine Farms Realty.
“This is really a mission-driven real estate organization,” said Wade. “Part of what I do is talk about the importance of farming, not just from an economic point of view, but also as a part of community. And part of what I do is educate other brokers.”
When Maine Farmland Trust is interested in buying a farm, Wade acts as the buyer’s broker, finessing the agreement from the real estate end. Then, when MFT plans to sell the farm, Wade acts as the seller’s agent by promoting the property, talking with other realtors and showing the property to potential buyers.
“We’ve had a lot of interest in the Rokes Farm,” said Wade.
Some potential buyers have talked about chickens and eggs, others are interested in diversified row crops. Wade said those looking are between the ages of thirty and early fifties.
The list price for the Rokes Farm is $712,500. But the conservation easement, which wipes away any possibility of developing the farm as residential property, is worth $187,500, so the buyer will pay $525,000. Still pricey for farmland, but tantalizingly close to Camden and Rockland restaurants and shops that specialize in farm-fresh meat, chicken, vegetables, herbs and eggs, and have the clientele who are willing to pay a premium for it.