Tag Archives: Farm Stories

Young Dairy

Photographs by Jenny Nelson

Text by Ellen Sabina

in many ways, dairy farms are a cornerstone of Maine’s farming community. Dairy farmers steward large tracts of farmland for feed and forage, while supporting the equipment retailers, feed stores, large animal vets, and other agricultural services that all Maine farms rely upon. Yet, while there are indicators that farming in Maine is growing, Maine’s commercial dairy industry has not seen the same kind of growth. The number of midsized dairy farms has steadily decreased over the past few decades, as has the number of acres of farmland managed by dairy farms, due to the high cost of production, infrastructure, and the volatility of the milk market. The average age of Maine’s dairy farmers is 54, and within the next decade, many will be reaching retirement age. At the same time, very few young farmers are choosing to go into dairy farming, deterred by the unpredictable  price of milk and the high start-up costs inherent in the land base and infrastructure needed to establish a successful dairy farm. Without young dairy farmers, what will happen to all of the land currently in dairy, and to the infrastructure and communities that Maine’s dairy farms support?

The few young farmers who are bucking the trend and have decided either to become first-generation dairy farmers or to continue their family’s farm have a vital role to play  in ensuring that dairy farms remain a foundational piece of Maine’s farm and food system. These are some of those farmers.

the milkhouse

SOUTH MANMOUTH

Caitlin Frame, Andy Smith, with son Linus, first-generation dairy farmers

For Caitlin and Andy, producing good food “is extremely gratifying work. It’s amazing to think of all the people who are nourished by what we produce on our farm. All that milk, meat, yogurt—that incredibly rich, nourishing animal protein—starts with just sun, soil, grass, and water, and we get to be part of stewarding it.”

Caitlin and Andy feel fortunate to be able to pursue their dairy farming dreams. The support

of organizations like Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine Farmland Trust helped them access education, and eventually, a farm of their own. When they think about the future dairy farms in Maine, their hope is that “small and midsize dairy farms can become profitable again…we’re counting on it. And we’re counting on organizations like MFT to make the large land base necessary for such operations accessible.”

 

santy dairy

SKOWHEGAN

Brad Santy, second-generation dairy farmer

When he looks ahead to the future of his farm, Brad Santy is hopeful. He feels good about the decision  to be an organic dairy farmer, and thinks that will help put the farm in a better position for his kids, who he hopes will want to take over someday. “It’s tough to start a farm with such huge overhead involved—land, infrastructure, equipment, and a herd,” said Brad. “It’s incredibly hard to start small, too, with one tractor and 10 cows. I don’t really know anyone who started a dairy farm from scratch without taking on an

enormous amount of debt.”

Taking over an established family farm may be a bit easier than starting from scratch, but dairy farming will always be challenging. Equipment is expensive, milk prices go up and down, and access to enough land for pasture and feed is often a concern. And yet, if you love dairy farming as much as Brad Santy does, the decision to take on those challenges is an easy one. As Brad’s tattoo reads: “Farm on.”

fletcher farm

PITTSFIELD

Austin and Walter Fletcher, fifth and fourth-generation dairy farmers, respectively

Though Austin Fletcher grew up on his family’s dairy farm, he wasn’t always sure farming was what he wanted to do for a living. “There was a time in high school when I definitely wanted nothing to do with it,” he said. “I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think I wanted to do it.” But after leaving Maine and working other jobs and on other farms, Austin felt the pull back to his roots.

At 33, he’s happy to be back in Pittsfield, working alongside his dad, and preparing to continue the

family business. The plan is for Austin to take over the farm gradually as Walter transitions away from farming full-time. “There is a personal satisfaction,” said Walter, “a sense of accomplishment, when your children look at what you have done and see some- thing worthwhile. And when one of them says, ‘I see what you’ve done and I would like to be a part of it, to build on it and carry it forward,’ it is the greatest com- pliment that I could receive. It makes me very proud.”

bo lait farm

WASHINGTON

Conor and Alexis Macdonald, first-generation dairy farmers

While neither Conor nor Alexis grew up on dairy farms, they both “really love cows and love working with large animals, so we wanted to start a business doing just that,” said Alexis. “So many of our friends and family tell us they never would have thought we’d have become dairy farmers, but it seems to embody so many of the things that are important to us: animals, nature, hard work, community. It can be exhausting and maddening and frustrating at times, but it’s also empowering and rewarding.”

While their decision to become dairy farmers was relatively easy,

being dairy farmers is anything but. Without a background in dairy farming, their learning curve has been steep, and making it work is a constant challenge. “There’s so much to know when you’re running a farm. You’re a vet, plumb-  er, carpenter, accountant, manager, electrician, mechanic … the list goes on. Most dairy farmers we know still claim to have only learned the tip of the

iceberg, even with decades of experience under their belts. It’s no exaggeration to say we learn something new every day, whether we want to or not.”

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

Land & Sea

A FRESH LOOK AT OUR REGION’S FOOD FUTURE

By Amanda Beal & Robin Alden

Illustrations by Sarah Wineberg

On September 29, 2016, the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries (formerly Penobscot East Resource Center) and Maine Farmland Trust hosted the Land & Sea Colloquium at Bowdoin College to explore a whole-system approach to increased food production in Maine. The discussion also examined the connections between economic growth potential in the food sector, good natural resource stewardship, and the overall health of our communities. More than 70 people were engaged in the discussion. The following is based on the transcript of the event (a video of the presentations and panel session can be viewed here).

Maine and New England food production is experiencing a renaissance. New farms are cropping up across the region and the average age of our farmers is declining, signaling that younger farmers are moving into the picture. Maine has a thriving inshore fishing fleet, and there is great interest in aquaculture expansion. Direct farm- and boat-to-consumer markets have expanded, and more and more eaters want to know where their food comes from. All of this is reinvigorating our rural landscapes and contributing to a growing local food culture.

Our region is widely viewed as a land of opportunity for increased land- and sea-based food production and harvesting over the coming decades. Maine is a national leader in river restoration, which is positively impacting marine systems, and has a significant amount of coastline adjacent to the Gulf of Maine. We have good farmland, a moderate growing season, and communities throughout the region that value locally grown and harvested food. Maine has the potential to be a major source for the New England food market, and many predict broad and positive economic impact.

But what exactly does sustainable expansion—economically and environmentally—of the region’s food production look like? How can major change take place in a manner that strengthens local communities, improves individual well-being, delivers economic benefit to producers and others along the food chain, and strongly supports the land and water resources upon which all production and harvesting depend?

All of these questions, considered simultaneously, create a complex and challenging puzzle that we must work to solve to ensure that we create real and lasting benefit for Maine’s people into the future.

MAINE PRODUCES

Currently, about 90% of the food we eat in New England comes from outside the region.(1) We have the potential to produce a lot more food in New England—perhaps half of what we eat or even more—but to do so, Maine needs to play a major role in expanding food production.

Over the past 25 years, Maine has seen a positive trend in the number of farms and land in farms reported by the USDA Census data. The last count, in 2012, reported 8,174 farms and 1,454,104 acres categorized as farmland. These numbers are encouraging, particularly after the long and steep decline that began in the middle of the 20th century, when Maine counted just over 42,000 farms encompassing 4.6 million acres. Meanwhile, we have done well in effectively managing our natural resources, recognizing that they are an essential foundation for increased production now, and for sustained production into the future.

With over 5,300 miles of coastline, Maine’s fisheries support approximately 5,000 commercial fishermen. In addition, about 90 companies operate 180 aquaculture farms, which employ approximately 600 more people in the fisheries sector.(2) It’s known that fishing can be an incredible economic engine, providing jobs that help to sustain coastal communities, but it’s also true that ongoing success for our fisheries requires a healthy environment. These two factors are inextricably linked. The ocean is downstream from all human activity; in Maine, we are fortunate that by global standards our water quality is still remarkably high.

We have many reasons to be excited about the potential for Maine’s food production to grow to feed ourselves as well as the region, and beyond, but for Maine’s food producers to achieve livable wages, while also supporting their stewardship activities and making sure the food they grow is accessible and affordable, it is clear that numerous shifts are needed within our current food system.

The potential to significantly expand Maine’s food production is real, and there are signs of progress in some areas. But it’s important that we not only look at the positive and exciting data trends that show growth in sales or pounds of food produced. For instance, we would not want to increase land-based production by reclaiming farmland in an area or in a manner that leads to runoff that would endanger the productivity of our marine waters or in a way that prohibits farmers from being able to cover their costs and pay themselves and their workers a fair wage, impacting overall farm viability.

This second example has been a long-standing issue in the commercial dairy sector, where farmers operate at the mercy of the fluctuating federal milk price, leading to an ongoing decline in the number of mid-scale commercial dairy farms. These farms are an important anchor for services that other farmers rely on, which will create challenges for all farmers if this trend continues. Likewise, overfishing a species when a new market emerges, as we did with sea urchins, may bring short-term economic benefit to a few, but limits the longer-term productivity of this fishery and affects the ecosystem for other important commercial species.

These are just a few examples of how looking at only one piece of the system without considering the whole can limit our ability to see the longer-term implications of our decisions and to foster an overall productive, viable, and healthy food system that works for all.

CURRENT CONDITIONS AND CHALLENGES

Farming and fishing in Maine today are benefiting from a more engaged public that has a growing interest in knowing where their food comes from, who grows and harvests it, and how they can play a role in supporting the producers’ efforts. More than at any other time in recent history, Mainers value food producers as important members of our communities. Yet, even with this level of support, we still have challenges to overcome to make sure that our food businesses can thrive now and in the future.

On land, many farmers still struggle to make a living, largely due to the rising cost of doing business and the small portion of the food dollar (which in 2015 reached its lowest level in a decade) that is paid to producers.(3) This economic trend of rising costs and lower returns affects the system on down the line, making it challenging to build and sustain the needed infrastructure to process and distribute farm products, to allow entrepreneurs to develop value-added products, and to make Maine-grown food more widely available to institutions and larger markets. Without the intentional will or some other force that inspires consumers to pay more for food, these challenges will continue to affect the future of our food system. Without addressing the underlying economic dynamic, it will be difficult to achieve broad economic benefits for the agricultural food sector as a whole.

In fisheries, if we look at the aggregate haul of Maine commercial landings, the overall trend looks really good. But looking more closely, we see that the majority of the upswing is due to lobster production, which in 2016 saw record-level landings of 130 million pounds, valued at $533.1 million.(4) It’s believed that the continued growth in lobster production can be attributed to a decades-long decline in lobster predators like cod, warming waters, and strong management and conservation efforts within the lobster fishery.(5) As a result, many rural coastal towns now depend almost entirely on lobstering to support their local economy. The lobster industry seems to be faring better than farming, but this dependence on one species creates a vulnerability in our fisheries economy. Also, lobsters have a cold temperature threshold, beyond which they cannot survive their larval stage, when they float on the ocean surface.

So, although we are currently in a sweet spot, the fact that the Gulf of Maine continues to warm raises concerns about how long lobster production can remain at the current, high level. Climate change impacts create uncertainty for both land- and sea-based food production. While the changes we see in the ocean include warming waters, increasing acidification, and some shifting of species habitat, on land we see changes to the growing season, less predictability of warming and cooling cycles, issues with water availability, new pests and diseases, and an overall heightened risk of crop failure due to these factors and others, such as increases in intense weather events. Because food production relies on an ecological foundation, as that foundation becomes less stable and predictable, our ability to project what food system changes are possible is increasingly challenged.

COMPLICATING THE PICTURE: CONNECTIVITY AND INTERCONNECTEDNESS

We are producing food in a profoundly complex and dynamic ecosystem that includes a complex and dynamic economy. We also know that Maine’s natural resource economy is the lifeblood of literally hundreds of Maine communities. It is vital that as we invest in the new agriculture economy, or modern fisheries and aquaculture opportunities, we do so in a way that takes into account the many system interactions and that supports values such as long-term sustainability, equity, and community health.

It is daunting to consider our food production from a systems perspective, and in the past we have not even tried. Policy is compartmentalized, with agriculture, water quality, aquaculture, and fisheries in separate agencies and university departments.

Agency and academic science have, of necessity, made assumptions to simplify the issues, to enable management schemes that are now, in a changing climate, no longer valid. Fisheries science for regulation setting, for example, has been treated like a math problem, predicting broad scale future abundance on the basis of random surveys and past patterns. Not only is this no longer wise in a rapidly changing ocean environment, but it also overlooks new knowledge about local ecology populations of fish and shellfish.

It is, of course, important to understand the functioning of each of the many systems as well as the individual components at play. But we also need to pay attention to key interconnections, otherwise the result will be that we operate with a skewed under- standing of the whole picture and we risk not seeing trends that may tell us an important part of the story.

When thinking about the food system, we need  to consider the markets—local, regional, national, international—and how they fit together. We need to recognize who, and what, drives change. For instance, policies can impact the food system as a driver, as can market demands, access to capital, and technology.

Remembering that our food system is, well, a system, we need to understand what ties these pieces together—the farmer, the delivery truck, marinas, etc.—and think about what effects any one action might have on these connected parts of the system. We need to acknowledge potential competition for resources, like land and space in the marine environment, and the fact that different places in the ocean have different ecological functions.

Finally, as we consider these and other questions, we must make ourselves aware of the consequences of any actions, intended or unintended. Keeping these questions and intersecting concerns in the forefront of our planning can increase our understanding of the underlying system, which can lead us to effective and meaningful change.

HOW TO MOVE FORWARD IN A COMPLEX SYSTEM

So, where do we go from here? How do we make and support changes in our food system that have real, positive impact and take into consideration the complexities of today and the unknowns about the future?

The Land & Sea Colloquium was a call for us all to go a step further in our thinking about how to navigate the complex interconnected human-natural system that is our food system. We know we must understand the components, and the relationship between them, within this dynamic system. It is important that we work to develop institutions that understand and embrace these interconnections, fostering thinking that cuts across sectors, holds multiple values at the center of decision-making, and establishes tight feedback loops that enhance our ability to adapt as things change, such as in a future of more agriculture, more aquaculture, restored river fisheries after dam removal, shifting markets, and climate change.

On land and sea, we would do well to take a management approach that allows for shared learning to provide the capacity for adaptation and adjustment along the way. We need to build flexibility into our regulatory structures and management strategies that allows for shifting ecological and economic conditions. Enabling flexibility and adaptability in any planning helps to minimize risk and swiftly respond to new opportunities in an unknowable future.

It is crucial that we look at various ways to accumulate and assess information. It is just as important to gather and understand farmers’ and fishermen’s knowledge as it is academic knowledge. Farmers and fishermen have a fine-scale understanding of their environment and the day-to-day conditions that impact their success. All of this knowledge taken together provides a powerful way to understand how changes to any part of the food system impact the whole.

On land and sea, different values and interests can lead to conflicts about how resources are best used. Taking a comprehensive look at overall goals for our landscapes, watersheds, and the people in them can help us to reconcile various viewpoints, and to connect otherwise isolated conversations about land and aquatic environment use. Although it is incredibly challenging, we should move toward coming up with multiple-interest and multiple-use guidelines for these resources.

We must also keep an eye on the whole system to avoid making unintentional trade-offs, and to increase the positive potential of our collective efforts. A powerful example of this is unfolding before us, as our understanding of the systemic impacts of damming rivers has become clearer. Beginning in 1790, we installed 202 dams in 210 years, almost a dam a year for two centuries. This has been problematic for several reasons, including the impact on fish that must travel upriver to reach their historical spawning grounds. We saw a significant collapse of forage fish after the Veazie Dam was built at the head of tide on the Penobscot River, where alewives, blueback herring, and other migratory fish once were plentiful.

According to an article in the New York Times last fall, two years since the removal of the Veazie Dam, nearly 8,000 shad were counted swimming upstream, along with more than 500 Atlantic salmon and almost two million alewives.(6) This gives us insight into the potentially significant impacts of ecological restoration, which could greatly benefit future generations by encouraging greater species richness and diversity in the Gulf of Maine.

It is not a given that we will realize the highest potential for Maine’s food producing future. Known and unknown challenges will require us to be adaptable, to actively share knowledge across our areas of expertise and immediate interest, and to work together strategically. As we think about opportunities to increase food production in Maine, it’s important that we rigorously address all of the values that we want to ensure are built into that growth. How will we address change and build a model of equity?

How can we assure that, while supporting growth, we still live within the bounds of our ecosystem, supporting the productivity of our connected land and marine systems to the highest degree possible?

Maine has an opportunity. By looking at our past mistakes and at the challenges other regions face where management of land and sea resources are at odds, we know that Maine can be an innovative world leader in building a robust environment for food production that addresses the whole system, and that can be sustained for generations to come. Maine Farmland Trust and the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries are committed to working together to continue this dialog. We invite others to join us, as we acknowledge that no one organization, business, or person can create and sustain the kind of systems change that is needed, and that ongoing connectivity is the key to helping us all to understand the broader picture while we each work to do our parts.

Amanda Beal is the president & CEO of Maine Farmland Trust and a Ph.D. candidate in the Natural Resources and Earth Systems Science program at the University of New Hampshire. Robin Alden is the founder and executive director (retired in 2017) of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries and a past Maine Department of Marine Resources commissioner under Governor Kings administration.

Other speakers at the Land & Sea Colloquium whose remarks contributed to this article included: John Piotti, past-president of Maine Farmland Trust and now president of American Farmland Trust; Tim Griffin, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment graduate program at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy; Bob Steneck, professor in the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine; and moderator Jo D. Saffeir

notes

  1. Donahue, Brian, and Joanne Burke, Molly, D. Anderson, Amanda Beal, Tom Kelly, Mark Lapping, Linda Berlin, A New England Food Vision: Healthy Food for All, Sustainable Farming and Fishing, Thriving Communities (Durham, NH: Food Solutions New England, University of New Hampshire, 2014)
  2. Bell, Tom, “Maine Aquaculture Industry is Snagging Investors,” Portland Press Herald, January 15, 2015, posted January 15, 2015, http://www.pressherald.com/2015/01/15/ maine-aquaculture-snagging-investors/
  3. USDA Economic Research Serv “Food Dollar Series.” Last updated March 16, 2017. https://www.ers.usda.gov/ data-products/food-dollar-series/
  4. Overton, Penelope, “Maine Lobster Catch Tipped the Scale at a Record 130 Million Pounds in 2016,” Portland Press Herald, posted March 3, 2017, http://www.pressherald.com/2017/03/03/ maine-lobster-landings-set-records-in-2016/
  5. Steneck, Robert , et al., “Creation of a Gilded Trap by the High Economic Value of the Maine Lobster Fishery,” Conservation Biology, Society for Conservation Biology, Volume 25, Issue 5, (2011): 904–912
  6. Carpenter, Murray, “Taking Down Dams and Letting the Fish Flow,” New York Times, posted October 25, 2016, https://www.nytimes. com/2016/10/25/science/ penobscot-river-maine-dam-removal-fish.html.

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

Forgotten Farms at Johnson Hall, Gardiner

Join us at Johnson Hall, Gardiner on Tuesday, May 23rd at 6:30 pm for Forgotten Farms, a new film about the important role dairy farms play in New England’s farming landscape.

Dairy farmers remain the backbone of the region’s agriculture but fight for survival in an age of artisan cheese and kale. New England has lost over 10,000 dairy farms in the past 50 years; about 2,000 farms remain. Through conversations with farmers and policy experts, FORGOTTEN FARMS reconsiders the role of these vital but forgotten farmers, who will be essential players in an expanded agricultural economy.

Amanda Beal of MFT, Dave Colson of MOFGA, along with the film makers and Maine dairy farmers, will discuss how the themes of the film are present in Maine’s dairy industry today and where we can go from here.

Presented by Maine Farmland Trust & MOFGA

$5. suggested donation.

Forgotten Farms at Space Gallery, Portland

Join us at Space Gallery, Portland on Monday, May 22nd at 7:00 pm, (doors at 6:30) for Forgotten Farms, a new film about the important role dairy farms play in New England’s farming landscape.

Dairy farmers remain the backbone of the region’s agriculture but fight for survival in an age of artisan cheese and kale. New England has lost over 10,000 dairy farms in the past 50 years; about 2,000 farms remain. Through conversations with farmers and policy experts, FORGOTTEN FARMS reconsiders the role of these vital but forgotten farmers, who will be essential players in an expanded agricultural economy.

Amanda Beal of MFT, Dave Colson of MOFGA, along with the film makers and Maine dairy farmers, will discuss how the themes of the film are present in Maine’s dairy industry today and where we can go from here.

$5. suggested donation.

Presented by Maine Farmland Trust, MOFGA, and the Portland Food Co-op.

Two by Two: Two Couples, Four Photographers

(Belfast, ME) When it comes to photography, couples Ralph & Kathryn and Margaret & Drew are two peas in a (tri-)pod. For both pairs, being photographers together is a core part of their relationship – not unlike farming is to many farming couples. The new exhibit at Maine Farmland Trust Gallery features a selection of each of these four photographers.

Two by Two: Two Couples, Four Photographers will be on display from November 7, 2016 through January 6, 2017. There will be an artist talk with all four photographers on Friday November 18, from 4:30 to 5:30 pm, followed by a reception from 5:30 to 8:00 pm.

Kathryn and Ralph

Kathryn has been an artist her whole adult life. She met Ralph when he contacted her to collaborate on a photo series in May 2013. It was a dance series and she participated as the subject. Shortly thereafter they became good friends and eventually fell in love. “Ralph inspired me to step behind the lens myself,” says Kathryn. “So we continue to bounce ideas off each other, share critiques but we pursue our own projects independently.”

Ralph was born in West Germany and studied European literature in Germany and France. He immigrated to the United States in 2002. He is a self-taught photographer who regularly presents his work in national and international shows.

“Kathryn and Ralph both often work in black and whites, and their images are rather dream-like,” says Anna Witholt Abaldo, curator of MFT Gallery. “But that is where the resemblance stops. There is a definite difference in feel, which completely echoes their individual spirit. Kathryn’s works – especially her encaustics – have an ephemeral, wispy, whimsical quality that pulls us into imaginary worlds filled with voices of flowers and wind-swept grass. Ralph’s work can be both beautiful and haunting at the same time. It strikes me as truly European: born from a philosopher’s soul, he mixes equal parts of the same dark and dripping angst found in Rilke’s poems with raw and unexpected beauty. The resulting images quiver with melancholy longing.”

Margaret and Drew

Margaret and Drew typically photograph and exhibit together. “We often spend several hours working at the same location—it could be an old farm, an abandoned mill site, or perhaps an historical building,” Margaret says.
Margaret was not a photographer when they met, but Drew was. “I would come along when he was taking pictures,” says Margaret. Drew proceeded to give Margaret a camera. “I had liked photography in my childhood – but I was always interested in abstract stuff, and was told I was taking the wrong kind of pictures!”

By Drew Sanborn

A common thread in their work is their interest in the still-visible remainders of Maine’s 19th and early 20th century history. Abandoned machinery from farms and factories, evolving rural landscapes, and even libraries of vintage books are all viewed with a contemporary sensibility.

“Margaret and Drew know how to do justice to the beauty and personality of all things old,” says Anna Witholt Abaldo. “Looking at their work I sense a stillness and emptiness, like time has momentarily stopped.”

Farm Walk & Scavenger Hunt at Mulberry Farms

Come on a walk with MFT and Frank and Debbie Pecoraro, owners of Mulberry Farms  Raymond, on Sunday October 23rd, 3:00-5:00pm .  Explore the trails and fields of the 236-acre protected farm property, learn about the history of the farm and the plans for the future, and hear why Frank and Debbie decided to revitalize and protect this 236-acre property for generations to come.  Plus, we’ll have a farm-equipment scavenger hunt for the kids and some delicious fall snacks and mulled cider.  RSVP is required. Please call or email Caroline at 207-338-6575 or caroline@mainefarmlandtrust.org.

 MFT is hosting farm walks throughout the state this year with the aim of getting people outside and on working and protected farms in Maine.  If you would like to be notified of the next farm walk, or would like to host one, please contact Caroline at caroline@mainefarmlandtrust.org

 

Dairy Farm in Transition: Fletcher Farm

Another in our series about dairy farmers in Maine. In many ways, dairy farms are the cornerstone of Maine’s farming community.  Dairy farmers steward large tracts of farmland for feed and forage, while supporting the feed stores, equipment retailers, and large animal vets that all Maine farms rely upon. Of the 400,000 acres of farmland that will be in transition over the course of the next decade, we anticipate that a large percentage of that land is currently in dairy farming. What will happen to that land, and the infrastructure and communities it supports?
 
While farming in Maine is growing in many ways, Maine’s dairy industry has not seen the same kind of growth. Young dairy farmers are few and far between, often deterred by low milk prices and high start-up costs. Those who have bucked the trend and have decided to become either first-generation dairy farmers or to continue their family’s farm, have an important role to play in ensuring that dairy farms remain the foundation of Maine’s farming landscape.
“Make hay while the sun shines” is something everyone says, but it’s a literal reality for dairy farmers. The first time I visited Walter and Austin Fletcher of Fletcher Farm in Pittsfield, Austin was cutting grass in the fields until dark, racing against the disappearing autumn daylight. Because it’s been such a dry summer, dairy farmers who rely on productive pastures that have been struggling to make a second or third cut before fall sets in, and the hustle for hay (and very few rainy rest days) means that it’s rare to catch father and son Walter and Austin in the same place at the same time.
While Austin cut hay, Walter gave me a tour of the farm. The barn is outfitted with the Cabot logo, easily recognizable with the signature red and black checkered background. While walking around the farm and watching the evening milking, I was struck by how orderly and calm the farm is. All the cows were resting or munching contently in their quiet spaces, each one set up specifically for each group of cows, depending on age, health, and milking/fertility stage of life. The Fletchers take good care of their herd, from the calves up through the older cows, the latter of which are housed close to the barn for comfort and accessibility. Everything on the farm is done without fanfare, but with a tremendous amount of respect and care for the animals that produce the farm’s lifeblood: milk.
Walter and his wife Edna bought 500 acres in Pittsfield in 1980 and started Fletcher Farm. Walter grew up on a dairy farm in Massachusetts and he can’t imagine a different path. “I really think that [farming] chose me,” said Walter. “At first it was a dream that we made real. Than a challenge to be successful not just as a business because farming is more than business it’s a way of life.” He and Edna raised three children on the farm. Austin, the youngest son, left for school and worked elsewhere for awhile but has since come back to join the business. Right now, the father and son team work together as partners in the LLC, from before sun up (morning milking starts at 3:30am) to sundown; the plan is for Austin to gradually take over the farm as Walter slowly transitions away from full-time farming.

Though Austin grew up on a dairy farm, he wasn’t always sure it was what he wanted to do for a living. “There was a time in high school when I definitely wanted nothing to do with it,” he said. “I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think I wanted to do it.” But after leaving Maine and working other jobs and on other farms, Austin felt the pull pack to his roots. At 33, he’s happy to be back in Pittsfield, working alongside his dad and preparing to continue the family business. “There is a personal satisfaction,” said Walter, “a sense of accomplishment, when your children look at what you have done and see something worthwhile. And when one of them says to you ‘I see what you’ve done and I would like to be a part of it, to build on it and carry it forward,’ it is the greatest compliment that I could receive. It makes me very proud.”

Dairy farming is a tough business. Luckily, Austin isn’t starting from scratch; he’s building on the strong foundation laid by his dad. When he’s not engaged in farm work, Walter is involved in making sure that farming has a future throughout Maine, and is an active board member of Maine Farmland Trust, Agri-Mark and Cabot Creamery Cooperative. Though sitting on various boards means adding a lot of travel and meeting time onto his already full farming schedule, it’s important to him to be involved and work with the wider farming community. As Treasurer for Agri-Mark, Walter represents the concerns and interest of over 1,000 dairy farms and farming families. It’s a responsibility he takes very seriously, evident in his measured, respectful tone when he speaks about everything from the way Agri-Mark works to the way they organize their cows on the farm.
There are challenges ahead for Maine’s dairy industry as farmers retire and land changes hands. Dairy farms like Fletcher Farm that are transferring to the next generation and staying in the family, are increasingly in the minority. But despite an uncertain future, Walter and Austin are hopeful, and doing all that they can to ensure that dairy remains a key part of Maine’s farming landscape.

Historic 100-acre farm protected for future generations

The Waterhouse Farm has been in the same family since before the town of Scarborough incorporated in 1658. Now, thanks to a partnership between Maine Farmland Trust and Scarborough Land Trust, the 100-acre working farm will remain intact, and in the family, into the future.

Dick Waterhouse decided to protect his farm several years ago, and has been working with Maine Farmland Trust and Scarborough Land Trust to determine the best way to preserve his family’s land and legacy. The family closed on the sale of an easement at the end of August. The funds from the sale of the easement will ensure that the farm stays in the family for the next generation.

“We are thrilled to play a role in conserving this historic Scarborough farm,” said Jeremy Wintersteen, Scarborough Land Trust board member and Acquisition Committee Chair.  “Congratulations go out to Dick Waterhouse and Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) for all their efforts.  One of the oldest farms in Scarborough is now conserved forever.  This is the fourth farm that MFT has helped to conserve in Scarborough so we are grateful for their expertise and interest in this region.  We look forward to future partnership efforts with them and other farmers in town.”

“This project has had its share of challenges,” said Charlie Baldwin, land protection project manager at Maine Farmland Trust. “Sorting out the boundary lines on a farm this old was a project in itself, but with Mr. Waterhouse and SLT’s help we were able to secure the future of this great farm”. Despite the lengthy process, the Waterhouse family was committed to seeing the easement through to completion.

This farmland protection project ensures the conservation of quality farmland and 100 acres of open space in an aggressively developing area of the state. And it also protects a direct link to Scarborough’s deep history as one of Maine’s great agricultural areas. The farm has been an active, diversified farm for its entire history. Presently, Dick Waterhouse raises horses, beef cattle, hogs, sheep, turkeys and chickens, maintains pasture, and grows hay.

 

Young Dairy Farmers: Sheepscot Valley Dairy Farm

This is another story in our series about young dairy farmers in Maine. In many ways, dairy farms are the cornerstone of Maine’s farming community.  Dairy farmers steward large tracts of farmland for feed and forage, while supporting the feed stores, equipment retailers, and large animal vets that all Maine farms rely upon. Of the 400,000 acres of farmland that will be in transition over the course of the next decade, we anticipate that a large percentage of that land is currently in dairy farming. What will happen to that land, and the infrastructure and communities it supports?

While farming in Maine is growing, Maine’s “traditional” dairy industry has not seen the same growth. The younger generation of farmers choosing to go in to dairy farming and sell fluid milk to large processors are few and far between, often deterred by low milk prices and high start-up costs. Those who have bucked the trend and have decided to become either first-generation dairy farmers or to continue their family’s farm, have an important role to play in ensuring that dairy farms remain the foundation of Maine’s farming landscape.

 

From the outside, it might appear that Annie Watson and Mike Moody of Sheepscot Valley Dairy Farm in Whitefield tried hard to not become dairy farmers. Mike grew up on a dairy farm in Lincolnville, learning the trade from his grandparents, in an area where there were handfuls of dairy farms around. In 2005, he was the last one, and he sold his herd, just a few months after he met Annie. Their first date had involved riding around on his tractor and chopping corn and Annie could see how much he loved this work and lifestyle, but that how exhausted and burnt out he was also, filling in the extra hours with urchin diving and striping lines on parking lots for extra money to keep farming.

He needed a break. Annie and Mike talked about other business ideas and opportunities, but as Annie says, “once a farmer, always a farmer” and six years later, they decided dairy farming really was what they wanted to do, and they wanted to do it together. “We knew it was a lifestyle we both wanted and that it was a great way to raise a family,” said Annie. “In 2012 we got married, and within our first year of marriage, we had connected with a farmer thinking about retirement, and in May of 2013, we purchased our farm in Whitefield. Not bad for newlyweds!” On the day they bought their farm, the retiring farmer milked the cows in the morning, papers were signed that afternoon, then Annie and Mike milked their new herd that evening.

Today, they manage about 250 acres (both owned and leased) for grazing pasture and hay, and milk around 50 cows in a herd of 125, give or take. They are a certified organic dairy and are members of CROPP co-op, which owns Organic Valley.

 

Mike acknowledges that growing up on a dairy farm definitely makes the learning curve of starting a new operation much less steep, but teaching Annie about running a dairy farm presented unique challenges. As Annie recalled,”it was when he had to teach me to milk and we worked together that the real challenge came. When you’re so used to doing something on your own, it can be difficult to teach someone else. I am someone who really likes to learn new things, and I try my best. For me that involves asking a lot of questions, which at times, drove Mike nuts! But it also made him think a little differently about some things, and I think it ultimately made us both better farmers.”
Those challenges taught the couple how to be better communicators in business, and in life. “Some couples can’t imagine working together, but honestly I can’t imagine not working together- it has strengthened our relationship so much, and we have a great deal of respect for one another.” As their young family grows and changes, Mike  says he misses the days when they would both do the milking together, which is now less frequent with kiddos, and Annie’s work as an event planner.

For any family, dairy farming “is a commitment unlike any other…the idea that you have to sacrifice seemingly “normal” things like vacations and free time is scary to many,” said Annie. “We live in an age where the idea of signing a cellphone contract is unimaginable to some.  Being there to milk the cows twice a day, every day is a lot to take on.” But it’s been the right choice for their family, and they wouldn’t trade the lifestyle.

Mike echoed the sentiments we’ve heard from the other dairy farmers we’ve talked to around the state: it’s really difficult for young farmers get into dairy farming, either by taking over an existing farm operation, or starting one from scratch. For most retiring dairy farmers, the value of the farm is their retirement, and as much as they would like to be able to, simply can’t afford to hand the farm over to the next generation. At the same time, the cost of starting a dairy farm from scratch, or buying an existing farm is often prohibitive, and younger dairy farmers can’t afford to buy the farm without some substantial capital in hand, and/or without going into debt.

Mike and Annie were fortunate enough to have received a family inheritance, which enabled them to put a down payment on the farm along with saved money from Mike’s time commercial fishing in Alaska and Maine. They were able to owner-finance through the previous owners which is also a huge help. The farm came with the Organic Valley supply chain, so they know they’ll continue to see a return on our investment because of the relationship already established. These days, organic milk prices are on slightly more stable ground. Mike and Annie hope that the work they’re putting into their farm now will enable their business to continue to flourish and grow, and that someday, if their kids want to take over the farm, they will be able to, without taking on debt.

“We are so fortunate to live in a community that really supports agriculture.” Annie says. “We live next door to another dairy farm, also run by a young family, and it has really made all the difference for us. Mike and our neighbor throw ideas back and forth, and it is so nice to have people in our lives who understand what our life is like. We are also surrounded by a community that understands what it’s like to have tractors driving down the road, and sometimes it can stink when we are spreading manure. We don’t often hear any complaints and we are fortunate for that.”

Young Dairy Farmers: Bo Lait

This is another story in our series about young dairy farmers in Maine. In many ways, dairy farms are the cornerstone of Maine’s farming community.  Dairy farmers steward large tracts of farmland for feed and forage, while supporting the feed stores, equipment retailers, and large animal vets that all Maine farms rely upon. Of the 400,000 acres of farmland that will be in transition over the course of the next decade, we anticipate that a large percentage of that land is currently in dairy farming. What will happen to that land, and the infrastructure and communities it supports?

While farming in Maine is growing, Maine’s dairy industry has not seen the same growth. The younger generation who are choosing to be dairy farmers are few and far between, often deterred by low milk prices and high start-up costs. Those who have bucked the trend and have decided to become either first-generation dairy farmers or to continue their family’s farm, have an important role to play in ensuring that dairy farms remain the foundation of Maine’s farming landscape.

While their decision to become dairy farmers was relatively easy, being dairy farmers is anything but. Without a background in dairy farming, their learning curve has been steep, and making it work is a constant challenge. “There’s so much to know when you’re running a farm. You’re a vet, plumber, carpenter, accountant, manager, electrician, mechanic… the list goes on. Most dairy farmers we know still claim to have only learned the tip of the iceberg, even with decades of experience under their belts. It’s no exaggeration to say we learn something new everyday, whether we want to or not.”

Luckily, Conor is no stranger to intense work, and feels uniquely equipped to take on the challenge. He says his experience in the Special Forces set the standard for the type of work ethic and drive necessary to start a farm from the ground up. “The biggest challenge is finding enough hours in the day to get things done,” said Conor. “Also prioritizing work and realizing that the biggest “fires” are the most important to put out first. Managing cash flow is also a big challenge on a dairy because the expenses are very high and the margins are small.”

Conor and Alexis sell their certified organic fluid milk to Organic Valley, a cooperative based in Wisconsin. “We were very lucky in that Organic Valley was looking to add new farms at the time we started, so we were able to sign our contract with them 6 months prior to our first shipment date.”

Right now they’re milking 38 of their 46 cows. “We’ve grown quite a bit over the last year and we think we’ll stay put at this herd size for a while. It feels manageable without being too crazy.” Their milk pool manager at Organic Valley has been a great resource for them as they’ve grown, and a great advocate as well.

The support network they’ve grown around them helps to temper the challenges  running a dairy farm, and the MacDonalds are thankful for the many people that pitch in, in all kinds of ways: “Between our co-op, other local farmers, family, friends and our wonderful, PATIENT neighbors who come over with a smile when the heifers have gotten out again,” said Conor, “I don’t think we could ask for more.”