Tag Archives: Farmers

Searching for Sustainable Scale

by Melissa Coleman

Photography by Greta Rybus

Having grown up on an E.F. Schumacher small-is-beautiful homestead, my heart can’t help but beat with admiration for the grit and self-confidence of the small farmer. Is it possible—we Schumacher types want to know—for these farmers to cultivate a viable business without losing that trademark grittiness and connection to the land?

This quest for the secrets of sustainable scaling up led me down winding country roads to the following Maine farmers. While growing their businesses in size and profit, they’re continuing to foster their communities, families, and land.

The Groundbreakers:

Stewart Smith in his carrot field in Starks, Maine.

Asked to name, off the top of his head, the efforts that have made the most difference for Lakeside when creating a viable business, Smith easily offers the following strategies.

First, he advocates choosing two or three high-volume crops to pay the bills, and a handful of high-value specialty crops to make a profit.

“You can budget a larger tractor with tillage equipment for your high-volume crops, but also use it on the supplemental crops,” he says.

This leads to the importance of finding the right equipment at the right price, and taking the time to maintain it. Big-ticket items include the irrigation system and root vegetable harvesters, which he advocates buying used from commercial farmers.

“Equipment is your biggest expense. You need to have the ability and technical knowledge to maintain it, and you need to enjoy being in the shop tinkering with it to keep it running.”

Finally, he stresses forming strong relationships with buyers, and making delivery a priority.

“Bigger buyers are not as flexible,” he says. “You have to get them the amount they want, marked the way they want it, at the time that they want it. And if anything changes, let them know ASAP.”

Leaving the glow of the Lakeside farmhouse, I can feel rather than see the fields spread around me in the darkness, settling into winter slumber as they have for generations. There’s hope that these fields will be productive for many generations to come.

Stewart Smith and Sarah Redfield Lakeside Family Farm

Heading to Lakeside Family Farm, I leave I-95 behind in the November dusk and enter the fertile farmland  of the Sebasticook Lake basin in Newport. What I notice first about Stewart Smith’s gently-aged profile is an assured wisdom in the curves of his smile. Recent accolades include a SOURCE Maine Elder Award for shaping “a locally focused, environmentally con- scious, 21st-century approach to Maine agriculture.”

As a third-generation Newport farmer, Smith determined while an economics undergrad at Yale that he would work in government, education, and farming over the course of his life. This he did at the USDA under Carter, the Joint Economic Committee of Congress under Clinton, and as a Maine Commissioner of Agriculture. In between, he taught and did research at Tufts and the University of Maine.

With wife and partner, Sarah Redfield, he returned to farming and founded Lakeside Family Farm in 2005. It has since become a role model for a successful mid-size sustainable farm that, while not certified organic, follows best practices to minimize the use of chemical inputs. Lakeside now provides 100-some vegetable options to buyers and distributors including Hannaford and Crown of Maine, restaurants such as The Black Birch in Kittery, and the University of Maine. They also deliver workplace CSA farm shares.

“I’m in charge of the farming and production, and Sarah works with the buyers,” Smith says, with evident gratitude for a partner who is dedicated  to the business.

Smith works with his crew to repair equipment used for harvesting carrots. As his midscale family farm grew, it became more productive to rely on equipment.

The Evolvers:

Chris Cavendish, Gallit Sammon, and their daughter Calliope take a moment to pose in their carrot field in Bowdoinham.

Chris and Gallit Cavendish Fishbowl Farm

The trip to Fishbowl Farm leads me, with photographer Greta Rybus, 45 minutes north of Portland to the inland estuary of Merrymeeting Bay, its soil rich in organic matter.

We track down curly-haired Chris Cavendish at a shared processing facility and are immediately drawn into his bright-eyed enthusiasm for this work. Following him to a 12-acre field that he leases affordably from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, we witness rows of carrots miraculously lifted from the ground by the tractor-towed Scott Viner harvester.

“I’m anticipating that with the new harvester, we can process 1,500 pounds in an eighth of the time, with two rather than three workers,” Cavendish says, though his data is still speculative.

While there are many inspirations and guiding forces that led Cavendish to Fishbowl Farm (meeting his wife and partner, Gallit; MOFGA; Russell Libby), there’s also the 1973 movie that inspired a runner up name, Seventh Wave Farm. As Cavendish tells it, Steve McQueen’s character Papillon, a prisoner on a remote island, notices that every seventh wave in a set is strong enough to carry a man out to sea, and he rides that wave to freedom.

The seventh wave for Cavendish and Gallit (formerly chef de cuisine at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport), has been the decision to focus on wholesale production of just a few favorite crops. These include greens (spinach, kale, arugula, lettuce mixes) and seasonal vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions).

After ten years in business and the birth of their first child, Calliope, Chris and Gallit were feeling the pinch. They didn’t want to sacrifice family life to the 80- to 90-hour-a-week demands of supplying farmers markets and their CSA.

The decision in 2012 to change direction led to a Maine Farmland Trust workshop with Jed Beach of FarmSmart, a Maine-based consulting firm that assists farms with goal-setting, record-keeping, and business planning. The following takeaways have stayed with Cavendish over the past four years.

Know the breakeven point for any given week. “Jed Beach helped to compile our budget, crop enterprise worksheets, and income projections to give me one important number,” he says. “That’s the number of cases a week that we need to sell during the 25-week grow- ing season to be able to end the year in the positive.”

“Chris put this large black number above his desk where he sees it every day,” Beach says.

Grow slow. “I found it important to identify and resolve problems before putting myself in front of a large audience,” Cavendish states. “The most important being creating production and harvest systems to efficiently produce high-quality product and developing easy and efficient ordering, order-tracking, and washing/packing/handling systems.”

Identify non-farm goals and place them before farm goals. “For me that means ensuring we have a certain degree of normal in our family life during the growing season,” Cavendish states.

“If a major decision will significantly and negatively impact our family balance, we don’t do it.”

The results have been commendable, with income tripling from 2013 to 2016. Fishbowl’s recognizable labels can be found on greens and vegetables at Rosemont’s markets and Bow Street Market in Freeport, among others, while bulk orders are sold to Maine Specialty Foods, Flatbread Company, and other Portland restaurants.

When Gallit and Calliope arrive to check on the progress of the carrot harvest, the Cavendish family poses for a photo, sitting together in the fields that sustain them. They appear happy and relaxed, comfortable with their lifestyle—a model farm family, riding that seventh wave to farm-family balance.

After Cavendish uses a harvester to gently uproot carrots, he and his family get to work collecting and cleaning them.

The New Guardians:

Phillip and Lisa Webster North Star Sheep Farm

Upon arrival at North Star Sheep Farm, I’m directed to the Welcome Center to meet owners Lisa and Phillip Webster. Well appointed with leather sofas and space for product sampling and hosting events, it sends the message to any visitor or buyer that North Star is a serious operation.

“People make the decision whether or not to do business when they first arrive,” Lisa tells me. “The impact of a well-maintained farm is key.” Blonde and of strong stature, she’s dressed in a smart business suit because she goes to Augusta to advocate for farmers as past-president of the Agricultural Council of Maine. The rest of the time, Lisa manages North Star’s sales and marketing, and Phillip, her tall and amiable husband and business partner, oversees the farm operations and employees.

Over 3,000 sheep roam the pastures at North Star Sheep Farm.

Chris Cavendish packages clean salad greens for distribution around Southern Maine.

While North Star has only become a go-to for grass- fed lamb in the past five years, the couple bought their first sheep in 1984. Fifth-generation sheep farmers, both Lisa and Phil’s families have raised breeding stock and meat lambs since the early 1800s. The decision to buy 225-acre Stevens Farm in 1997 brought with it the land for a bigger sheep operation and a $400K mortgage, so they decided to pay the bills with a landscaping business and keep the sheep at a loss.

It wasn’t until 2007, after their son graduated from college, that the Websters felt ready to downsize the landscaping business and upsize the sheep farm. They traveled the country to gather ideas from other farms and wrote a 10-year business plan. They banked on their finding that New England has the largest demand for lamb in the US, due to the high number of white-linen restaurants. So, the Websters reasoned, if you add in New York City and Washington DC, the buyers for 60% of all lamb purchased in the US were within their reach.

More Perspectives:

Phil Webster pauses while feeding his sheep.

Despite challenges around establishing viable harvesting, packaging, storage, and transporta- tion systems, in 2010 they secured a deal to sell Whole Foods 12 lambs a week, or more than 1,000 lambs a year, and everything began to fall into place. Foodservice distributor Dole & Bailey and the American Lamb Board began marketing North Star lamb, and they added pork and rabbits.

Today their products can be found at Portland restaurants and markets including Fore Street, Back Bay Grill, and Rosemont Market & Bakery, as well as throughout New England and in select DiCicco Family Markets in New York.

To meet the demand, North Star raises 3,000-plus sheep a year on their farm in Windham, as well as on Collyer Brook Farm in Gray (a property protected by Maine Farmland Trust) and Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. They cross-mate several breeds  that do well on pasture-based grazing in the Maine climate, to create an ideal whole-lamb product.

Phil and Lisa’s advice:

“Don’t let your guard down as you scale up,” Lisa says. “Keep the quality and standards at the same level no matter how you scale. We’re in this because we love sheep farming, not because we want to see how much poundage of lamb we can get to market.”

“You’ve got to love what you do,” Phil agrees. “You’ve got to be able to look across the pasture and feel good every day. If you’re not happy, change what you do, or get out.”

Most of all, Phil and Lisa are loyal to the legacy handed down by their family. “We use all the experi- ence of generations past to ensure that today will be successful and tomorrow there will still be a family farm here,” Lisa says.

Bonnie Rukin, the funding fairy godmother of Slow Money Maine, reminds me that scaling up isn’t just about the money. Bonnie has helped numerous small to mid-sized farms, fisheries, and enterprises to focus on larger infrastructure on the path to becoming not just self-sustaining, but sustainable.

“There is no denying the value of material and financial capital, but we don’t want to forget the value of community in the process,” Rukin says. “We’re seeing several farms that rely on people in their community and collaboration with other farms to bring quality produce to a larger number of people in a more consistent and satisfying way than through corporate markets.”

Fred Kirschenmann, president of the board at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture and winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from IFOAM, upholds a similar perspective to Rukin.

“We are now faced with transforming into a more ‘regenerative,’ resilient food and farming system that is grounded in community relationships designed in creating shared values,” he told me via email.

Kirschenmann is quoting from Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s article “Creating Shared Value” in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review. He also recommends John Thackara’s book How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today. It “describes how the transition from an indus- trial economy to the next ‘bioregional’ economy is not just about farms, but how we all need to work together in our own bioregions,” he says.

Businesses and individuals alike are in the process of evolving the understanding of what it means to “do business” in the 21st century. The farms mentioned here have found relative financial reward in their respective paths of growth, but they have also, as Rukin and Kirschenmann emphasize, kept a connection to the communities, families,  and acres that sustain them.

melissa coleman grew up on a back-to-the-land farm near Blue Hill, Maine. She is the author of a memoir about the experience, This Life is In Your Hands, and writes for publications including The New York Times, Boston Globe, Travel Weekly, and Maine Home + Design.

This article is from the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

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

Confronting the challenges of land access, farm transfer, and next generation farmers at the Farmland Access & Transfer Conference

MFT and Land For Good will host the fourth annual Farmland Access & Transfer Conference on December 3, 2018 at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta ME. At the day-long conference, farmers will learn strategies for tackling succession planning and incorporating an easement into your farm access or transfer plans, plus how to find and secure farmland of your own, negotiate a good lease agreement, and more.

“Nearly 30% of New England’s farmers are likely to exit farming in the next 10+ years, and 9 out of 10 of them are farming without a young farmer alongside them. At the same time, access to land remains one of the biggest challenges for beginning farmers in New England,” explains Jim Hafner, Executive Director at Land For Good and  co-host of the conference, referring to a recent study (Gaining Insights). “While this does not mean that these farmers don’t have a succession plan, it does suggest the future of many of these farms is uncertain.”

Today’s farmers—both those who are transitioning out of farming and those who are starting new farm enterprises—will have a pivotal role in shaping the future of our regional food system. Farmers can also make valuable connections at this conference. Last year, the conference brought together over 150 established and beginning farmers, landowners, and agricultural service providers.

“The issues, strategies and skills shared at this conference have relevance far beyond Maine,” says Hafner. This is the largest conference in the region focused solely on land access and transfer. Across New England, older farmers are worried about their ability to retire and find a younger farmer who can afford to buy their land.

The conference is geared toward farm seekers, retiring farmers, and land owners to help them better understand the options, resources, and steps to accessing or transferring farms or farmland. Service providers and other advocates, including land trusts, conservation commissions, town planners and lenders with an interest in fostering affordable farmland access can also benefit from strategies and innovative practices, as well as panel discussions.

 

“In the next decade, more than 400,000 acres of Maine farmland will transition in ownership, raising the question: what will happen to that land?” explains Erica Buswell, Vice President of Programs for MFT and co-host of the conference. “To ensure this farmland stays in production, all of us must find a way to support land transition with programs that help farmland owners and make land available and affordable for farmers.”

Conference presenters include local farmers and service providers working on the ground in Maine, as well as experts from around New England. Exhibits and networking opportunities will be available throughout the day. The conference is hosted by Maine Farmland Trust, and Land For Good. Sponsors include American Farmland Trust, and The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry (DACF) and Maine Harvest Credit Project. Additional sponsorship opportunities are available.

The deadline to register is November 28, 2018. Cost of attendance is $20 per person and includes a lunch sourced from local farmers and producers. For more information or to register, go to visit the event page.

Our Priorities for the Final Farm Bill

Time is running out for Congress to pass a new farm bill. The current farm bill, which was passed in 2014, expires on September 30, 2018. Both the House and the Senate have passed their own versions of a new farm bill. A conference committee, which includes leadership from both Agriculture Committees as well as other House and Senate members, has been formed to work out the differences between the two bills. If the conference committee is unable to produce a reconciled bill by the September 30th deadline, an extension of the current farm bill will need to be obtained to ensure that programs vital to farmers in Maine and across the country continue to operate while the new farm bill is negotiated.

Both the House and Senate farm bills contain important funding increases for the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives Program (FINI), as described below. Overall, though, the bipartisan Senate bill does more for agriculture in Maine by protecting important farm resources, helping Maine farmers grow their businesses, and supporting the next generation of farmers. In contrast, the partisan House bill guts programs that are vital to farmers and rural communities in Maine and eliminates critical funding for conservation programs. More specific information about the House and Senate bills can be found HERE and HERE.

As the conference committee works to reconcile these two bills, MFT has reached out to our congressional delegation and urged them to work with the conference committee to ensure that the following priorities are included in the final bill:

1. Maintain both the Senate and House farm bills’ increases in funding for ACEP-ALE to support the placement of agricultural easements in Maine that protect farmland and make land more affordable for the next generation of farmers.

  • Senate farm bill: authorizes $400 million/year in FY19-21; $425 million in FY22; and $450 million/year by FY23.
  • House farm bill: authorizes $500 million/year in funding.

2. Maintain the Senate farm bill’s increase in funding for the development of local and regional food economies through the establishment of the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP).

  • Senate farm bill:combines the Value-Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG) with the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) and a regional public-private partnership to support and encourage investment in regional food economies, and provides $60 million/year in mandatory funding.
  • House farm bill: does not create a combined program and does not provide any mandatory funding for VAPG or FMLFPP.

3. Maintain the Senate farm bill’s increase in funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which provides competitive grants to academic institutions, state extension services, producer groups, and community organizations to support and train new farmers and ranchers.

4. Reduce funding cuts to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) so that farmers have the necessary support to address natural resources concerns on their property while keeping their land in production.

  • Senate farm bill: reduces funding for EQIP and CSP by $2.5 billion over 10 years, but maintains overall funding levels for the Conservation Title.
  • House farm bill: eliminates CSP, cuts total funding for the Conservation Title by $1 billion, and reduces funding for working lands conservation programs by $5 billion over 10 years.

5. Maintain the Senate and House farm bills’ increase in funding for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program to increase access to local fresh fruits and vegetables for SNAP recipients, and expand markets for farmers.

  • Senate farm bill: reauthorizes the program and provides $50 million per year in mandatory permanent baseline funding.
  • House farm bill:reauthorizes the program and provides $275 million over 5 years in permanent baseline funding.

6. Maintain the Senate farm bill’s Buy-Protect-Sell provision so that lands trusts can act quickly using ACEP-ALE dollars to protect vulnerable farmland and then sell the land to a farmer.

  • Senate farm bill: contains a Buy-Protect-Sell provision.
  • House farm bill:does not contain a Buy-Protect-Sell provision.

7. Maintain the Senate farm bill’s increase in funding for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), which supports research projects that address the most critical challenges facing organic farmers.

  • Senate farm bill: increases funding to $50 million/year in permanent baseline funding by 2022.
  • House farm bill:increases funding to $30 million/year in mandatory funding.

8. Maintain the Senate farm bill’s increases in funding levels for Farm Service Agency (FSA) direct and guaranteed loans.

  • Senate farm bill: increases funding to at least $2 billion for direct loans and $4 billion for guaranteed loans.
  • House farm bill:does not increase funding.

 

Many of these important provisions are taken from legislation that was sponsored by Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and Maine Senator Susan Collins. We urge you to reach out to all of Maine’s congressional delegation, including Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, Congressman Bruce Poliquin, Senator Susan Collins, and Senator Angus King, and let them know why these programs are important to you and to farmers generally in Maine.

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

Journal Launch Party: Issue 05

Come celebrate the fifth(!) issue of our annual journal, maine farms, and five years of gathering the stories of Maine’s farm and food landscape.

 

Wednesday, July 18th

5:30-7:30

Rabelais Books

North Dam Mill
Building 18
2 Main Street
Biddeford, Maine 04005

 

Snacks + drinks will be provided (like ice cream from Sweet Cream Dairy and hard cider from Portersfield Cider!)

+ time to connect with some of the people who have helped bring maine farms to life.

 

Please RSVP by July 13th to ellen@mainefarmlandtrust.org

Call for Farmers/Artists/Artisans/Writers To Participate

HOMELAND

A multimedia exhibit exploring our collective and diverse relationship to home/land.

MFT Gallery invites farmers, artists, artisans and writers living in Maine, from diverse social-economic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, to create art, craft or poetry which reflects on their unique relationship to home/land.

We are particularly interested in works that speak to a deep relationship which comes from cultivating the land, or a longing for connection with the land. For example, we invite work by farmers/artists which expresses the relationship with the land they cultivate; we invite work by farmers/artists who have been separated from home/land in some way and are cultivating a new relationship to the land they are on; we invite work by those who are longing for a renewed relationship to home/land.

Maine Farmland Trust will host the exhibit at its Gallery in Belfast from November 12, 2018 through March 1, 2019. This exhibit is promoted and curated in collaboration with GEDAKINA and several other organizations.

Depending on the number of participants, up to three pieces per artist/writer will be exhibited. If there are more submissions than gallery space, final selections will be made by a panel. The objective is to have all who submitted work included.

 

THE SCHEDULE FOR SUBMISSIONS IS AS FOLLOWS:

By July 15, 2018: Contact Anna Witholt Abaldo, MFT Gallery Curator (anna@mainefarmlandtrust.org), phone 338-6575 X 112) to let us know your intent to participate, stating medium/type of work.

By August 15, 2018: Submit up to 5 digital images of proposed work to Anna Witholt Abaldo (anna@mainefarmlandtrust.org).  For each image, please include title, media, and dimensions. Photos can be of work in progress. Please add a brief artist statement/bio to accompany exhibited works.

September 15, 2018: Notification to participants confirming how many pieces will be included.

November 5-6, 2018: Works must be delivered to Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

November 5-9, 2018: Exhibit will be hung.

November 12, 2018: Exhibit opens.

November 16, 2018, from 5-7pm: Artist reception with artist talks by those who wish to speak about their work, at 5pm. There can be room for song and poetry reading as well.

March 1, 2019: Exhibit comes down and works are available for pick-up.

Any questions about exhibition and submission details can be directed to Anna Witholt Abaldo, phone 338-6575 X 112)

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

Maine Fare: Whole Lamb Butchery

Students will learn from and work with butchers Elise Miller and Kirk Pincince from Rosemont Market to breakdown and butcher a whole lamb from Stoneheart Farm. Guests will get hands on cutting experience and will get to take home some of their handy work.

Rosemont Market & Bakery is comprised of six markets in Portland, Yarmouth, and Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Since their start in 2005, Rosemont has become a significant hub for local food, sourcing fresh & delicious products from local farmers and friends whose practices they trust. Through their markets, Rosemont is working within their neighborhoods to instill a deeper, stronger understanding of where food comes from and what it’s really about.

MFT members receive 10% discount on tickets.

 

***ONLINE ticket sales will CLOSE on Thursday, June 21st at 3:30PM. If you would like to reserve a ticket on Friday, please call the MFT office and speak with Kim. 207.338.6575

Not a member? Join today and receive 10% off your ticket!

Check out the other Maine Fare events happening throughout the month!

Maine Fare: Farmstead Cheesemaking

Gloria Varney at Nezinscot Farm will host a hands-on class that allows students the opportunity to gain skills and understanding of both soft and semi-hard cheeses. We’ll finish the process of making a dry-curd cottage cheese, a versatile cheese that can be eaten fresh or pressed to create a farmers-style cheese. Participants will also prepare goat’s milk  to make a chevre and brie (or camembert). Everyone will leave with a sampling of cheeses to take home.

 ***THIS EVENT IS SOLD OUT***

MFT members receive 10% discount on tickets.

Not a member? Join today and receive 10% off your ticket!

Check out the other Maine Fare events happening throughout the month!

Maine Fare: Foraging and Growing Mushrooms

Scott Vlaun, the executive director at the Center for an Ecology-Based Economy in Norway, Maine, will lead a workshop on the basics of the mushroom life cycle, production, and different types of fungi, specifically oyster and shitake mushrooms. Participants will drill, plug and wax their own mushroom log to take home, and learn about log stacking methods, incubation and fruiting. We’ll discuss foraging strategies and etiquette in the Maine woods and learn about some of the easy to identify medicinal and edible mushrooms.

THIS EVENT IS SOLD OUT! 

Make sure to check out our other Maine Fare events happening throughout the month of June!

June 17th: Farmstead Cheesemaking

June 24th: Whole Lamb Butchery

June 30th: Finale Feast, Tasting & Storytelling

 

MFT members receive 10% discount on tickets.

Not a member? Join today and receive 10% off your ticket!

Check out the other Maine Fare events happening throughout the month!

Maine Fare: Indigenous Foodways

Karyn Marden (Abenaki descent), Ann Pollard-Ranco (Penobscot and Abenaki) and Alivia Moore (Penobscot) of Gedakina will give an overview of the history of indigenous food systems in Western Maine. The presentation will cover indigenous food system recovery work happening in different parts of the state, including a women-led recovery of traditional agriculture in Starks, and wild rice recovery projects. The presenters will also give an overview of other tribal food systems work happening in Maine and introduce some of the Wabanaki food businesses. Guests will have the opportunity to sample some foods from the tribal community, including a wild rice salad with squash and cranberries, and traditional cornbread. 

MFT members receive 10% discount on tickets.

TICKETS WILL BE AVAILABLE AT THE DOOR. ONLINE TICKET SALES NOW CLOSED. CALL MFT OFFICE FOR QUESTIONS 207.338.6575

Not a member? Join today and receive 10% off your ticket!

Trouble buying your ticket or prefer to do it over the phone? Please call the MFT office (207.338.6575) and ask for Rachel Keidan, or email at rkeidan@mainefarmlandtrust.org

Check out the other Maine Fare events happening throughout the month!