Tag Archives: Maine Food Systems

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 in-credible 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 lon-ger-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 func- tioning 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 under- stand 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 think- ing 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 in- crease the positive potential of our collective efforts. A powerful example of this is unfolding before us, as our understanding of the systemic impacts of dam- ming 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 po- tential 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 to- gether 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 areat 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 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.

RSVP: Forever Farm Party at Morning Dew Farm

MFT & Damariscotta River Association invite you to a celebration of farmland protection and community collaboration in Damariscotta!

 

Join us at recently protected farmland on Rt. One in Damariscotta, now owned and farmed by the farmers of Morning Dew Farm.

** Come rain or shine! In the event of rain, the event will still happen! We have a rain plan in place just in case. **

 

Thursday, July 26

5-8PM

 

Food by Harvest Moon Catering, beer from Oxbow Brewing Co.

Music by The Newell Family & Sharon Pyne.

 

PLEASE NOTE THE PARKING SITUATION: Guests must park at the DRA Round Top Farm, 3 Round Top Lane, Damariscotta. We will take shuttles to the farm from there. There is NO PARKING allowed at the farm site.

 

Free & All are Welcome! Bring the whole family! SEE YOU AT THE ROUND TOP FARM!

Healthy Soils, Healthy Farms: farm tour & policy update

Tour Stonyvale Farm  with farmer Bob Fogler and Ellen Mallory of UMaine Cooperative Extension to learn how farmers are building healthy soils that benefit both the climate and farm profitability.

Hear from MFT & Maine Conservation Voters about policy initiatives that can foster healthy soils practices on farms, and how you can help shape policies that are good for farms and good for the environment.

Free & Open to All. Dress for a farm tour (sensible footwear, layers).

 

Please RSVP to ellen@mainefarmlandtrust.org by May 9.

House Agriculture Committee Farm Bill is a Mixed Bag for Maine Farmers

On Thursday, April 12th, the House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway (R-TX) introduced his draft of the 2018 Farm Bill, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2). On Wednesday, April 18th, the Committee voted the bill out of Committee on a strictly party-line vote (26-20). The full House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill in May. This bill is very much a mixed bag for farmers in Maine. Although it contains some important provisions for farmland conservation, beginning farmers, food access, and organic research, it either eliminates mandatory funding, does not increase funding, or makes problematic administrative changes to many programs that are vital to Maine farmers.

 

Funding for Farmland Conservation

Good:

  • Restores $500 million in mandatory funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which provides funding for easements on agricultural land.
  • Makes some administrative changes to ACEP that will make the program easier to use for farmers and conservation organizations.
  • Increases baseline funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which provides funding for conservation activities through public-private partnerships.

Problematic:

  • Cuts funding for working lands conservation programs by nearly $5 billion over 10 years.
  • Eliminates the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which provides farmers with comprehensive support to address natural resources concerns on their property while keeping their land in production. Replaces CSP with Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) stewardship contracts that do not have the core features of CSP and will not have an equal amount of funding.
  • Allows 100% forested land to be eligible for ACEP, diluting the funding available for easements on working farms.

 

Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers

Good:

  • Reauthorizes and continues existing mandatory funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which provides competitively awarded grants to academic institutions, state extension services, producer groups, and community organizations to support and train new farmers and ranchers.
  • Expands the focus of BFRDP to include food safety training, land access, and succession planning.
  • Includes a new Farmland Tenure, Transition, and Entry Data Initiative to collect important data on farmland ownership, tenure, transition, barriers to entry, profitability and viability of beginning farmers in order to improve policymaking and analysis.
  • Reauthorizes and maintains level funding for the Transition Incentives Program (CRP-TIP) to help facilitate the transition of farmland coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to the next generation of farmers. But it does not make needed administrative changes to improve the effectiveness of the program.

Problematic:

  • Farm Service Agency (FSA) guaranteed operating loan limits are increased without increasing overall program funding, thereby decreasing the opportunity for small-scale and beginning farmers to access loans.
  • No increases to FSA direct farm ownership loan limits.

 

Local and Regional Food Systems and Rural Development

Good:

  • Increases mandatory funding to $275 million over 5 years for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives Program (FINI), which provides competitive grants to projects that help low-income consumers participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables through incentives.

Problematic:

  • Provides no mandatory funding for the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP), which is a competitive grant program to help farmers and processors comply with new food safety requirements.
  • Provides no mandatory funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP), which is a competitive grant program that funds direct-to-consumer marketing strategies as well as local and regional food business enterprises.
  • Provides no mandatory funding for the Value-Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG), which provides competitively awarded grants to producers to create or develop value-added producer-owned businesses.
  • Eliminates the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP), which helps small and mid-sized organic farm businesses afford annual certification costs.

 

Research

Good:

  • Provides a $10 million increase in mandatory funding for the Organic Agriculture Research & Extension Initiative (OREI), which supports research projects that address the most critical challenges that organic farmers face.

Problematic:

  • Reauthorizes the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), which provides funding for farmer-driven research, but provides no increases in funding.
  • Reauthorizes the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which provides competitive grants to researchers to solve pressing challenges facing farmers and society, but provides no increases in funding.
  • Reauthorizes the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), which provides competitive grants for regional and multi-state projects that conduct research related to specialty crops, but provides no increases in funding.

 

Although there are many aspects of this bill that need to be improved for the benefit of Maine farmers, the vote by the House Agriculture Committee is just the first step. The full House of Representatives is supposed to vote on the bill in May. We urge you to contact your representative, either Congresswoman Chellie Pingree or Congressman Bruce Poliquin, to make your voice heard about this bill.

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

‘Growing Local’ screening on Earth Day in Bethel

Come celebrate Earth Day at the Gem Theater! There will be a Potluck at 3:30pm, followed by showings at 4:30pm of farm-friendly films including:

  • ‘Growing Local’: While “buying local” is on the rise, the stories in Growing Local make clear that small farms and access to locally produced food is not a sure thing. These three poignant stories help us understand the interconnected fates of Maine’s small farms, consumers and the local food movement. Growing Local was directed and produced by Bridget Besaw of Seedlight Pictures.
  • ‘Farms of Western Maine: Moon Dance Farm’, which was created by junior high students at The Eddy School.
  • Alan Day Community Garden will show a short film about their Youth Leadership Program.
  • Center For an Ecology Based Economy (CEBE) in Norway will show a short film about their food festival.

After these films, we will have Q&A with representatives of all of those organizations, including MFT’s Chris Franklin.

 

Member Voices: “Why I support MFT”

We say it all the time: Our members make our work possible.

MFT members are people who recognize the importance of protecting farmland and helping farmers thrive. They care about the resiliency of Maine’s rural economy, and the sustainability of our environment. They are farmers, future-farmers, business owners, eaters, conservationists, advocates, policymakers, artists, community-builders, foodies, and people who love Maine. They are people like YOU.

There are so many reasons to join MFT. Hear from a few of our members why they choose to be part of this work. Continue reading…

Amanda Beal: A New England Food Vision

Original story in: Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Winter 2016-2017 Newsletter

In 2011, Amanda Beal and several others, including Russell Libby (then MOFGA’s executive director), began to explore deeply the capacity for New England to produce much more of its food than it currently does. They developed “A New England Food Vision: Healthy Food for All, Sustainable Farming and Fishing, Thriving Communities,” published by Food Solutions New England. That vision was the topic of Beal’s keynote speech at MOFGA’s 2016 Common Ground Country Fair (posted at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dktL4gcu2o).

Beal grew up on her family’s Maine dairy farm and on Casco Bay, where she has fond memories of digging clams for dinner in summer alongside her grandfather and warming the bench of his smelt shanty in winter.

Beal is a MOFGA board member and past president. She holds a master’s degree from the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, is completing her Ph.D. in the Natural Resources and Earth Systems Science program at the University of New Hampshire, and was recently appointed president and CEO of Maine Farmland Trust.

In honor of the 40th Common Ground Country Fair, Beal noted the many Fair speakers who inspired her work, including those from afar – Jim Hightower, Wes Jackson, Vandana Shiva, Woody Tasch and Kathleen Merrigan – and those from Maine – John Bunker, Barbara Damrosch, Rep. Chellie Pingree, Jim Gerritsen, Deb Soule, Ted Ames and “someone who was a dear friend and inspiration to so many of us, MOFGA’s former executive director, Russell Libby, who made many lasting contributions in this work and played an instrumental role in inspiring the efforts I will be talking about here today.”

A New England Food Vision (posted at http://www.foodsolutionsne.org/new-england-food-vision), according to it summary, “describes a future in which New England produces at least half the region’s food – and no one goes hungry. It looks ahead a half a century and sees farming and fishing as important regional economic forces; soils, forests and waterways cared for sustainably; healthy diets as a norm; and access to food as a basic human right.”

This vision began in 2009, said Beal, with conversations among the New England delegates to the Spannocchia Foundation (an 1,100-acre organic education center in rural Tuscany), including Russell Libby, John Piotti (then President and CEO of Maine Farmland Trust), Maine chef Sam Hayward, and agricultural historian Brian Donahue of Brandeis University. This trip also catalyzed Libby’s development of the “Maine Local 20”: 20 foods that Maine can produce for its citizens to enjoy all year, including dairy, potatoes, carrots, meats, seafood, apples, eggs, dry beans, greens and more.

In 2011 Food Solutions New England held its first New England Food Summit, where Donahue said he had started looking at data and considering what we could produce in New England. Libby and Beal were interested enough to join in that work.

“I was concerned that the seafood side of story wouldn’t get enough attention,” said Beal. That was based on “my own past experience of being involved in food system conversations and recognizing that often people weren’t even aware of what was going on regarding seafood.”

The draft vision was presented annually at New England Food Summits; to groups of farmers, fishermen, policymakers, consumers, academics and educators; and to many more. Public comments were solicited. “We worked hard to incorporate all of the feedback in a meaningful way,” said Beal. “The resulting vision is so strong; it resonates with many and is being used in a number of innovative ways.”

U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (right), a strong supporter of Maine-grown and organic food, attended Beal’s keynote speech and enjoyed other areas of the Fair as well. English photo

What the Vision is Not

The vision is not, said Beal, a plan or a prescription. “We recognize that many decisions need to be made community by community, business by business, organization by organization, based on local assets and opportunities to address challenges.”

Nor is it a “how to.” “In fact it raises far more questions than it answers!” Beal noted. It does not predict or promise that New England will get to a certain level of production. “Right now,” said Beal, “every New England state has a process underway to develop a statewide food plan. Food Solutions New England continues to hold conversations on a regional level. A lot of work still needs to be done at the municipal, state and federal levels, and to thread all of these layers together.”

A Vision of Possibilities

Currently about 90 percent of New England’s food is brought from outside the region by a global system that produces abundant food but does so in ways that too often undermine the planet’s soils, waters and climate, said Beal. Feeding New England’s 14.5 million people takes about 16 million acres of land, the way we eat now. This represents more than 1 acre per person per year.

New England now produces food on about 5 percent of our land base (2 million acres). The vision calls for as much as 6 to 7 million New England acres producing food – 15 percent of the region, which is about where we were in 1950. That would mean several hundred thousand acres in and around cities devoted to intensive production and several million acres of rural farmland abandoned since World War II supporting crops and livestock.

Beal noted that the vision plans for New Englanders in 2060 eating more diverse and healthier foods than today.

The vision modeled three diets.

“In one, we keep doing what we’re doing now.”

“The second, the moderate scenario, also called the Omnivore’s Delight, gets us to 50 percent production and has the region growing most of its vegetables; half of its fruit; some of its grain and dry beans; and all of its dairy, beef and other animal products.” “It recognizes, said Beal, that some things that we want will remain difficult or impossible to grow here, and that growing all of the grain here for our livestock results in a footprint that is just too big.”

“The third model, Regional Reliance, could get us to 70 percent production and means eating less meat and more beans and grains.”

The expanded acreage in all three scenarios leaves 70 percent of the region forested. A companion document, Wildlands & Woodlands (http://harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/news/wildlands-and-woodlands-vision-new-england-landscape), produced by staff and other researchers at the Harvard Forest, recommends that 70 percent of the region stay forested for ecological and economic reasons. In the mid-19th century, said Beal, large swaths of southern New England had as much as 50 percent of the land cleared for farming; in some places, as much as 75 percent. “From this, we learned … that there is certainly a line that can be crossed where too much land in production can cause numerous ecological issues.” After that period, we learned to grow more food on less land, as production remained relatively level.

Calculating fisheries production is more difficult, said Beal, as fish move around and are hard to count. Historically New England fisheries markedly increased harvest volume in the 19th century, as we were ramping up agricultural production, to supply markets here and beyond. A motorized fishing fleet and new technologies improved catch efficiency and increased landings, but with long-term impacts on some species.

In looking forward, the vision identifies many factors that impact the productivity of fisheries, including healthy watersheds; competing uses such as transportation, energy generation and aquaculture; and land use and conversion. “Moving from 3 million to 6 million acres for agriculture, if not done right, can impact our water quality,” said Beal.

The vision seeks to protect and restore keystone species, particularly fish considered the forage base. Beal noted the exciting progress in the number of spawning alewives that have returned as large dams have been removed.

Consumer education can help, too. “So many people don’t know what to do with a whole fish, or with many species of fish,” said Beal. “They have a narrow diet and a narrow palate for fish. People need to understand the seasonality of fish, when it should be available.”

In relation to fisheries, the vision also calls for research on climate change impacts and strategies for adaptation; and for policies that support regulatory structures and management strategies that are flexible and allow for shifting ecological and economic conditions.

“We found that, over the most recent 10-year average,” said Beal, “if we ate every fish that we harvested from the Gulf of Maine and New England, we are producing only about 2.5 ounces of seafood per person per week in New England. That’s a long way from USDA’s recommended 9 or so ounces per person per week. This begs for discussion about how we promote sustainable consumption.” Beal also noted that a lot of that current catch is lobster; that the species richness and production now is just a fraction of what they once were.

“It’s hard to predict exactly what will be here in the future or how much, but we need to do all we can to support restoration of our freshwater and marine environments if we want fish to be part of our diets,” said Beal.

Four core principles or aspirations guide changes to the food system recommended by A New England Food Vision: Everyone has access to healthy food; everyone enjoys a healthy diet; food is sustainably produced; and food helps build thriving communities.

Beal said she has heard arguments against localizing our food system. Some say, for example, that New England agriculture is just a drop in the bucket; that the kind of agriculture or the scale of agricultural production in New England does not measure up to that of other places with massive fields of monocrops and big, efficient machinery.

Some argue that transporting large amounts of food around the globe creates energy efficiency.

“Most of those analyses leave out food waste,” said Beal. “As much as 40 percent of what we produce is wasted,” as are the inputs – energy, water, nutrients – to produce that food. “It’s important to note that, at greater economies of scale, it’s often deemed less costly to throw food away than to prevent wasted food in the first place.”

Beal believes that this kind of thinking is oversimplified and inappropriately reductionist; that it relies on many generalities and assumptions and does not account for the externalities created by our existing global food system.

“We also can’t forget the failures or our greater food system,” she added, including food insecurity and hunger, diet-related illnesses, social injustice and environmental degradation.

“According to the United Nations,” said Beal, “the world produces more than enough food for everyone on the planet, yet 795 million people, or 1 in 9, do not have enough food to lead a healthy and active life.” Locally, said Beal, “protecting or cultivating the knowledge to grow food in communities that can, which is really nearly all New England communities, given the right support, localizes our inherent ability to recognize and address hunger among us.” Localizing our food system, she added, “may also insulate us somewhat against rising food costs in the future due to political factors, resource bottlenecks, pollution and extreme weather events elsewhere.”

Regarding illnesses, “We’ve developed diets highly dependent on unhealthy, processed foods, because in some cases these are the most affordable, thanks to subsidies and inherent market distortions.” The result: high rates of preventable chronic diseases – the leading causes of death and disability in the United States. The CDC reports that about half of all American adults have one or more preventable chronic diseases, many related to poor eating patterns and physical inactivity. And the Center for Science in the Public Interest says that in the last 30 years, obesity rates have doubled in adults, tripled in children, and quadrupled in adolescents. The total annual costs of direct and indirect healthcare spending in the United States for just the top seven diet-related chronic diseases is $957,900 billion.

Regarding social injustice, Beal noted the many farmers and farmworkers who don’t make a fair wage; the many minorities who are exploited through systemic racial inequity; and the human rights violations through poor working conditions and sometimes even forced labor. We unwittingly support these things when our food dollar travels far from here, said Beal.

Environmental degradation includes water pollution due to overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, topsoil loss, greenhouse gas emissions and more.

The vision states, said Beal, that “local food is not a panacea, but it may provide an opportunity to gain greater control over our food system.”

Relevance to Maine

Currently New England has about 2 million acres in production, almost 40 percent of that in Maine. To scale up New England to 6 million, said Beal, would mean tripling the amount of land in production in New England but would likely mean almost a quadrupling land in production in Maine, because we have the land base.

Retired University of Southern Maine professor Mark Lapping, a Vision co-author, stressed that we don’t want Maine to be the raw materials producer for value-added activities that happen elsewhere – we want to see that potential realized here. Nor do we want, said Beal, to overly fixate on exporting food to markets elsewhere for the sake of the highest dollar when people in our own communities can’t access adequate nutrition.

What Do We Need to Do?

Beal highlighted two big efforts that would help. We need to support strong incentives, including with our food dollars, that reinforce the type of production and practices that promote the four core values of the New England Food Vision; and we need to support organizations that do good work to build the kind of food system we want. She cited MOFGA, Maine Farmland Trust, Cultivating Community, Penobscot East Resource Center, Downeast Salmon Federation, and many more as examples in Maine. For context, she noted that The Hershey Company alone reportedly spends $562 million per year promoting its chocolate and other products; that food companies spend $33 billion on advertising each year; and that the food industry spends $1.8 billion on advertising and promotions to children each year.

The vision of getting to 50 percent local food by 2060 can help. The document is being used to further conversations in communities; to inform local and state policy development in a nonpartisan way; as a teaching tool in college classes and in research by graduate students; and by businesses and other organizations to reflect upon their role in advancing it and the resources needed.

Maine Farmland Trust, said Beal, recognizes “that assuring we have preserved our agricultural land base for production in Maine is critically important … without it, it’s hard to imagine how this vision for New England could ever be realized.”

Beal ended her talk by reading the dedication in the New England Food Vision: “For Russell Libby, who inspired us to think deeply about a future in which good food is common fare, and encouraged us to plant and build that future, apple by apple, stone by stone.”

Young Dairy: Dostie 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 dairy industry has not seen the same growth. The younger generation 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.

Egide Dostie Sr. grew up on a dairy farm, and started his own farm in Skowhegan in 1972. Eventually his sons joined him on the farm : Egide II is a partner in the farm business, and Robert works full-time on the farm, and in 2000 they moved the operation to a larger farm property in Fairfield. They sold milk to Oakhurst until 2013, when low milk prices led them to make the tough decision to sell most of their cows and heifers and switch to raising cattle for beef.

This is not an uncommon story. Small dairy farms like Dostie struggle to stay profitable, and across New England many have decided to switch to a different type of farming, or stop farming altogether.

But what is less common is that the story of Dostie Farm doesn’t end there. In fact, the family is in the midst of writing a different chapter:  this spring, Dostie Farm will start milking cows again, producing organic milk for Stonyfield.

When I visited the farm on a cold November morning, the sun was just coming up, but the three Dostie men had already been long at work on skid steers, tractors, and trucks, feeding their steers and heifers. In the barns the heifers were contentedly eating certified organic hay cut from the Dostie’s fields, in preparation for spring milk production.

Edgie II walked me through the barns and showed me their revolving milking parlor, one of only a few of its kind in Maine, and as we talked it was evident that he was anxious to get back to milking. Dairy farming is something you’re stuck with, “like a disease” he joked. When Stonyfield approached them, they couldn’t say no. “We decided to go organic, which was a different route than before, smaller and more manageable,” said Egide II. With organic, “you know what you’re getting paid as long as you can produce the milk.”

Over the past few years the Dosties have been preparing for the future of the farm in other ways, too. The family has worked with Maine Farmland Trust to protect their farm properties with agricultural conservation easements, ensuring that their land will forever be available for agriculture. The Dosties can use the capital from the sale of the easements to reinvest in their farm, and to help transition the farm from one generation to the next as Egide Sr. retires and his sons carry the business into the future.

Between their farm properties in Fairfield and Skowhegan, the Dosties grow hay and corn for feed, and also tap over 4,000 trees for maple syrup. Edgie II said they don’t make money on the syrup, but they don’t lose money either, and “we get to be outside, doing what we love.”

For an hour or so, I watched and took photos as the Dosties worked in a synchronous and almost wordless flow, which, said Egide Sr., is “what happens when you’ve done this together as long as we have.” As I left the farm, the sun was still climbing, rising over a farm that’s entering a new phase. Every dairy farmer I spoke to this year has said the same thing: in towns where even just 10 or 20 years ago there used to be several dairy farms,  now there are one or two…or none. In the Skowhegan and Fairfield area, there are still a handful of active dairy farms, and Dostie Farm will continue to be among them, adapting and re-calibrating to keep farming. 

maine course sodexo

Sodexo’s Maine Course Scaling Up Events

On November 1st and 3rd the Sodexo in partnership with the University of Maine System will hold the inaugural Scaling Up Events as part of the Maine Course initiative.

This one-day forum is a supply chain training and networking opportunity for growers, processors, and distributors. The goal of this event is to foster collective learning about selling locally grown and/or manufactured products within the commercial and non-commercial food service industry. Sodexo leadership from the state of Maine along with their supply management team will be working together to further this conversation on these very important topics.

In 2015, Sodexo made a commitment to the state of Maine to increase local food purchasing at all of accounts in Maine, a commitment called the Maine Course.  You are invited to come learn more about how Sodexo’s Maine Course commitment will impact local purchasing in Maine and if selling, or increasing current sales, into the food service industry might be the right fit for your operation.

Topics covered are intended to build business to business relationships between the producers, distributors, and buyers in the room, including topics like:

  • How Sodexo’s food procurement works
  • How the University of Maine Orono’s food procurement works
  • Maine Course as a local procurement strategy
  • Trends in the food service industry
  • Regional and national distributor interfacing
  • Approved vendor process
  • Stories from producers about their path in selling to Sodexo

If you are interested in attending, we ask that you register for the event nearest you.

NOTE: The content of the events will be the same at each location therefore you need only attend one date.

Registration for the November 1st event:

https://sodexoscalingupeventnov1.eventbrite.com

 

Registration for the November 3rd event:

https://sodexoscalingupeventnov3.eventbrite.com