Tag Archives: Growing Local

Growing Local in Washington

See our film, Growing Local, at the Gibbs Library, 40 Old Union Rd in Washington! 

 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.

Growing Local in York

See our film, Growing Local, at the York Public Library, 15 Long Sands Rd!  MFT Staff will be at the screening to answer questions after the film.

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.

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.”

Empty Bowls for full plates

Unity Barn Raisers and Veggies For All present Empty Bowls 2017, a benefit for the Volunteer Regional Food Pantry and the Western Waldo County Gleaning Initiative.  Due to inclement weather the date has been changed from Tuesday, March 14,  to Wednesday March 15, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Maine Farmland Trust’s Unity Food Hub, 69 School St.

The public is invited to enjoy a simple soup dinner, take home a beautiful bowl and support hunger relief in the Unity area. Soups feature local ingredients sourced through the Unity Food Hub and are appropriate for a variety of dietary needs.  Suggested donation of $10.00.

This event is sponsored by UniTel and supported by potters from Unity Pond Pottery, Unity College art department and others around the state.

For more information or to make a donation, contact Mary Leaming of Unity Barn Raisers, at 948-9005 or programs@unitybarnraisers.org. The Volunteer Regional Food Pantry is a 501(c)(3) community-operated food pantry providing emergency and supplementary food and services to those at risk of hunger in the Unity, Maine area. The goal of the VRFP is to increase quality of life through a focus on food security.

Unity Barn Raisers works pro-actively to enhance small-town character and rural environment, while nurturing a thriving community-based economy. UBR believes that a community working together can shape its own future and, in so doing, significantly advance the quality of life of its people, both now and for generations to come.

Veggies For All, a project of Maine Farmland Trust, is a food bank farm that works to relieve hunger by growing vegetables for those in need, while collaborating with partners to distribute and increase access to quality and nutritious food.

Farming for Wholesale Workshop in Fryeburg

Farming For Wholesale Workshop

Are you an experienced farmer who wants make more money wholesaling your products? The Business of Farming for Wholesale could help you get there! This one-day workshop, based on Maine Farmland Trust’s Farming for Wholesale program, will examine wholesale from many different angles. Jed Beach, of FarmSmart, will lead the workshop focusing on production costing and marketing of wholesale products. During the workshop you’ll have a chance to:

  • Use last year’s actual records to find your most (& least) profitable crops.
  • Create and evaluate different financial scenarios for your farm business.
  • Investigate some of the most beneficial wholesale production, marketing, and distribution techniques.
  • Meet some of the other wholesale farmers and some wholesale buyers in your area.

In addition, each farm will receive follow-up technical assistance tailored to your farm’s growth strategy. This extremely valuable technical assistance will help you transfer what you’ve learned in the workshop to your specific farm needs.

When: Saturday, February 4, 9am-4pm

Where: Fryeburg Academy—Fryeburg, Maine

Cost: $35 (to help cover the costs of lunch).  Upon completion of the workshop and your successful participation in technical assistance, all farms located in Maine will be awarded $500 in seed money. There is a net gain of $465 to Maine farms!

For more information contact, Jesse Wright at Upper Saco Valley Land Trust:603-356-9683 or info@usvlt.org.

This workshop is hosted by Upper Saco Valley Land Trust, Maine Farmland Trust, and the Maine Network of Food Councils.

Registration will close Friday, January 20th, 2017.

 

HERE’S WHAT FARMERS SAY ABOUT THE PROGRAM:

“I’ve put my time with Wholesale 101 on my list of the top ten things I’ve done to ensure Eldertide & Maine Medicinals’ success.”

-Edie Johnston, Eldertide Farm & Maine Medicinals

“Having you vet and correct my spreadsheets while providing additional thoughts as to which areas of my business I should be concerned with made all the difference to my bottom line this year. We made more income than ever, largely due to this workshop.”

–Chris Cavendish, Fishbowl Farm

Feeding Maine: Growing Access To Good Food

Veggies For All volunteer Sarah “Sass” Linnekin brandishes a new beet. Veggies For All is a food bank farm that grows crops on four acres of land in Unity; it’s quickly becoming a model for other organizations across the state. A May 2015 graduate of the Environmental Writing and Media Studies program at Unity College, Sass herself was once food insecure and relied on hunger relief programs to feed her family. She now gives back by volunteering

PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRENDAN BULLOCK           TEXT BY ANNIE MURPHY

If you see the phrase “food insecurity,” you might picture scenes from distant places hit by the global food crisis: barren fields marked by drought, families fleeing wars, or people waiting in long ration lines. You might not picture Maine.

Yet more than 200,000 Mainers are food insecure. The term means hunger and scarcity; it also means lack of access to food that’s fresh and healthy.

Meeting that need for good food is where Maine’s farmers, workers, and volunteers come in. Our state already has the elements required to feed everyone who lives here: farmland, farmers, and people who are invested in forging ties between farms and low-income Mainers. By making fresh ingredients accessible to those who need them most, the projects featured here are also creating new opportunities for local farms—by opening up markets, diverting waste through farm donations and gleaning, and creating new customers by helping people learn to keep home gardens and cook with fresh ingredients.

This series is part of a larger photo project that seeks to document some of the many people working for change in their communities, with the hope that these efforts will continue to grow into a resilient food system that serves all Mainers. A joint collaboration between Maine Farmland Trust and Good Shepard Food Bank, the photo project will be shown around the state beginning in September 2015.

AT GREEN EARTH GARDENS IN UNITY,

Veggies For All volunteers join in the harvest. They come from all over: this group includes Unity College students, volunteers from local food pantries, and VFA staff. From left to right: John Hoeltzel, Tim Libby, Anna Mason, and Trevanna Grenfell.

GOOD SHEPHERD FOOD BANK

runs the Mainers Feeding Mainers program, which partners with farms across the state to purchase fresh, locally grown food; that food is then distributed to pantries, meal sites, and directly to families who might otherwise go without fresh produce. “The food bank doesn’t care if the tomato isn’t the right shade of red, or if the carrots aren’t perfectly straight,” says Kristen Miale, President of Good Shepherd. “We’ll take whatever they have… All that matters to us is that we get fresh produce for people in need.”

JIM BUCKLE OF BUCKLE FARM IN UNITY

lugs a crate of beets to a truck during the Veggies For All Harvest Party. This past spring, Jim gave CSA members a special deal on share prices if they donated $25 to VFA; during the harvest party, he and his farm crew helped kick-start the event by donating their time to work with volunteers. Also pictured in the background are: Kelsey Schrey, a member of Jim Buckle’s crew, and Sara Trunzo, VFA director.

MOHAMED ABDULLAHI MAKES BURRITOS

as part of job training through the Youth Powered Catering program (YPC) run by St. Mary’s Nutrition Center. Abdullahi is a senior at Lewiston High School, and plans to attend college after graduation. At YPC, he enjoys learning to prepare dishes from all over the world. “Before, I didn’t really know that healthy food could also be delicious,” he says. “And learning how to cook is handy because everyone needs to eat.” Abdullahi also participates in St. Mary’s urbanfarming program, and works at the year-round farmers market in Lewiston, which St. Mary’s helped create.

Veggies For All Volunteer Opportunity

The warm late summer has meant that our onion crop is drying quickly, turning the hundreds of pounds of onions we pulled a couple weeks ago into high quality storage vegetables that will keep well into the winter. We’ve also been busy harvesting peppers, carrots, and beets. All in all, we’ve raised and distributed over 3,600 lbs. of food so far this season thanks to the help of dozens of volunteers, and we’re really just getting started.

Help us keep the harvest rolling by joining us next Tuesday 9/27 from 9 a.m. to noon for trimming our storage onions.

Workday is presumed on, rain or shine. For onion trimming we’ll be working in a greenhouse that’s likely to be very warm. Please dress appropriately and bring whatever you need to be comfortable in that day’s conditions. If you have any questions, please call 207-322-1366 or e-mail kflack@mainefarmlandtrust.org.

Directions: head south from Unity on Albion Rd. about five miles until you see Waning Rd. on your left. Turn onto Waning Rd. then make your first (immediate) right into Grady Place. Follow the driveway toward and through the apple trees. You’ll see large greenhouses on your left. We’ll be in the one in the center. If you’re using a GPS, the address is 1059 Albion Rd.

 Thanks so much for your support. Hope to see you soon!

 

 

Can Maine Lead New England to a Farming Renaissance?

Re-posted from Route Fifty.

Encouraging trends offer hope that the region can produce much more of the food it consumes.

NORTHEAST HARBOR, Maine — On a bright morning in early August, scores of shoppers gathered on the harborside village green here, coming to buy the just-picked vegetables and flowers, the just-slaughtered pork, the freshly made artisanal cheeses and other goods produced on local Maine farms.

Much earlier that morning, Dylan Brown had made the two-hour trek down from his Dilly Bean Farm in Newburgh, bringing fresh peas, Swiss chard, kale, squash, cucumbers and sparkling lettuces to show off and sell to the summer crowd in this popular summer getaway.

Most of the summer folk who bought Dilly Bean’s produce probably didn’t know it, but their dollars were supporting an interesting renaissance in farming in Maine, one that has the potential to lead a revival that could dramatically alter the pattern of food-buying in New England and even the rest of the country.

Most Americans don’t pay much attention to the sources of their food. If they bother to conjure up an image of a farm, it’s often a sprawling operation owned by giant agribusiness interests raising chicken, cows, pigs and even produce at industrial scale. The small, family farm is seen as a thing of the past.

But in Maine, young farmers like Dylan Brown are bringing the small farm back, riding the wave of consumers’ changing tastes and their willingness to pay more for locally produced, fresh and safe farm goods than for mass-produced meat and produce from faraway places in America and beyond the seas.

Leading the Way

Leading the renaissance is a passionate advocate of Maine farming, John F. Piotti, who is president and chief executive officer of the Maine Farmland Trust. Piotti has engineering, public policy and management degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served eight years in the Maine House of Representatives.

He has put these educational and political credentials behind a single-minded effort to bring renewed economic prospects to rural communities. He grew up on remote Nantucket Island, 30 miles distant from Massachusetts’ Cape Cod, the youngest of five children and the stepson of a fisherman who taught him a love of land and sea. Nantucket was changing in the ’70s and ’80s, while Piotti was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as wealthy people bought up land, erected large beach houses, patronized fancy new restaurants and golf courses, changing the island from rural to chic and land prices from low to high.

“So I came to realize I could never go back,” said Piotti in an interview. “There were few if any opportunities for local people, no professional opportunities.” As he saw it, “rural communities were either going to wither on the vine, or become hip, trendy and overpriced.” He was deeply disturbed by the dichotomy and resolved that he would work to change it. “So it became the focus of my life,” he said. “I wanted to crack that nut.”

Piotti moved to Maine, where two of his sisters already were living, and resolved to put his technology skills to work in helping small businesses—a metal-working shop, wood processors and the like. “But then a farmer challenged me, saying that you can’t make rural places more vital if you don’t also focus on farming,” Piotti said. He’d been of the view, common even then, 25 years ago, that farming had become a business of the past.

But he was working for a small business incubator, Coastal Enterprises Inc., and he asked its president if he could apply for a grant to work on promoting sustainable farming. Given the go-ahead, he helped form the Maine Farmland Project in 1995, and CEI developed a farm portfolio of loans and investments. The Maine Farmland Trust followed, starting up in 1999, with the goal of providing economic development tools for farmers. A key objective, achieved by means of easements and sometimes outright purchases, has been to keep farmland affordable to the next generation of farmers.

Along the way, Piotti was elected to Maine House, where he sought and gained the chairmanship of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, then chaired the Taxation Committee before being named Majority Leader by then-Speaker Hannah M. Pingree. His eight years in the legislature ended in 2010.

Encouraging Trends

The Northeast Harbor farmer’s market on Thursday mornings is one of four each summer week on Mount Desert Island, the others showing up on Fridays in Southwest Harbor and Town Hill, and on Sundays in more populous Bar Harbor, where the market operates from Memorial Day until the end of October. Scores of such markets listed on the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets website.

And the markets aren’t the only outlets for the small farmers’ products. Permanent stores selling meat, cheese, pies and other goods are also part of the scene, as are direct farm-to-restaurant arrangements increasingly common in Portland, Maine’s largest city, and other towns. Indeed, the “grow-local” movement has helped make Maine a “culinary destination,” Piotti says.

Hard numbers lend encouragement to the hopes of farming advocates in the Pine Tree State. The 2015 edition of the Farmland Trust’s Maine Farms tracks the trends. Farming’s potential rebirth first showed up in the Federal Agricultural Census of 1997, the journal reports. Momentum built: from 2002 to 2007, the number of farms in the state increased by nearly 1,000, to 8,136. By 2012 the value of farm production was up 24 percent over 2007, proving that the new operations weren’t dominated by hobby farmers. The number of beginning farmers jumped nearly 40 percent over the same period. Some could earn incomes that seem OK in rural America—$45,000 or more for a goat farmer, for example—and such small-scale farming offers a lifestyle that many treasure.

But, as Piotti writes, these statistics don’t capture key facets of the farming picture, with some farms struggling as others do well, and with many remaining in business only because farmers are willing to work “exceptionally hard for very little money.”

A much larger resurgence in farming is envisioned in a study released last year by a team of academic researchers led by Brian Donahue of Brandeis University. Titled “A New England Food Vision,” the paper proposes that New England seek to produce half of its food by 2060. At present, only about 9 percent of the six-state region’s food is produced locally—grown on only 5 percent of the New England’s land. A century ago, much more land was devoted to agriculture, but as farms died, the land reverted to the forests that now cover 80 percent of the region’s surface. Donahue’s goal could be achieved if the region increased its agricultural land to 15 percent, or six million acres, of the total, he projects. Most of the reclaimed land would be in Maine, as the other five states simply don’t have many acres to offer.

Maine is surprisingly hospitable to agriculture; it shares the 45th parallel with Provence in southern France and Italy’s Po Valley and has a longer growing season for certain crops than many might suspect. Piotti notes the little-known fact that the amount of sunlight received is more important than temperature in determining the growing capacity of Maine land. And farmers are finding ways to cover crops of produce during all but the coldest months, extending growing seasons.

This may seem a gauzy vision, inasmuch as most New England agricultural products aren’t price-competitive with imports from elsewhere.

But long-term economic and behavioral trends are working in its favor, Piotti hopes. One, he says, is the probability of food price increases that could make locally grown product more price-competitive. Transportation costs will increase, he believes, in part because today’s low fuel prices likely will rise as population and economic growth boost demand. Water scarcity in other regions will be a factor too; indeed, the huge Ogallala aquifer that irrigates eight Great Plains states is running dry, threatening the output of the country’s traditional breadbasket. California’s ongoing extreme drought, also, promises to reshape U.S. agriculture. (New England is blessed with plentiful water supplies.) And the federal government may change subsidy policies that artificially suppress the price of grains used on feedlots, a change that would make grass-fed livestock in New England more affordable to consumers.

Between Now and Then

In the meantime, it is not easy to keep farming healthy in Maine. It’s a critical time, since so many farmers are becoming too old to keep up the grueling life their calling entails. One third of Maine’s farms, about 2,500, will change hands in the next five to 10 years. Some farmers have sons or daughters who want to take over, but the economics of such intergenerational transfers are tricky.

“Growing Local,” a video sponsored by the Maine Farmland Trust, tells the story of the Beal family, who operate the Rocky Ridge Organic Farm in Litchfield. Richard Beal has been at his dairy and livestock operation for 38 years, and now his son Adam, with financial analytic help from his sister Amanda, is trying to assume the reins. Amanda says, “No one works as hard as my Dad; it’s the human cost to cheap food.”  The father poignantly says that “the farm is my retirement; I can’t just give it to him. He has to get me out of debt and give me something to live on.”

Where Adam will find the money is unresolved. But this is the kind of problem the Maine Farmland Trust addresses, with tools for helping people like Adam find the resources they need to keep going. The Trust works, with easements and outright purchases, to keep farmland from falling to developers, and to keep its price at transfer from rising to a level developers would pay. It also connects sellers and potential buyers with its Farmlink website. Putting a house, or a housing development, on farmland might provide a greater return on investment, Piotti observes, but farming may return a greater value to society.

It’s a tough fight. Federal policies keep the price of milk below the cost of production for farmers like Beal. It’s a capital-intensive business, and with such low margins, Beal struggles every time a piece of machinery breaks down: One more repair or sacrifice to get something newer? Finding the money to keep farms in business, let alone starting new ones, is no easy task.

“The future we want will only be realized if we take deliberate steps to protect more farmland and provide key services to farmers—and only if we do so now, while we still have the opportunity,” says Piotti.

But in the meantime, young people are starting up first-class butcher shops to process local pork, beef, lamb and chicken, and other stores to market produce, pies, flowers, handmade goods and more of farm families’ output. Farmers markets thrive, there’s the Brandeis report’s long-term vision of the future, and in talks here on Mount Desert Island this summer, Piotti expresses optimism that his long pursuit of a more prosperous rural economy may come to fruition.