Tag Archives: Maine Farms

The Land that Sustains Us: Stories from the Field

Maine Historical Society

Thursday, November 15, 6:00 pm

No matter how many seasons they have been with their soil, farmers develop a strong connection with their land. For each farmer, this relationship is unique and therefore, manifests differently into the food we eat and the communities we live in. MFT will host three storytellers for live event at the Maine Historical Society to explore these relationships. The yearlong exhibitions, Maine Eats: The Food Revolution Starts Here, will be open and available for viewing. Light, local food will be served after the program.

Meet our storytellers:

Jan Goranson, Goranson Farm

John Bunker, Maine Heritage Orchard and Super Chilly Farm

Sarah Loftus, Northeast Archaeology Research Center 

$10 for MHS and MFT Members, $15 General Admission.

Tickets at the door!

2018 Annual Meeting

A lunch & learn meeting to hear more about the key role dairy farms play in Maine’s agricultural landscape. See the premiere of MFT’s new short video about a multi-generational dairy farm in Skowhegan, and hear from a panel of dairy farmers.

Brief board business will include board elections.

This year’s meeting will be held midday to be accessible for dairy farmers.

***Lunch will be provided***

11am – 1pm

Frontier Cafe, 14 Maine St, Brunswick, ME 04011

Parking situation: There are a limited amount of 1-2 hour spots in the main Frontier parking lot. Other options include: parking in the back of the lot across Cabot St, Maine St downtown, or a public lot across the bridge in Topsham. Please use this MAP for reference.

Please call the office for any questions, 207-338-6575

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

MFT Gallery’s new exhibit HOMELAND speaks to a deep relationship that comes from cultivating the land, and a longing for connection with the land. This open call exhibit was promoted and curated in collaboration with GEDAKINA, Inc., a multigenerational endeavor to strengthen and revitalize the cultural knowledge and identity of Native American youth and families from across New England, and to conserve traditional homelands and places of historical, ecological and spiritual significance.

The first floor of the gallery features sixteen artists from varied backgrounds that seek to explore their relationship to home and land in a wide variety of mediums and styles.

Arlene Claudill Hulva’s colored pencil figurative landscape integrates New England and Latin American panoramas.

A vibrant Medicine Wheel painting by Mihku Paul-Anderson incorporates elements from the Waponaki culture and symbols from the natural world, while Maureen Block uses a 20th century ironing board as her painting surface for her work “Uprooted, Unrooted, Rerooted,” that depicts writhing roots in bold reds and yellows.

In two very different interpretations of Grant Woods’s iconic painting “American Gothic”, Colette Shumate Smith’s mixed media self-portrait reminds us to be vigilant of changing attitudes toward the land; and Bill Robitzek’s acrylic painting “Bowdoinham Gothic: Sarah and Laura” depicts a modern farm couple that is self-sufficient, and socially-conscious.

Liz McGhee’s gelatin plate monotypes use a palette of blues, grays, purples, and browns with shapes and line that depict her intuitive wanderings through minimalistic landscapes.

Patricia Ranzoni, Bucksport’s 2014 Poet Laureate, contributes three lyrical, flowing poems on the greater longing for ancient home ground and the yearning of displaced peoples for their place on Earth.

Gabrielle Brown’s five copper, graphite and canvas woven baskets are based on Shaker designs. Elizabeth Hunter has created a grouping of rya pillows, an ancient Nordic woven pile technique, which speak to human’s connection with the seasons.

Kathy Pollard will be displaying a large piece of birch bark with inscribed and painted Maine Indian petroglyph reproductions, and a beautiful sculpture “Corn Mother,” made with glass beads and moose antler.

A mixed media installation by Thér̀ese Provenzano incorporates objects to invoke memories of childhood and change, while Constant Albertson will have two ceramic sculpture pieces on display with themes of water awareness.

Color photographs by Christina Gessler, Emily Davis, and Karyn Marden depict varied subjects, such as quintessential views of life on a farm, organically found picture rocks, and images of the Casco Bay area.

Karen Merritt’s gelatin silver prints portray the beauty in urban gardens of Portland in black and white.

MFT will host the exhibit at its Gallery in Belfast from November 12, 2018 through March 1, 2019. Artist talks will coincide with the Belfast Holiday Art Walk on Friday, December 7th at 5pm, with a reception following from 5:30-8pm. 

Now accepting proposals for assistance with the Feasibility Planning for In-State Organic Milk Processing project

MFT is accepting proposals for consulting services and technical expertise to oversee management and coordination of the Feasibility Planning for In-State Organic Milk Processing in Maine project. This project is supported through the USDA Local Food Promotion Program.  Direct all questions to Meg McCormick, mmccormick@mainefarmlandtrust.org, in writing by Tuesday, October 30, 2018. Completed proposals are due by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, October 31, 2018. Potential candidates must be available for a phone or in-person interview during the week of November 5, 2018. The consultant will be selected by November 13, 2018, and the contract will begin on December 3, 2018. The goal is to complete this project by April 30, 2019.

See the full RFP HERE.

Moving the Needle on Rural Wellness

Personal Essay

by Stacy Brenner

Each winter, when the snow is deep on our quiet fields, I sit in meetings with “service providers.” Over the years the meeting topics vary: land preservation, ways to increase markets for local products, cooperative marketing, wholesale marketing, farm employment, rural development, food sovereignty, and the best sustainable farming practices.

The service providers—non-profit people, policy wonks, advisors, and academics—are thoughtful and working hard to align us all.

They ask my humble opinion as the farmer  in the room about topics I spend hours thinking about and discussing at the dinner table. We think collectively and then move back into our spheres to make good work happen. They glean farmers’ opinions and look at studies by university researchers. I keep cultivating and harvesting and Instagramming, trying to grow products and our markets. But change is slow and money is tight and human behavior is fickle. Sometimes we have successes and sometimes we realize we are still talking about the same issues 16 seasons later.

Sometimes, while I’m sitting in these meetings, I pull out my phone to check for emergency texts from the farm. I might check my Instagram feed (this is work, mind you!). Did I get any likes on that post about the pregnant cow? Do people like that flower arrangement with the peony? How are berries ranking? Puppies…good grief people love a baby animal! Social media is the outlet that many of us farmers are using to tell our story to customers. We market this rural goodness and these romantic tales of farm life in an attempt to garner support to maintain a cherished way of life. The majority of Americans are no more than five generations removed from farming for subsistence. Not long ago, we all had a connection to the great agrarian way of life. We had a purposeful need to engage with what we now call rural life. And, if you dig deep, most people still crave this connection.

We want our suburban home to be on the edge of farmland; we want to commute past agriculture on our way to somewhere. Our customers sit in their city offices and look at farming Instagram feeds, wondering what it would be like to cash in, leave it all, move to the country, grow flowers.

I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, in a development with 800 homes. Every fourth home looked the same, 200 of each variety. The land, developed in the ‘70s, was once a profitable farm, feeding larger South Jersey towns. The original farmhouse remained in the middle of a sea of suburban ubiquity. I would ride my yellow Schwinn banana seat bike past this farmhouse with my friends, stopping out front to stroke my handlebar streamers, make up stories, imagine a life that once was. I’d head home at dark and watch reruns of Little House on the Prairie. Farming was my dream.

Today, my husband and I, with our two daughters, farm and homestead in Scarborough. So I still live in the suburbs, defined as living within commuting distance to a city. Our little slice of preserved farmland is an oasis that rests at the gateway between the rural communities to the west, the tony beach communities to our east, and the small, vibrant metropolis of Portland 20 minutes northeast. If our land had been developed in 2004 when it was for sale, it would be similar to the neighborhood of my childhood. The farmhouse I live in now would be like the one I rode past and looked to wistfully as a child. The suburbs are something I know well. They are in my fabric.

As a farmer in the suburbs, I borrow time from rural neighbors, learning the roots of agriculture that have existed here since before this area was defined as a suburb. I listen to their stories, they lend us farm equipment, and I feel a sense of belonging in our shared vision of rural wellness. Together, we borrow technology from our urban comrades, using social media to sell the image of our rural lifestyle with a hope that the romanticism of farm work will sell our products. We are looking to create relationships; we are looking to build alliances, understanding, empathy, and awareness. At the root of it, farmers produce food to feed people, to alleviate hunger, and to invite one more person to the table for dinner. I need the knowledge and farming legacy of my rural neighbors and the financial support of my suburban and urban neighbors to continue the good work of agriculture in Maine and to develop markets to sell products.

All distinctions are relative, of course. According to the USDA, Scarborough is classified as rural with regard to economic development programs. It’s true that with our farm’s acreage protected by a conservation easement, folks visiting the farm from Portland are certain they’re in the country. But many of our farming colleagues from towns north and west of us would disagree. With its housing developments, commuter traffic, and tight zoning regulations, Scarborough is a prosperous suburb. When we look at demographic statistics, we note that 1.3 million people call the state of Maine home. Half a million of these residents live in the Greater Portland Metropolitan Area, which includes Scarborough. The bulk of the state’s remaining population hugs the coast. To compare, the population of the Boston metro area is 4.7 million people. Two hours south of our farm, there are three-and-a-half times the number of eaters than in all of Maine. To our Boston friends, Scarborough is rural and downtown Portland, with a mere 66,000 residents, is quaint.

From a policy perspective, the Farm Bill is the federal tool to fund agricultural programs. Initially, rural development (farming) and hunger relief (food welfare) were tied together as a way to achieve political buy-in from rural and urban factions. The idea was that if you built in the need for congressmen from both sides of the aisle, and all geographical regions, to cooperate, you would have more leverage.

To accomplish this, the food stamp program, which in its inception targeted urban poverty, was tied to farm subsidies. Politicians drawn to a social agenda of feeding America’s neediest citizens would collaborate with pro-big ag business politicians from the corn, soy, and cotton states. Initially, the number of qualifying households in urban areas far exceeded those in rural regions. Now, that’s changed. Since 1995, there has been a measurable increase in the number of rural households that access Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

By 2014, 14.6% of rural households received SNAP benefits compared to 11% of urban households.

The funding for most major rural development programming is written into the 2014 Farm Bill, amounting to two one-hundredths of 1% of the Bill’s $489 billion five-year budget. For the sake of comparison, nutritional programs, including SNAP, comprise 80% of the Farm Bill budget, and 19% is used to support and subsidize programs for farmers, including crop insurance payouts and conservation cost share programs. What  was historically designed as a tool to address rural development and urban poverty now struggles with a reality where rural poverty and urban development are both on the rise, and there is a grand disconnect between the two.

Without reiterating everything that has been written since the last presidential election, I will simply say yes, the disconnect is real. The lack of commitment to rural development programs is now painfully obvious. And yet, in what may be the most profound irony of all, those living in rural poverty, using SNAP, may themselves also be involved in agriculture. Perhaps the answer lies in tying SNAP money directly to farm businesses in our rural communities, for instance, providing cost-saving incentives to use SNAP to purchase local products.

Federal relief for rural communities, however,  is only one element of a solution. In Maine, where farming is experiencing a renaissance, there are young, talented entrepreneurs creating diversified businesses. Young farmers are re-populating Maine’s farmscape, offering promise. These young farmers bring social media know-how and story-telling skills. But reinvigorating rural communities with a fresh agricultural approach will only be successful if those new businesses have a market  for selling their products. Here, I see a real pos- sibility of bridging the disconnect between rural development needs and urban market demands.

Outside of federal support programs, the  most feasible route to rural development is a concentrated effort to bring urban and suburban communities into the discussion, mobilizing their eagerness to be connected to the land. It will take creativity to market the importance of rural wellness to the populace living in these metro areas. But, looking through the social media lens, I see a captive audience. Leveraging these new avenues of communication, and highlighting Maine’s rural landscapes rich with tillable land and clean water, would be a great step toward defining and connecting authentic values.

Portland, with its solid restaurant culture, is a fine start, but to move the needle Maine also needs to consider the Boston metro area as a major market. Returning Maine to its former status as the breadbasket of New England is a large-scale proposition; but if it is done with an eye towards diverse markets offering fair prices (with or without subsidy) our renewed farming culture will find huge opportunity. Growing successful farms throughout the state creates jobs. Sustainably scaled agriculture can be an economic driver for a region. This is rural development. As a farmer, the best way I can imagine this happening is through building relationships around food and farm products with a market large enough to support the farming potential of the great state of Maine.

As a state and a region, Maine and New England stand poised to lead the way in alleviating rural poverty through federal, state, and local initiatives. We have thoughtful, creative talent in our service organizations and our nonprofits. In Vermont, the Rural Vermont program provides a great example  of an effective partner service organization.

They have been successful at marketing the idea of rural wellness throughout the state and have created effective ways to fund their organization. They approach communities to determine their goals and aspirations and then work to leverage the talent within other organizations throughout the state to meet those needs. Maine is rich with organizations that have interest and intentions  to support our rural communities and address rural poverty. Unfortunately, the one organization focused solely on rural communities in Maine, the former Maine Rural Partners, closed when its funding dried up. But Maine Farmland Trust, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Maine Farm Bureau, and other like-minded groups have the potential to collaborate on a strong marketing campaign to attract the interest, money, and support of urban centers in Maine and in the Boston metro area, and build markets for Maine’s rurally produced products.

Marketing rural Maine will allow our urban neighbors to participate and be meaningful partners in our cherished heritage. If successful, the original goals of the U.S. Farm Bill, to connect rural development with urban health—to leverage the well-being of all our communities—might finally be met.

 

stacy brenner lives, farms, and flowers at Broadturn Farm in Scarborough with her husband, John Bliss, and two daughters, Emma and Flora. They raise cut flowers and organic vegetables, host weddings, and operate a summer day camp that connects a young community  with nutritious and sustainable food. She’s devoted to understanding and improving farmland preservation, farmland tenancy arrangements, and organic agriculture as an economic driver for Maine. Stacy has worked as a barista, an orchid greenhouse caretaker, a cotton farmer, and a nurse-midwife. She holds degrees in agriculture and nursing. She is a contributor to Taproot Magazine, and is a MOFGA Board Member. Stacy has been farming in Maine since 2002.

September Open Studio Day at Joseph A. Fiore Art Center at Rolling Acres Farm

Artists in summer residence at Fiore Art Center share their work with the public. Studios open for viewing and visiting with the artists. Fiore Art Center and exhibit open for viewing, grounds open for walking. Live music and free ice cream.

Featured Artists:

Clif Travers: Travers grew up in the mountains near Sugarloaf. One of his current bodies of work, The Medicine Cabinets, grew from three years of interviews with people around the country. Travers asked each person: “What would you consider to be a social malady that could be easily cured by regular folk?” The resulting “cabinets” are all connected to nature and show the malady, as well as the imagined cure.

Carol Douglas: Douglas grew up on a farm and describes herself as a plein-air landscape painter whose primary interest lies in the relationship between humans and their environment.

Heather Lyon: Lyon was born on a farm in Maine. Her art practice is site responsive and she plans to create new performance work at the Fiore Art Center, “responding to this unique place where the connections between art and farming can be explored and lived.”

Rachel Alexandrou: Rachel is from Alna. Her organic gardening experience spans a decade, and she is currently completing her bachelor’s degree in sustainable horticulture at UMaine, Orono, with a minor in studio art.

Back field and Fiore House

August Joseph A. Fiore Art Center at Rolling Acres Open Studio Day

Artists, writer and gardener in summer residence at Fiore Art Center share their work with the public. Studios open for viewing and visiting with the artists. Fiore Art Center and exhibit open for viewing, grounds open for walking. Live music and free ice cream.

Young Dairy

Photographs by Jenny Nelson

Text by Ellen Sabina

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

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

the milkhouse

SOUTH MANMOUTH

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

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

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

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

 

santy dairy

SKOWHEGAN

Brad Santy, second-generation dairy farmer

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

enormous amount of debt.”

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

fletcher farm

PITTSFIELD

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

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

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

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

bo lait farm

WASHINGTON

Conor and Alexis Macdonald, first-generation dairy farmers

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

While their decision to become dairy farmers was relatively easy,

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

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

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

Land & Sea

A FRESH LOOK AT OUR REGION’S FOOD FUTURE

By Amanda Beal & Robin Alden

Illustrations by Sarah Wineberg

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

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

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

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

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

MAINE PRODUCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CURRENT CONDITIONS AND CHALLENGES

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

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

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

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

COMPLICATING THE PICTURE: CONNECTIVITY AND INTERCONNECTEDNESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW TO MOVE FORWARD IN A COMPLEX SYSTEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

notes

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

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

Hear the Stories from Maine Fare: Finale Feast & Storytelling

Maine Fare is a month-long series of hands-on field trips and workshops throughout the month of June, that culminated into a unique finale feast on June 30th. This year MFT held Maine Fare in the western foothills region; all events reflected the region’s unique food culture. The culmination event was a tasting and storytelling event held at Stoneheart Farms in South Paris.

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