AUGUSTA — Maine’s abundant land, growing conditions and location in the Northeast make the state well-positioned for growth in agriculture, said John Piotti, executive director of Maine Farmland Trust.
But there are also challenges involving land prices, the workforce and infrastructure to support farms, Piotti and two local farmers said at a Forum on the Future event at the University of Maine at Augusta on Sunday.
About 40 people attended the event, many of them as part of UMA’s Senior College, and Piotti said that was a good start, considering the importance of educating people about the current state of agriculture and its importance to local communities.
Ten years ago, Piotti said, a similar talk would have drawn only a handful of people.
“Farming in the last five, eight years has finally gotten on our radar screens as a society,” he said. “And boy, isn’t that great, because it’s so fundamental to the success of our rural communities, to our health (and) in my mind, to our future.”
In the past 15 years, Piotti said, Maine has gained about 1,200 farms, and the acreage in production has increased 4 percent.
Most of the growth has been among small farms that sell to a few restaurants or stores or directly to consumers at farmer’s markets. But Piotti said the big commodity farms, which sell products such as potatoes and blueberries to wholesalers, still make up most of the industry, and different types of farms interact and support each other.
Maine has several advantages in agriculture including lots of land, a sustainable source of water, a sunny climate, food-conscious residents and tourists, and a market of tens of millions of people within a day’s drive.
Piotti cautioned that those conditions won’t guarantee a prosperous future for Maine’s farms, especially when farmland is typically valued for its development potential rather than its production potential, which often makes it too expensive for farmers.
Maine Farmland Trust seeks to correct those market forces and keep farmland affordable through agricultural easements and programs such as Buy/Protect/Sell, through which the trust buys farmland at development value and sells it to a farmer at its lower production value.
Because of the age of Maine’s farmers, about one-third of the farmland in the state will change hands in the next five years, Piotti said.
At the same time, lots of young people are entering farming, and they’re full of energy, said Marilyn Meyerhans, who with her husband owns Lakeside Orchards in Manchester and The Apple Farm in Fairfield.
The Meyerhanses were in their 20s and knew virtually nothing about farming when they bought The Apple Farm in 1973, and Marilyn Meyerhans said she’d like to see more people trained in subjects like soil science and the business of agriculture.
“We can hire someone to come and pick apples, but it would be wonderful to find farm managers who have the background to do what needs to be done on a farm and not have that learning curve,” she said.
To that end, she’s working with Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield to develop an associate degree in agriculture that would prepare people to manage a farm.
Another farmer on the panel, L. Herbert “Bussie” York, said one of the biggest challenges to farming is the loss of infrastructure. The equipment dealers, dairies and other processing facilities common in towns like Farmington 60 years ago are almost all gone, York said.
York, who with his wife owns Sandy River Farm in Farmington, said Maine can feed itself, but it needs processing and storage facilities, plus a revival of traditional practices like canning for the winter months.
“My number one concern is being self-sufficient,” York said. “If we’re going to do that, we’re going to have to go back to some of the things we used to do.”
Susan McMillan — 621-5645