In the 1800s, Maine was the breadbasket of the Northeast. Small farms accounted for 6.5 million acres under cultivation in 1880. Today, we farm on only 20 percent of that land.
In the 1950s, we had 51,000 herds of dairy cattle; today we have around 300. According to production reports from the Maine Milk Commission, that number shrinks monthly as Maine’s small dairy farms sell off their herds in the face of stiff competition from large farms in California, Texas and Idaho. Maine’s dairy industry represents more than 4,000 jobs and generates half a billion dollars in economic activity.
These jobs, essential to many rural Maine towns, while generating economic activity for the state, are at risk if we do not act to protect them.
In the face of all that glum news, however, the Maine spirit of resolve still shines through. Maine’s farmers are among the youngest in the nation.
Creative young farmers are using newly local-conscious shoppers and creating small premium brands of commodities such as cheeses. Conventional grocery stores are rushing to catch up on the local premium trend as farmers markets continue to gain popularity and local co-ops, such as the one opening on India Street in Portland, and Whole Foods expand markets for our small farms locally and regionally.
The report pursuant to L.D. 789 delivered to the Agriculture Committee on Jan. 9 has the potential to help preserve our state’s small dairy farms and an important part of our state’s heritage.
(Editor’s note: L.D.789, An Act To Lessen the Impact of High Feed and Fuel Costs on Maine Dairy Farmers, became law in June, without the governor’s signature.)
Unfortunately, in 2012 a narrow majority of the Maine Legislature voted to change Maine’s Dairy Tier Support Program, causing all our small farms to operate below their break-even point. Losing this support has made it impossible for some small dairies to stay in business. Tragically, more than 30 small farms have been lost in the last few months. I believe the Dairy Tier Program should allow all farms, no matter their size, to achieve a break-even price for milk. While the farm bill continues to be tied up in our dysfunctional Congress in Washington, L.D. 789 is essential for small farmers to co-exist with larger operations. We should make supporting Maine’s dairy industry part of our turnaround story for Maine and the Maine brand.
Helping these small Maine family farms helps support the rural quality of life we all cherish. These young farmers are a perfect opportunity to combat Maine’s looming demographic difficulties as well. Convincing our young people to stay in the state relies on jobs — healthy, interesting and fulfilling jobs that can’t be found in a cubicle in Boston. If we can get young Mainers to stay and help stabilize the state, it will make the state that much more attractive to other young people from across the nation seeking a balance of career with quality of life.
This is the momentum Maine is poised to reap, with different leadership now.
We need to protect land from development with the help of land trusts such as the Maine Farmland Trust. Some 400,000 acres of farmland will be up for sale in the next few years as the current generation of farmers ages. Making sure we balance the temptation to develop this land with a vision to protect Maine’s rural character, farm jobs and the Maine brand upon which they will increasingly come to represent and rely, is imperative to the future of Maine.
This future will come to rely on agriculture more and more over time. Maine has terrific resources in terms of arable land, access to nearly unlimited quantities of water, and a brand that is coming to define quality and wholesomeness to consumers.
As the climate changes, it is almost certain that our growing season will grow longer and the amount of crops able to grow here should increase. At the same time many of the most productive agricultural areas in the country likely will face declining productivity as drought stresses their water supply. The west’s agriculture is facing a catastrophic decline because of drought that many predict will become the new norm.
With the right leadership, Maine will once again be the northeast region’s breadbasket.
Eliot Culter is the independent candidate for governor. He faces incumbent Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic candidate Michael Michaud in the November election.