Rural Maine has had a rough ride through most of the last half-century. What was once a landscape of endless barns and fields and farmhouses has, in many areas, been replaced by fields returning to forests, quiet communities and a steady trickle of exiting young people.

Some areas of rural Maine now have little more than the bones of farming infrastructure left. Many rural communities struggle to hold their schools and traditions together, and to find young volunteers to replace the aging ones.

The decline has brought with it a frustrated and pessimistic attitude. Drug use, once associated mostly with big cities, has become a rural epidemic. Many who would work if good jobs were available have fallen into dependency on government programs, insurance scams and drugs, living in the shadowy edges of their families and communities and resented by others.

How did such a dramatic change happen in such a short time? The things that propelled the growth of rural Maine in the first place were inexpensive land, large families and hard work. What has caused its collapse, more than anything else, is machines.

A hundred years ago, most Mainers lived on family farms. They were self-sufficient small-business people, oftentimes working both on and off the farm, in town or in the woods. For them, resourcefulness was not merely a virtue, but also a necessity, as were long hours and practical intelligence.

This was a labor-intensive economy that supported vibrant communities and a way of life. And then it got swept into a spiraling downdraft, barely noticeable at first, but soon accelerating.

The change had everything to do with new technology. Small-scale agriculture succumbed to massive factory farms somewhere else. Giant cutting machines drove men from the woods. Other machines moved refrigerated food across thousands of miles, replacing local farms with supermarkets overflowing with manufactured food and misted produce from California, Florida and Mexico.

And, of course, the machine that sits in every driveway changed rural Maine, too, making it possible to do what thousands of Mainers now do every day, which is to drive to jobs two or three counties away.

Through it all, politicians promised to hold back the tide and return the past, as though words and politics have such power. The time and energy they expended looking backward have come at a steep price. In too many areas, it delayed the work that rural Maine needed to do to reinvent itself for tomorrow.

Nowhere is this struggle between the past and the future better illuminated than in Millinocket, which has seen its way of life, as a mill town, die in its arms. There the battle rages over the fading hope of the past’s return and the fear and resentment of an unknown future.

Some rural leaders have decided that their best hope is to attack change itself, opposing any new ideas or voices at exactly the time when they need them most. The struggle over the North Woods national park proposal is one example. On the surface, that looks like a debate about parks, but scratch the surface and you find that it’s really about having to admit that the mills and a way of life aren’t coming back.

For many, that’s simply too painful to contemplate — like losing a loved one or being pushed from a cherished and familiar place that you don’t want to leave.

The good news is that there are stirrings of hope and change in rural Maine today, energized in part by young people who have been quietly moving to Maine since the 1970s. They came to work with the land. The most determined of them have built a vibrant network of new farmers around healthy local and organic foods.

Now, organizations, including the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Maine Farmland Trust, Pineland Farms and Wolfe’s Neck Farm, are rebuilding some of Maine’s agricultural infrastructure.

It will surprise many people to learn that agriculture in Maine is now among our fastest-growing industries. Here’s another surprise: It’s an industry that’s getting younger. That’s because the demand for healthy and local foods is growing. Changes to our climate may accelerate that process, as Maine becomes warmer and wetter while some of America’s most productive farmland, such as that in California, is drying out.

We’re seeing the beginnings of a renaissance in rural Maine that could make us the breadbasket of New England, and expand on our reputation for wholesome and healthy products.

To learn more about rural Maine and the national park idea, consider attending a breakfast gathering April 21 featuring Lucas St. Clair of Elliotsville Plantation. Details are at www.envisionmaine.org.

 

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan consulting group, which is active in growing Maine’s next economy. Email at [email protected]


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