Maine’s commitment to local food has received so much attention in recent years that it’s easy to forget just how hard it is for the people at the beginning of the production line. Though a lot has gone right in the last decade for the Maine farming industry, it remains a hard way to make a buck. To maintain the industry’s momentum, policy changes are needed to give family farms the tools they need to sustain themselves, and ultimately grow.

Farming in Maine took off from 2002 to 2012, even as the number of farms declined nationally, according to the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture data. The number of Maine farms grew by around 1,000, to more than 8,100.

From 2007 to 2012, the number of farms participating in community-supported agriculture programs, or CSAs, increased by 150 percent, a result of rising interest in locally produced food. The same can be said of the increase in the number of farmers markets in Maine, which doubled in the eight years preceding 2014.

Yet, despite all that growth, farmers still face an upward climb when considering their balance sheet. The average net cash income of a Maine farm in 2012 — what was left when all the bills were paid — was $20,141, down slightly from 2007. At the same time, average production expenses per farm were $78,996, up nearly 30 percent over 2007, eating up all the benefits — and then some — of the rise in the value of crops in the same time period.

This is not news to farmers, who have to find other sources of income to survive. Some households have income unrelated to farming. Many farms are now open for tours, food sampling and corn mazes, among other farm-related activities in the growing field of agritourism, a side of the industry that grew by 42 percent from 2007 to 2012.

But while those creative initiatives have helped farmers hold on to the farm, more is needed to get small-time agriculture on better footing, and to allow those small farms that want to grow meet their potential. For all of the talk surrounding the rejuvenation of family farming, it has been paid little real attention in Augusta or Washington, D.C.

Nationally, food policy still favors large-scale farms that produce commodities that mostly become cattle feed and unhealthy food, and places high regulatory burdens even on small farms. Unfortunately, that’s the way it’s been, and that’s the way it is likely to be for some time.

Still, at the state level, there is much to be done to position Maine to capitalize on its open land and growing season. However, there seems to be little appetite for a comprehensive public plan for supporting family farms.

In just one example, support in the Legislature and the governor’s office for food hubs, which can bring small farms together and give them the power of their large counterparts in terms of processing, distribution and marketing, has been tepid at best. Same for the use of Maine-grown foods at local institutions, although the University of Maine System has shown leadership on this issue, as have some school districts.

All indications are that people here and throughout New England would eat Maine-grown food — the demand is there. The trick is to give farms the incentives and tools to produce and market it. Policy makers need to see Maine farms as a growth industry — right now, they are barely giving them any attention at all.


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