NEWCASTLE — Laura Fortman recently visited Straw Farm in Newcastle to prepare for her appearance at the Windsor Fair — in the traditional candidates’ milking contest. Small dairy owner Lee Straw was a patient teacher as Fortman learned how to coax a stream of milk from a willing cow.

In the course of the milking lesson, Straw shared some of the issues that he grapples with as a small organic farmer. The Maine Dairy Relief Program, commonly known as the “Tier” is important to farmers like him because, while it is a small amount of money, it does help pay the bills. Straw explained that small organic dairy farmers now are only able to sell locally; the large organic distributors no longer buy milk from Maine, according to a news release from Forman.

A farmer in Newcastle for 40 years, Straw says that in recent years it has become easier for farmers to sell their products locally. The rise of interest in local food and the high-end restaurant scene — particularly in Portland — have provided niche markets for organic meat and produce. He sells all the lamb he produces to Fore Street Restaurant in Portland, for example, according to the release.

Like many small business owners, Straw faces the continuing challenges of being able to pay employees a living wage and provide health insurance for himself and employees. “The Obamacare coverage has been helpful,” he said, according to the release, especially this past winter when he had a serious medical issue that could have wiped him out financially if not for the insurance.

Another positive change is that farmers are collaborating with other businesses for mutual benefit. For example, Straw takes all of the grain product waste from nearby Split Rock Distillery and uses it to feed his animals. He hopes to begin dehydrating the stillage in order to store and use it later, and he thinks that it may be possible for solar energy to power this process.

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