More than 130 Maine farms will be open to the public on Sunday, the most ever in the 30-year history of the state’s Open Farm Day. The event comes at a time when there are more young Mainers involved in producing food than there have been in decades.

There’s no doubt that the agricultural industry here is diverse, vibrant and full of potential.

But that does not mean that it can be taken for granted.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census highlighted a stunning positive reversal in Maine farming, the latest report shows the struggles and challenges that lie ahead.

In the five years prior to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, following a period of general decline within the industry, the number of Maine farmers under the age of 34 increased nearly 40 percent. During the same time, the amount of land in agriculture — which had previously declined under pressures from residential development — increased 8 percent.

However, the 2017 Census, released in April, found that in the five years following the previous count, Maine lost 10 percent of its farming acreage, one of the five worst declines nationwide, according to the Maine Farmland Trust. In that time, the state recorded a net loss of 563 farms, down to 7,600.

What’s more, both the average per farm market value of products and the average net income per farm fell in that time period.

And while the number of farmers under 44 increased nearly 10 percent, the number 65 and older went up by nearly a third.

The numbers tell us that it is tough to make a living in Maine agriculture.

The economics of farming in Maine means it requires an all-encompassing effort from farmers, who have to work the land for long days during the week, then go sell their products at markets throughout the state on weekends. Many have had to add ancillary businesses such as farm tours or small maple syrup operations. And even all that work does not guarantee a farm will make ends meet.

Maine has to do more to support these thousands of food producers. There is latent demand for Maine-grown products, and opportunities to build prosperous markets, in and out of state.

Maine has made strides in recent years in getting locally produced food into schools and other institutions, and in using it to feed the poor, all of which raise demand and make the industry more stable. A new agriculture-focused credit union will give farmers access to much-needed financing.

More can be done, however, to allow producers to add value to their products and get them to wider markets.

In short, it needs to be easier for people to replace the processed foods in their diets with products that are locally grown.

Put another way, Maine needs to keep more of the money its residents spend on food here within our borders — something consumers, too, should keep in mind while picking out dinner.

Otherwise, many farmers won’t make it, and those that do will be leaving money on the table. As old farmers retire, the industry simply won’t be able to attract others to take their place.

More farmland will be lost to some other use, and an important part of Maine’s economy will lose more of its potential.

 

 


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