Earlier this summer, the Weekly Packet, a newsletter published in Blue Hill, Maine, reported on a speech by Maine food/farm expert John Piotti. We append it here to the article by Maynard Kaufman as further evidence to corroborate Kaufman’s vision of a favorable future for us — as, and if, the strong trend to resurgence of the local continues. — Editors
“The story of agriculture in Maine in the last 15 years is that farms have found how to go around the middlemen and sell direct.”
So spoke John Piotti, of Maine Farmland Trust, at a talk at the Blue Hill library, sponsored by the Blue Hill Heritage Trust.
When people think of farming in Maine, they picture silos and big equipment, potato, dairy and blueberry farms. But people’s perceptions lag behind the reality, said Piotti. Small-scale farms in Maine have grown, to the tune of 7,000 to 9,000 new farms in the last 15 years, while commodity farming is in decline.
If the growth in small, direct-to-consumer farms was happening “in any other industry,” Piotti said, “Business and government would see it as a big business opportunity.” Large farms sell their product as commodities to processors and wholesalers. Local farms sell at farmers’ markets, farm stands, restaurants and CSAs (community supported agriculture, where customers pre-buy before the growing season to help supply capital for seeds, supplies and labor).
“Marketing defines their difference,” Piotti said. Yet, the two, very different types of farms support each other.
The economics of small farming depend on big farms, which lower the price of supplies, like grain, for everyone. And the 400-acre potato farms in Aroostook County that sell millions of pounds to national corporations benefit by the increased awareness that small, local farming brings.
First, local governments are more sensitive to how infrastructure and other decisions affect farms, and second, their customer base expands. Some of those farms are now planting 10 to 15 acres of organic heirloom potatoes for direct sale to East Coast restaurants.
“Is farming the key to Maine’s future?” Piotti asked. “The answer is yes.” At present, Maine is the top New England state for agriculture, and it has the potential to be “a big food state,” Piotti said, for four reasons.
First, is land:
While Maine now uses 1.3 million acres for agriculture, 100 years ago, before the rise of commodity farming, that number was 7 million acres. Those acres have not been lost to development.
Second, Maine has an abundance of water, and any future climate changes will only increase its supply. While Maine aquifers “replenish on a 20-year cycle,” Piotti said, in the Midwest “the water will be gone soon. They are on the edge.”
Third, is location. Maine’s latitude means good growing conditions, which are determined by sunlight, not how cold and long the winter is. Plus, Maine farming pioneers, like Elliot Coleman, have invented ways of “increasing the growing season without using fossil fuels,” through greenhouses.
The fourth reason why farming could be a bigger industry in Maine is who we are, Piotti said. “We’re part of the world that still sees community connections. We get it.” The biggest challenge right now is losing the farming land base, Piotti said. When farmland changes hands, new farmers must usually pay developer prices, which can’t be met by farming. With 400,000 acres of “very old” farmland, the problem of farmland in transition is coming up fast.
The good news, said Piotti, is that 275 people are looking for farms in Maine right now, according to Farm Link, an organization that matches those looking with those selling.