The Smart Money: Farming in Maine - a growing concern

Posted Wednesday, August 7, 2013 in Analysis

The Smart Money: Farming in Maine - a growing concern

Chardonney grapes grow in the Camden Hills; several vineyards and wineries exist in this area.

by Gina Hamilton

A very, very quiet revolution is taking place in Maine's countryside, and it has the potential to change how we grow and purchase the food we eat, but also what we eat.

I am speaking of the locavore movement, which is changing farming forever, and in a very good way.  Locavorism is simply choosing to eat what is available locally, in season.  Although the purchases can be made at farmer's markets, that is no longer strictly necessary.  Supermarkets are making a significant effort to purchase local seasonal food, for the very simple reason that it is cheaper and fresher than food that is trucked from distant warehouses, which in turn had food trucked or shipped to them from factory farms across the country or, in some seasons, from other parts of the world.  This is good for their margins.

And it's good for the local farmers, too.  Maine is, of course, at the top of the chart.  It's at the end of the transportation line, and anything that is shipped here costs more.  Anything that is shipped from here costs more, too, so if local people can be induced to purchase and eat local produce, it's a very good thing.  Farmers save money on shipping, less of the produce spoils, and local people are introduced to products they might never have considered as a food source but which grows in Maine like the proverbial weeds.

An example is kale, which is currently making the rounds at the farmer's markets.  It's highly nutritious, and in its current raw condition, is very attractive, even if it will be somewhat less attractive when cooked.  It also grows in Maine like nobody's business. Farmers are offering up cooking and serving suggestions along with the leafy vegetable, and people who are determined to eat locally are snapping it up, along with the regular summer favorites.

Locavorism also makes it possible, and highly desirable, to dispense with things that might preserve the produce, as well as doing away with insecticides and weed-killers and so on.  Locavorism makes organic farming not only possible, but profitable.

And that's why Maine now has the highest number, per capita, of organic farmers in the country.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I also have a small urban organic farm.)  About 2,400 Mainers make their living on almost 800 organic farms, a rise of 139 percent over the last ten years, according to the U.S. Census.  The number of farms in Maine increased overall by about 13 percent over the same time period (to 8,136), while the size of farms ... probably because of the organic movement ... fell by 13 percent too.  The average size of a farm in Maine is just 166 acres; large enough to support a family and a hired hand or two, but not a factory farm by any means.

The number of acres being used for vegetable farming in Maine, excluding potatoes, increased 50 percent, to 10,421 acres, according to the census.  While there was some loss, especially in the potato growing areas (about 4,000 acres went out of production), small farms that may have been used as "gentleman farms" are suddenly back in business.

There are still large farms in the County, growing potatoes ... Maine's third-largest export product, after timber products and fisheries ... but they are becoming the exception rather than the rule to farming in Maine. 

And farmers are making money.  According to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), organic farm incomes have increased by tenfold in the last ten years. 

Maine has benefitted from increasingly mild winters and early springs, and longer growing seasons, allowing for multiple growing seasons of more than just hay.  Beans, peas, grains, and even some vegetable crops can have multiple growing periods.   

Maine's growing seasons have expanded, which means that items that have not been able to be grown in Maine in decades past are suddenly becoming normal crops, and some of these crops are ushering in whole new industries.

One example is the growing number of vineyard ... and wineries ... in Maine.  They are still limited for the most part to south facing coastal areas - such as the hillsides near Camden - but as the seasons continue to expand, the regions where wine grape vines can grow will increase as well.

But warmer temperatures also causes problems that Maine has not experienced in human memory.  In southern Maine, pear orchards have been forced to hand pollinate their trees because the hummingbirds that would normally pollinate them aren't yet back when the trees flower.  It's a sign of global climate change, and it's one of several problems farmers face in Maine.  Another is the increase in destructive insect species that are able to winter over in Maine, especially invasive species, like Japanese beetles, and a greater likelihood of fungal problems.  Another more devastating problem may be saltwater intrusion into coastal wells, despoiling drinking water and irrigation water alike for the more productive coastal farms.

For the organic farmer, any of these issues can be a season-breaker; without a great number of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides at their disposal, organic farmers are at greater risk of a particularly bad year.

But they have greater incomes in good years than do traditional farmers.  Organic produce commands a much higher price than traditionally grown produce, so the occasionally flop year may be worth it over the long run.  And the more food that can be sold to local people directly - at farmer's markets, for instance - the greater the amount of income an organic farmer can keep for him or herself.  That amount has increased, too, over the last ten years ... the direct to buyer sales of organic produce was up 17 percent.

Overall, agriculture in Maine is growing, and is yet another bright spot for Maine's economy.

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