Farm Renaissance within Maine’s Reach with the Maine Farmland Trust

Innovative nonprofit plays critical role

BY ADMIN

February 28th, 2011 

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Benjamin and Alexander help their father Philip Retberg haul logs out of a forested section of the property in preparation to transition the area into grazing lands. Quill’s End Farm is an example of the kind of farming that is seeing a rebirth, through the hard work of committed new owners. photo by Bridget Besaw

There is a rebirth of farming occurring across Maine, spurred by new economic opportunities and highly creative farmers, and directly supported by a fast-growing nonprofit named Maine Farmland Trust.

The Belfast based Maine Farmland Trust made news last summer, when it released a series of eight short films about farming in Maine. The Meet Your Farmer films have since been shown at dozens of venues statewide, calling attention to both the struggles and opportunities facing Maine’s farmers. The films will be aired on public television in May.

“We made the films because we see a disconnect between what’s happening in Maine farming and what most people think is happening,” explained John Piotti, Maine Farmland Trust’s executive director. “Some people feel that farming in Maine is dying, which is clearly not the case. But other people see the emergence of new farms and think a bright future is inevitable, which isn’t the case either,” said Piotti.

The recent growth of farming in Maine — though at times overlooked — is impressive. Maine has gained more than a thousand farms in the last ten years. And for the first time in memory, Maine leads the New England states in agricultural production. Farming currently adds $2 billion each year to the state’s economy and is poised to grow considerably.

This does not mean that the picture for agriculture is entirely rosy. One needs to look no further than the struggling dairy industry, which has been in and out of crisis for many years.

But struggles within the dairy sector are caused by failed federal pricing policies that prevent farmers from getting paid what the milk is worth, not because Maine’s dairy farmers don’t make milk efficiently, according to Piotti. “Maine is actually a great place to raise dairy cattle, because we have good pastureland and cool weather, and because we live within a day’s drive of millions of milk drinkers,” he said.

Indeed, the fundamentals of Maine agriculture are extremely strong — whether for raising livestock or for growing grains, fruits or vegetables.

Maine has abundant water, good soils, and more intact farm infrastructure than many states. Maine also boasts many young farmers entering the field. In fact, Maine now has the fifth youngest farmer population in the country, due to the influx of many twenty- and thirty-somethings who want to farm.

Beyond this, Maine also has advantages because of its location. As energy costs inevitably rise, it will become increasingly cost effective to grow food closer to where it is eaten. Thus Maine’s proximity to Northeast population centers provides significant opportunities for expanding farming here. Some envision Maine becoming the “food basket of the Northeast,” providing long-term food security throughout the region, while creating jobs in food production and processing here in Maine.

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Carolyn, Alexander, and their mother Heather Retberg harvest carrots on their family farm, Quill’s End Farm, in Penobscot. The Retbergs could afford to purchase the property because it had been preserved through an agricultural easement. photo by Bridget Besaw

Piotti is one of those people who believe farming can become a strong economic engine for Maine. He sees it as key to a sustainable future. But having worked in this field for over 15 years, he also sees threats to that vision.

“We have better markets for Maine farm products than ever before, but I worry about the land base,” said Piotti.

Maine Farmland Trust estimates that the ownership of as much as one third of Maine’s best farmland — up to 400,000 acres — will be in transition in the next ten years, as aging farmers sell or die. Much of this land could be lost to farming unless it is bought by new farmers.

There are plenty of capable people who want to own and work a Maine farm, but high land prices often make it difficult if not impossible for would-be farmers to acquire good land. Few farmers can afford to pay a developer’s price for land they intend to work.

The solution is to permanently preserve more farmland. Once land is protected with an agricultural easement, it will change hands at its value as farmland, not as potential house lots. This is the best way to ensure that many vulnerable farms will remain in farming.

A lot of misconceptions exist about what happens when a farm is preserved through an easement. A well-crafted agricultural easement is designed with great flexibility, because the goal is to keep the land viable for agriculture long into the future, and no one can predict that future. Easements prevent subdivision and removal of topsoil, but generally allow for fencing, farm buildings, and land clearing that might be needed to keep a farm vibrant. For these reasons, most farmers who understand easements are comfortable owning preserved land.

Maine Farmland Trust preserves farmland in many ways. First, the Trust works directly with landowners who want to donate easements on their property. Landowners take this step, because they want to ensure their farm stays a farm after they have sold or died, but they also realize tax benefits from doing so. Second, the Trust helps landowners who wish to sell an easement under the Land for Maine’s Future program or one of several federal programs by facilitating what can be a daunting and lengthy process.

Finally, Maine Farmland Trust targets properties where the landowner wants the land to stay in farming, but needs to sell now. In these cases, the Trust buys the property, places an easement on the property itself, and then resells the property at its farmland value to a farmer. This Buy/Protect/Sell (BPS) program, as it is called, serves two goals simultaneously, preserving vulnerable land and then getting it into the hands of another farmer.

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Paul Birdsall, hanging out with the apprentices at Horsepower Farm, has been the force behind preserving over 1,600 acres of farmland on the Blue Hill Peninsula. photo by Bridget Besaw

This program was modeled after the admirable actions of a farmer on the Blue Hill peninsula, Paul Birdsall. Recognizing that affordable farmland wasn’t available in his area, Birdsall began to buy additional farmland, which he preserved with agricultural easements, and then resold to new farmers.

Philip and Heather Retberg of Quills End Farm could only afford to purchase the 105 acre property they now farm outside of Blue Hill because it had been preserved in this way by Birdsall.

Quill’s End Farm is an example of the kind of farming that is seeing a rebirth through the hard work of committed new owners. When the Retbergs purchased the property, it contained only 17 acres of open fields, although 70 acres had been open in the 1940s. The land had not been farmed for 30 years and required an immense outlay of time and money.

The Retbergs have now restored much of the land. They maintain a growing herd of cattle, as well as sheep, lambs, hogs, meat birds and layers, selling meat, eggs, and milk directly from their farm. They make cheese for barter and sell cut firewood, while their large garden fills many of their family’s own needs. In short, they have created a vibrant farm from what had been unused land, land that could have just as easily been filled with houses.

Increasingly, farmers like the Retbergs are seeking to buy preserved farmland, because it comes at a lower price. Saving money on land is often necessary to get a new farmer started. But even where it’s not a necessity, keeping land costs down frees up funding for investing in the farm’s operation.

Maine Farmland Trust’s Buy/Protect/Sell program has seen great success and growth using this same model. In the past two years, the Trust has preserved over 3,500 acres in this way, while creating new opportunities for two dozen farmers. This has included young farmers like Joel Swift and Sarah Creighton-Swift, who have brought new life to an old farm in Prospect, as well as established farmers like Dick and Mel Perkins of Charlestown, whose dairy farm was in jeopardy because they were losing hundreds of acres of cropland they had leased. In that case, the Trust provided the Perkins with affordable new land to replace what they were losing.

Maine Farmland Trust is rightfully proud of the work it has done. Since its inception in 1999, the Trust has helped well over 100 Maine farmers either stay in business or get into business. And it has preserved over 22,000 acres of farmland, which represents over two-thirds of all the farmland that has ever been preserved in Maine.

At the same time, Maine Farmland Trust has been doing so much to raise public awareness about farming, be it through the Meet Your Farmer films or a new book entitled From the Land. Membership has grown to over 2,800 households. In 2009, the Trust was chosen to receive the prestigious Dirigo Award by the Maine Association of Nonprofits, recognizing it as one of the most innovative and best-run organizations in Maine.

But despite these successes, Piotti and his board think Maine Farmland Trust needs to take its work to the next level, and soon. They have launched an ambitious campaign to protect 100,000 acres of farmland in the next four years. (See side bar.) That, they believe, is the scale that’s needed to make a real difference.

“We are truly in a position to see a farming renaissance,” said Piotti. “But only if we do the right things in the next few years.”

This article was compiled with help from Erin Herbig, who serves as Maine Farmland Trust’s Outreach Coordinator. Some of the material was adapted from Maine Farmland Trust’s recent book, From the Land: Maine Farms at Work.

Campaign to Protect 100,000 Acres of Farmland

In the next ten years, the ownership of as much as 400,000 acres of Maine’s best farmland will be in transition, as aging farmers sell or die. This demographic challenge is coming just as farming here is poised to thrive.

The future of agriculture in Maine is dependent on preserving much of the farmland that will be changing hands, so that it can be put into the hands of committed farmers.

This past January, at a press event at the annual Agricultural Trade Show, Maine Farmland Trust publicly announced its campaign to protect 100,000 acres of Maine farmland by 2014.

Maine Farmland Trust will help protect farmland in various ways, including by working with landowners who wish to donate or sell easements. In addition, the Trust expects to increase the number of deals under its Buy/Protect/Sell program and through its FarmLink program, which finds new farmers to buy or lease farms that may otherwise go to nonfarm uses.

The 100,000 acre goal will not be realized by Maine Farmland Trust alone, but by a myriad of organizations working to support farming and farmland preservation. The Trust commonly partners with a large number of local and regional land trusts, as well as state and federal agencies and municipalities interested in keeping farming vital.

Altogether, protecting 100,000 acres is projected to cost $50 million. This sounds like a large sum, but the economic impact from that 100,000 acres is expected to exceed $50 million each year.

According to Taylor Mudge, a former farmer and founder of the State of Maine Cheese Company, who serves on Maine Farmland Trust’s board and is leading the fundraising campaign, this $50 million investment will pay back at least $50 million each and every year thereafter. “Not bad deal,” Mudge said at the January press conference.

What’s more, the full $50 million is not needed now. Maine Farmland Trust has set an initial goal of $10 million, which is then expected to leverage an additional $40 million over the next few years. So raising the first $10 million is what’s most critical.

Maine Farmland Trust has already secured over $5.5 million. It hopes to raise another $4 million this year. “We can only do that with more public support,” said Mudge, who urged everyone who cares about farming’s future to join Maine Farmland Trust.

More information is available at www.mainefarmlandtrust.org.