Big news coming out of the Maine Agricultural Trades Show earlier this month (from which the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, MOFGA, was bizarrely excluded): the Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) announced a $50 million campaign to preserve 100,000 acres of farmland in the Pine Tree State over the next three years.
The group hopes to do so through a combination of donated and purchased easements (where certain rights are given to the land-holder but the property is owned by another party — like a land trust), the FarmLink program (which connects retiring farmers with those seeking farmland), and the Farm Viability initiative, which helps farmers increase the agricultural productivity of their land. (This wasn't the only farm-related news coming out of Maine this month. Check out "Going Green" for more.)
The Phoenix conducted an e-mail interview with MFT's executive director, John Piotti; here's an edited version of that conversation.
WHY IS THIS AN IMPORTANT GOAL FOR OUR STATE? Quite simply, we cannot have a sustainable future without vibrant farms. The good news is that farming in Maine is growing and poised to grow even more. But we also face a major challenge: as much as 400,000 acres (or almost one-third) of Maine's best farmland will be in transition (from one owner to another) in the next 10 years, simply due to the age of the farmland owners. Not all of this land is at risk — but a good chunk of it will be lost to farm use if we don't take active steps. We can't afford to let that happen.
HOW IS THE MFT'S GOAL ACHIEVABLE? MFT has developed a detailed plan [that] has specific goals for each of MFT's four program areas: Easements (purchased and donated); Buy/Protect/Sell; FarmLink; and Farm Viability. The 100,000 [acre] total wasn't just a round number we pulled out of the air. Rather, it was the combined total of ambitious (yet achievable) goals for each program area. Yes, it will be a challenge. But MFT has grown considerably in the last few years, expanding programs, adding members, working with an ever-increasing number of local and regional land trusts, and proving capable of raising increasingly larger sums of money.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST OBSTACLE TO DEVELOPING A NEW GENERATION OF RURAL FARMERS? Maine has a large number of young people wanting to farm. Though training them is an issue, it is not the biggest challenge facing young farmers. The biggest challenge is that farmland is not affordable for many of them. The only solution is to preserve more farmland. Once farmland is preserved with a well-structured easement, that land will forever change hands at a lower price (its value as farmland rather than its market value as developable land).
WHAT IS YOUR ASSESSMENT OF THE NEW ADMINISTRATION IN AUGUSTA — HOW SUPPORTIVE WILL THEY BE IN HELPING YOU ACHIEVE YOUR GOALS? It's too early to know what the agricultural community can expect from the new administration, but I'm hopeful. Candidate LePage often stressed the importance of farming. I hope the new administration will realize that farming in Maine has great promise, but that that promise will not be realized unless we are smart, unless we do the right things. It will not happen by simply letting the market do what it does. For one thing, we can only make farmland affordable to farmers if we preserve the underlying land base. Maine agriculture often requires aggressive policy interventions, such as what the state has done over the last few years to stabilize the dairy industry. (Maine's policy interventions have kept our farms relatively stable at a time when dairy farmers in other states are often going out of business in large numbers.) A conservative administration may not be comfortable with activist intervention, but that is what is needed in some ag sectors.