The Madison Farmers’ Market, held a meeting Saturday evening at the Old Point School in Madison, to finalize plans for our upcoming 2015 market season. I volunteer my time and efforts as the market manager, organizing, planning and promoting our young little market, and working to both serve local agriculture, farmers and farming in Madison and the surrounding areas. The members of the market have become good friends of mine, as we all work together to grow this grassroots movement for locally produced food in our rural part of Maine.
I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of this movement–working for the cause of promoting farming and the accessibility of fresh, locally produced, minimally processed, healthy foods. To serve as an advocate for wildlife conservation through sustainable living. I’ve surrounded myself with like-minded people–both at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, where all of the employees are farmers and gardeners passionate about local food and protecting the Earth and its resources–and in my community.
Maine leads the local foods movement
In Maine we have a rich agricultural heritage, and that is evident as the demand for locally produced food continues to grow. People are becoming increasingly concerned with what they are putting in and on–or even near–their bodies. We are increasingly knowledgeable about food, health, and the environment–and people are afflicted by an irresistible compulsion to do something about it. As an example of our passion and dedication to quality food and local farming, Mainers are able to expertly toss around initials like “CSA”, more restaurants are offering locally grown foods on their menus, and more and more people are moving toward lifestlyes that include the terms “do-it-yourself” or “grow-it-yourself”, “off-grid” and “sustainable”.
Nationally, Maine is second only to Vermont as leaders in the local food movement according to “Strolling Through the Heifers”–a Vermont-based advocacy group that puts out a locavore index ranking states by their commitment to local foods. And studies show that there has been a surge of small farms in Maine as people from all walks of life gravitate toward farming. This is particularly true for women; according to the 2012 Agricultural Census there has been a significant increase in the numbers of female-run farms over the last decade.
Maine’s agricultural history
Here in Maine, farming preceded the European settlers with Native Americans growing corn, beans and squash to supplement their hunter-gatherer lifestyles. And when early settlers came to the area they first began sustenance farms to feed themselves and their livestock, and then a few years down the road when they had eeked an existence out of the forest they could expand those farms to begin feeding their communities.
But by the mid-19th century fewer young people were choosing farming as a way of life. And even 30 years ago there was a lot of negativity about encouraging young people to go into farming.
Farming becomes popular
Today though, the social climate and attitude toward farmers is changing. Farming has become popular and trendy. And there are opportunities here in Maine for beginning farmers. Nationally the average age of farmers is 58, but here in Maine we are bucking trends and between 2007 and 2012 the number of farmers 34 years of age or younger increased by 40%.
“Young growers have rockstar status,” said Robert Johnston Jr. founder of Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine.
And Maine is not only adding young farmers–it’s adding acreage–with 8% more of Maine’s 19.1 million acres being farmed now than were in 2007. Many see farming as the key to Maine’s future, with the potential to be a “big food state”. Maine already has an abundance of water, and the future of climate change looks to only increase that water supply. What’s more–we have an ideal location. Because good growing conditions are determined by the amount of available sunlight over the course of the year and not how cold or long the winters are, Maine’s latitude is ideal for farming. Plus, Maine farming pioneers like Elliot Coleman have invented ways of extending the growing season without the use of fossil fuels.
Not that farming in Maine isn’t without its share of challenges.
Stacking the deck against small farms
Despite the advantages for farmers here in Maine, the deck is stacked against small farmers, with government regulations favoring corporate farms. This is something I have experienced first-hand–both in my own farming efforts and as market manager watching other farmers working to scale up. In order to scale up so that we can make more money we need to market our products to more people, but in order to market to more people we need to first invest in a whole host of permits and licenses, many of which require expensive equipment for processing or refrigeration to comply with regulations. Those kinds of investments require money–and in order to make that kind of money farmers need to be able to market their products to more people. It’s a catch 22.
New farmers also find it difficult to get access to land, let alone start-up capital for investments. My generation of farmers tends to lease land and farms. Sure we all dream of owning our own some day, but the reality is that we can’t afford to buy that dream-farm outright, and that urge to farm is so strong and overpowering that we are seeking out alternatives that allow us to farm now–today.
It’s a difficult road for sure, and some would-be farmers decide it’s not worth the time, investment, or hassle, and instead opt to homestead–growing and raising food for themselves rather than trying to feed the community–happy enough to be living a more sustainable lifestyle.
Fighting the good fight
There are still many who continue to fight the good fight–like myself and my members of the Madison Farmers’ Market, and like the assorted array of farmers and gardeners working alongside me at Johnny’s. It is people like these that make up the local food movement here in Maine and they are an inspiration to each other, and to new and beginning farmers everywhere, each working to ensure the vitality of their own farms and at the same time feeding the local food movement in more ways than one. I’m proud to be one of them, even if my capacity at the moment is limited!
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