Access to farmland crucial for short-term and long-term growth of Maine agriculture
Posted Dec. 05, 2016, at 4:47 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine ― If an ambitious local food vision for New England comes to pass over the next half of a century, Maine would once again become “the breadbasket” for the region, as it was centuries ago.

But in order for the vision to be achieved, the focus needs to be on addressing the problem of how to get farmland into the possession of those who want to farm it.

“We have a lot of people who want to farm, and so the question for us is how do we make it possible,” Brian Donahue, author of the report “A New England Food Vision,” said.

Donahue was the keynote speaker Monday at the Maine Farmland Trust’s Farmland Access Conference in Augusta.

The theme of the second annual Farmland Access Conference was 400,000 acres, which is the approximate acreage of farmland that is poised to change hands over the next decade, according to the Maine Farmland Trust.

In Donahue’s 50-year vision, New England would produce at least half of all of the region’s food and do so in a way that supports rural communities and economies, ensures that no one goes hungry and that healthier diets are followed, all while maintaining sustainable and environmentally conscious farming practices. He said this could make Maine “the breadbasket” for the region.

His vision also would require a steep increase in both the amount of land in Maine being used for farming ― to about 2 million acres ― and in the population of farmers working the land.

A series of 15 different breakout sessions at Monday’s conference aimed to tackle the questions surrounding how transitioning landowners can pass on their land to the next generation of farmers and how the next generation can feasibly acquire the land.

“A lot of these topics are complex, and [breakout sessions] gives people a chance to ask questions and dive in a lot deeper,” Maine Farmland Trust President Amanda Beal said.

Session topics included federal and state policies on farmland access, creating farmland leases, the types of loans and financing options available for farmers, farmer collaborations to access land, transferring farmland and farmland protection.

One solution presented Monday that would potentially help farmers more easily access land was how a cooperative farming business model could help them do it collaboratively. Jonah Fertig of the Cooperative Development Institute hosted the session along with Hussein Muktar of Cultivating Community.

With cooperative farms, which can exist in varying forms, individual farmers work collaboratively to access, purchase land and work the land. Muktar himself had a hand in helping establish a cooperative farm in Lewiston, called New Roots Farm, which was formed by several Somali refugees.

“We need accessible ways for new farmers to come into the industry,” Fertig said. “We need to be looking at new ways and business structures, and cooperative farming is one of those.”

While Monday’s discussions were focused around complex problems that don’t necessarily have simple or singular solutions, a love for Maine’s farming traditions and vision for its future kept conversations hopeful.

Erica Buswell, the incoming vice president for programs at Maine Farmland Trust, told those in attendance to “keep the faith, really, I think that’s the most important thing.”