By Russell Libby
MOFGA Executive Director
In February, a few of us sat down to interview the 34 people who applied to be MOFGA journeypersons this year. Every story and situation is different, but one message came through loud and clear: MOFGA’s support of beginning farmers is making a huge difference on the ground.
MOFGA has coordinated an apprenticeship program since the mid-1970s that matches people interested in learning basic farming skills with host farmers. For many, this is their first exposure to agriculture, and there’s a quick sorting-out. Some are hooked, for life; others realize how much hard work is involved in farming, and their appreciation and support for agriculture grows even when they turn in other directions.
During the 1970s and 1980s, we usually placed 30 or 40 apprentices on about that many farms, with occasional upward surges, especially during recessions. Gradually those numbers increased to 50, then 60, then more. But the last few years we have seen an explosion of interest, with first 80, then 100, and last year almost 150 apprentices working on farms across Maine. And those are only the ones who were placed through our matchmaking program.
The Journeyperson program started about 2000 as our way to help prospective farmers make the transition from apprenticeships to farming on their own. Over a two-year cycle, journeypersons work with mentors to improve their farming skills; attend a business planning workshop to create their farm business strategy; are able to participate in the full range of MOFGA events and workshops; receive a small educational stipend to attend other workshops; and participate in peer group activities (especially gatherings of other people in the same situation).
For the past decade, we’ve also had journeypersons living in the farmhouse at our Common Ground Education Center on about a two-year cycle. These “farmers in residence” use the fields at MOFGA to begin their farm businesses, and most have gone on to farm independently. Molly Crouse and Christa Sanders-Fleming, the farmers in residence in 2008 and 2009, both bought farms last fall – Molly is now at Nettie Fox Farm in Winterport, and Christa at Bahner Farm in Belmont. Our new farmers in residence, recently arrived, are Brian St. Laurent and Holli Cederholm.
After a few years of working with two or three journeypersons at a time, we are now seeing dozens of applications each year. In 2008 we accepted 12 candidates; in 2009, 25; and this year, we have another large group entering.
To me, this is one of the most exciting pieces of all the many things happening in MOFGA. Across the country a perception exists that farming isn’t a viable career, but in Maine, dozens of new farmers are establishing businesses and finding their way onto pieces of land.
Whether it’s the growing cluster of farmers in Bowdoinham, sparked by George Christopher’s generosity in helping with access to land, equipment and housing, or the surge of CSA farms across Maine, or the tremendous increases in farmers’ market attendance everywhere, our new farmers are having an impact.
MOFGA is just one of the sparks here. We’ve been fortunate to have financial support from the Cedar Tree Foundation, Maine Community Foundation and others. Access to land is a major barrier, and Maine Farmland Trust, Land for Good, and Equity Trust are all addressing that problem. Several lenders, including Bangor Savings Bank and Coastal Enterprises, are trying to help with financing. Finally, for the first time in a long time, USDA agencies are looking at and reaching out to beginning farmers as an important part of their constituency.
Most important, we all need to find ways to help integrate these new farmers into our communities – the community of farmers, the markets, the social relationships. After all, they are the people who will be helping to feed Maine and beyond in the decades to come.