Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Farm Viability – Another Way to Assist Farmers

Publications \ The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener \ Fall 2013 \ Farm Viability

To increase food access for all, Maine Farmland Trust provides EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) machines at some farmers’ markets. These enable families to use federal food assistance to purchase local food. English photo.

By John Piotti

In 1999, MOFGA’s executive director, Russell Libby, and several other leaders in sustainable agriculture – all MOFGA members – created Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) in response to a clear need. We saw protecting farmland as fundamental to the future of farming, and not just for the most obvious reason that good farmland is essential to raising crops and livestock. We also understood how Maine needed to protect farmland to ensure that more land would be affordable for the next generation of farmers. Farmland that comes with a protective easement sells at a lower price – its “farmland value” (as opposed to its “development value”). This can make all the difference in getting a farmer onto land.

Libby was not only MFT’s long-time treasurer, but our statistician and trend reader as well. He calculated that about 400,000 acres of Maine farmland would be in transition this decade, simply due to the age of the owners. MFT’s primary goal became protecting some of the most vulnerable land that would likely convert to non-farm use if we didn’t get involved. So for the last 14 years, through 210 projects, we have helped protect more than 36,000 acres of farmland – often in partnership with local or regional land trusts.

But protecting farmland is just one part of our work. MFT is increasingly involved in helping farmers prosper – what we call “farm viability.”  In this work, we focus where we have special skills, often complementing the work of other groups. We do a lot in partnership with MOFGA.

Here’s a taste of what we are doing:

Individualized Business Planning. MFT’s staff provides substantive, individualized assistance to farmers and other businesses focused on local food. This activity also supports our efforts to get farmers onto land, since obtaining financing to purchase a farm can at times require a formal business plan.

Group Business Planning. MFT participates in “MOFGA Farm Beginnings®,” which targets MOFGA journeypersons. This whole farm planning class capitalizes on a peer-to-peer learning model. Last year’s inaugural program stretched from November through March, with classes every three to four weeks. The next class will start in October 2013 and will be held at MOFGA’s Common Ground Education Center in Unity.

Beginning Farmer Services. MFT staff helps beginning farmers assess their need for land and find suitable properties. We often work with MOFGA journeypersons, augmenting the great job MOFGA does training new farmers.

Shared-use Farm Equipment. MFT owns specialized equipment that many smaller farmers want to access occasionally but do not need to own. Current inventory includes a seedbed cultivator, a two-shank subsoiler and a plastic mulch layer – with more equipment being added soon. Farmers can pay an annual enrollment fee of $100, attend an equipment training workshop, and then access the equipment, which MOFGA houses and maintains.

Food Access. We help low-income persons access local farm products while helping local farmers increase sales. Our “community farm share” program partners with municipalities and food pantries to provide local food to income-eligible families, currently through a multi-farm CSA. To date, this program has been limited to six communities in Waldo and Kennebec counties, but this list will grow in 2014. We have also worked with several farmers’ markets, running coupon programs that encourage low-income persons to shop there. While at a few markets, we have provided the EBT machines that enable families to use federal food assistance to purchase local food.

Food Hubs. We have helped a handful of the “food hubs” that are being established across Maine to increase marketing options for local farmers. Food hubs come in many shapes and sizes, but most aggregate products from multiple farms to access broader markets. To date, MFT’s assistance has included supporting a few groups with feasibility studies and business planning. At the same time, in response to farmer interest, we are creating a food hub in the Unity area. When fully operational in mid-2014, this facility is expected to serve a few dozen local farmers, including 21 that are MOFGA certified organic growers.

MFT’s focus on farm viability makes real sense because the primary reason we protect farmland is to keep the land in farming. This is not the case for all land trusts; some care as much or more about other benefits of conserving land, such as maintaining open space, scenic vistas or wildlife habitat. But MFT wants to see all the farmland it protects actively worked – and that will happen only if strong markets for local farm products exist and a steady crop of new farmers enters the business; that is, only if farming is prospering.

The power of combining farmland protection and farm viability stems from the fact that each enhances the other. Farmers are much more compelled to consider protecting their land with easements if they believe their farms can be economically viable. We’ve found that doing farm viability work in a community is often a great way to get more farmers thinking about land protection, because often only through business planning, new market development, or other such efforts, do some farmers begin to sense that a future exists for their land besides division into house lots. At the same time, protecting a farm can often add to the farm’s economic success – because many farmland protection projects compensate the landowner at some level, and that often means cash to pay down debt or to innovate. Finally, if the owners are not actively working the land being protected, protecting it is often part of the process of making that land available to energetic new farmers, by sale or lease.

So when applied strategically, farmland protection and farm viability mutually reinforce one another, creating an upward spiral of farming prosperity in a given area.

Despite such power and logic, this “two track” approach is rare, perhaps because most conservation groups do not have expertise in agriculture, and most agricultural organizations do not have expertise in conservation. So it’s a difficult and unnatural stretch for many groups. MFT is one of a handful of groups across the nation combining work in this way.

MFT owes a lot to MOFGA. Beyond the model of excellence that MOFGA provides (including its example as a national leader), we appreciate its willingness to partner with MFT in so many ways. But mostly we are thankful for the vision of all those MOFGA members who helped create MFT and who continue to guide and support us.

John Piotti is executive director of Maine Farmland Trust.