Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Maine's Organic Farmers Need a Living Wage

Publications \ The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener \ Spring 2015 \ Editorial - Alice Percy

By Alice Percy, MOFGA Board President

I open my term as MOFGA board president by telling a dirty secret: Most MOFGA farmers earn very little, and something's got to give or MOFGA's vision of a better food system will die an early death.

My family has operated a MOFGA-certified organic farm since 2005. I enjoy the friendship of many other organic farmers: young farmers and old farmers, farmers in Aroostook and farmers in York, first-generation journeypeople and people from farming families, people who started farming with some assets in hand and people who started farming with little beyond the boots on their feet. All these farmers have broadened my knowledge of agriculture and my sense of community, and impressed me with their dedication, ingenuity and strong work ethics.

I have learned that dedication, ingenuity and hard work are not enough. I know just one certified organic farm whose business alone provides a middle-class income to the family working it (hint: it's not mine). I know dozens more who are scraping by from month to month on juggled credit accounts, delayed maintenance, financial support from parents, off-farm jobs and Medicaid (or no health insurance at all).

To the casual observer, these farms may give the impression of prosperity. Your neighbor who just bought a new tractor? He had no cash to replace the transmission that broke in his old one, but the dealership was offering $0 down and delayed payments. The farmer who greeted you at the market with a cheerful smile? Honestly, she's less likely to make a sale if she tells you that she can pay her employees' wages only if she grosses at least $800 today – but it's raining, so she probably won't make that much.

Farmers are asking questions. Can I afford to have a family? Will I be able to retire? Is anybody succeeding at this? Am I ever going to make it? Unless we can answer “yes,” we will start to see some serious attrition. Do we really want to see the world's food grown in a way that respects our soils, our water, our workers, our children and our ecosystems? Then we need to see more people growing more food according to these principles.

We won't see that if they can't earn a living doing it. Using the government to subsidize the harmful production of cheap food is undeniably a sick system, but expecting individual households to subsidize food production on a small-scale, eco-friendly basis by providing their time and assets with no expectation of fair remuneration is inherently elitist.

We must act decisively to improve our farms' viability. It is time to reconsider some assumptions that have become ingrained in the good food movement: assumptions about scale, marketing venues, diversification and food miles. These assumptions are not inextricably linked to the fundamental goal of improving our food production system, but they can have a major impact on a MOFGA farmer's bottom line and quality of life. In the next two years, I look forward to exploiting my privileged access to this space in The MOF&G to explore some of these issues. It is also my goal to work closely with MOFGA's agricultural services staff and to advocate for its funding and expansion. Meaningful support from this program is essential to the long-term success of MOFGA's farms. The program needs more resources and more staffing to provide farm visits across the state and comprehensive business planning services to established farms. Finally, I hope to initiate a marketing program that loudly and enthusiastically promotes MOFGA-certified food to the general public.

Meanwhile, please contact me with your concerns and your ideas!