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John Piotti
John Piotti. Photo courtesy of Peggy McKenna, copyright 2002.

By John Piotti

Members of MOFGA don’t need to be reminded of the value of small farms to our local communities. Indeed, most of you reading this article already appreciate how Maine farms contribute to the local economy, how they preserve open space and protect wildlife, and how – when the farms serve local markets – they often save vast amounts of energy and water over food produced far away.

I suspect that many of you – like me – also appreciate Maine farms for the lessons they provide about self reliance: If we can grow so much of our food locally, then perhaps we have more control over our economies than the “realists” suggest. Perhaps – for instance – viable alternatives to Wal-Mart and Arthur Daniels Midland actually do exist.

Folks like us buy local farm products then, not just because they taste better and are more healthful, but because we believe that by doing so, we are helping to improve our communities and – perhaps – change the world. We believe in small Maine farms – at least in part – because we believe in the future.

This belief is not broadly shared. Though growing support exists in Maine for farmland preservation and even for some new farm assistance programs, the push behind these efforts is not spurred by a belief in the future potential of Maine agriculture, let alone a hope that local farming can transform the world. In fact, the opposite is true. Most farmland preservation efforts are driven by a desire to preserve history or open space, not to protect a critical economic resource. Likewise, in the view of many, the primary reason for any program that assists farmers is to slow the death of a dying industry.

My work as director of the Maine Farms Project leads me to a different conclusion. I think Maine farms warrant active public support for a variety of reasons, but clear among them is this: Investing in farms is a smart economic decision for the state.

I’ll cite two pieces of evidence:

• The Report of the Legislative Task Force on Farm Vitality issued in 2000 stated that “extraordinary opportunities exist for developing agricultural enterprises in Maine.” The Task Force came to that conclusion after conducting exhaustive hearings across the state, during which we heard from dozens of farmers – many of them MOFGA-certified growers – who were pursuing creative and profitable strategies. (MOFGA’s Russell Libby and I both sat on that Task Force as citizen members.)

• The Federal Census of Agriculture reveals that in much of Central Maine, agricultural sales have been growing by as much as 5% a year for the past decade. These statistics are promising, especially when we know that traditional dairy farming (once a mainstay of Central Maine) has been going through tough times. The conclusion is that some of Maine’s farms are doing all right.

Maine farming is in a state of transition, as farmers respond to new economic realities. For a growing number of farms, the change involves moving away from large-scale commodity production. Some of these farms are changing how they market. Others are changing what they produce. They are all focusing on filling a market niche. Economic trends suggest that by following this strategy, Maine farms could become a major supplier of food products to both local and East Coast markets.

But this view is not held by many state and local officials, nor by the general public. If you doubt me, broach the topic of farming at a public meeting (as I’ve done in a dozen communities around the state). You will invariably hear that farming is dead or dying. (In Central Maine communities, people will usually then list all the dairy farms that have gone out of business in the past 20 years, with little or no acknowledgement of some of the new farming activity that may be occurring on former dairy lands.)

Unfortunately, this viewpoint is more limited and damaging than one might suspect. Consider, first, public efforts to preserve farmland by purchasing property or development rights. If the primary goal is to retain farms so that our suburbs will benefit from more open space, or so that our grandchildren don’t forget our farm heritage, then the amount of funds will be modest. In addition, programs with such goals will be the first to be cut in economic hard times, when our leaders will feel we can’t afford such frivolous whims. Similar points can be made about farm assistance programs. Conversely, imagine how much more funding and public support would be forthcoming if farmland were viewed as a precious resource, and working farms were seen as key to Maine’s long-term economic prosperity.

Farms must be treated more like other businesses in Maine. Other sectors regularly receive various forms of state support, often lucrative support, presumably because they bring benefits to Maine. One would be hard pressed to find a business that – for its size – provides so much back to a community as a small farm; yet little funding flows to farms. In fact, I suspect that the net benefit to farms of public investments is actually negative, because so many other economic development programs actually work against farms. (Consider how public money is used to help new businesses locate on farmland, and to build roads and install sewer lines that encourage development that eventually puts the economic squeeze on once viable farms.)

Ironically, we often hold farms above other businesses in our minds, because of the many social, cultural, and environmental benefits they bestow. But by thinking differently about farms, perhaps we are hurting them.

So, “What do call centers and farms have in common?” The answer may be “Not enough.” Maybe the farm community needs to learn – like other business sectors – to showcase our economic contributions to the public. Maybe we need to stress how farmers employ people, pay taxes, and spend much of their income within the local community. Maybe we also need to stress how farms – given how little they use local services – may be a local community’s best strategy to keep down property taxes.

This is exactly what we did in the recently-completed “Working Landscapes” project, which the Maine Farms Project undertook in conjunction with Cooperative Extension, the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, and four Kennebec County communities. Our work ran on two complementary paths. First, we provided focused business and technical assistance to local farms. We wanted to increase each farm’s profit and local visibility. Second, we engaged the local community in a dialogue about farming. Our goal here was to get the community to incorporate farming into its economic and community development strategy. To do so, we first had to convince the local players (mostly volunteers from the local comprehensive plan committees) that farming did indeed have a future in their communities. To this end, the work that we had first done with local farmers was critical, providing tangible evidence of farming’s worth and viability.

Some of the communities that participated in “Working Landscapes” have used the project as a springboard for future action, just as we had hoped. In Monmouth, for instance, townspeople developed a local marketing and educational vehicle (“Monmouth Grows”) and earmarked local funds to help preserve farmland.

I’ve been involved in a similar effort in my own community of Unity. In 1989, Unity began work on its comprehensive plan. By 1995, Town Meeting had approved a new plan and a progressive new land-use ordinance, one that included several creative provisions designed to help protect farming and farmland. At the same time, the community realized that good planning – however critical – was only one part of what was needed. The missing piece was a community organization that could work pro-actively to bring about the changes local people wanted. In 1996, we created such an organization and finalized a “community development vision” built around the theme of “serving more local needs locally.” Food was a big part of our strategy. We created a farmers’ market and a community meals program that showcases local farm products. In addition, we secured an agricultural easement on some prime farmland. We are now developing a local food processing venture, and working in partnership with Maine Farmland Trust to significantly increase the amount of local farmland that is permanently preserved.

To my mind, the greatest success of these local efforts is not so much the specific projects or activities, but the changed mindset. Once local people begin to realize that supporting farms makes economic sense, it truly changes how they view their community and their role in it. It transforms people from complacently abdicating responsibility for their futures to outside economic forces, to being energized to help their community chart a different course.

I’m convinced that the greatest challenge facing agriculture in Maine is this false belief that farming has no place in our economic future. I’m also convinced that if we can create enough local successes (in places like Unity and Monmouth and elsewhere), we can change state policy in revolutionary ways. Local action can make a difference, potentially an extraordinary difference.

I’ve speculated in past writings that perhaps the main reason we overlook farming’s real promise lies within us – that somehow we have become disconnected from our economies. In this abstractness, we believe without question that 1000 keyboard operators in some corporate office contribute to our economy, but we question the contribution of 1000 independent farmers growing something real in the earth. As a society, we seem to lack any comprehension of how markets really work (or how they could work) beyond the kind of information fed to us on the Nightly Business Report.

We need to change how we view farming, and that means changing how we view our economy and farming’s contributions to it. Doing so will enable us to embrace support for small Maine farms – not in a fit of romance or nostalgia – but in a conscious, forward-looking strategy designed to help rebuild our communities and our state.

Here – as in so many areas – MOFGA members can lead the charge. If you’re not already active in your community’s comprehensive plan committee (or similar group), consider getting involved. That’s what I did 13 years ago, and – as you can see – I’m still hooked.

About the author: John Piotti has served since 1995 as Director of the Maine Farms Project, a program of Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI), a statewide community development organization. John also serves as Vice President of Maine Farmland Trust and Chairman of the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG). John lives in Unity, where he chairs the Planning Board and Comprehensive Plan Committee.

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