While the winters may stretch on, and in some places frost lingers long into the growing season, Maine is a state with both a deep history and a promising future for small-scale, sustainable agriculture. In the 1970s, Maine’s rocky soil gave rise to the Back to the Land movement, and in recent years, farmers have developed a thriving local grain economy, experimented with innovative ownership models, and pioneered new food policies.
But farming in Maine, and the broader region, could amount to more—much more, according to the 2014 report “A New England Food Vision.” The report describes “a future in which New England produces at least half of the region’s food—and no one goes hungry.”
Some details have surely become dated since Food Solutions New England, part of the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Institute, first published the report. But the authors’ vision of a robust, conservation-minded, sustainable, and just New England food system is worth looking back at now that one of those authors, Amanda Beal, is newly empowered as Maine’s Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry (DACF).
As former president of Maine Farmland Trust, Beal has most recently been focused on protecting farms like her father’s, which included leased land used to graze his dairy cows on just outside of Portland—land that has since been engulfed by the city. While she has not yet gotten specific about her plans as commissioner, the report she helped author provides insight into what her priorities might be as she takes the helm of the region’s leading farming state—particularly with Maine’s new governor recently signing a law requiring DACF to develop a plan to eliminate food insecurity in the state by 2030.
“When I think about that vision, I can’t help but think about what a huge role Maine has to play if it’s going to come to fruition, just because we have such an extensive base of farmland here,” Beal said. But even though Maine boasts an abundance of land, she points out, the state can’t take it for granted and needs to protect it: “It’s extensive, but it’s not infinite.”
“It’s no secret that this is a tough time for farmers in Maine and nationally,” said U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who represents Maine in the House of Representatives and runs a farm on the island of North Haven. “Commissioner Beal personally understands that farmers are on the front lines of the climate and economic challenges our country is facing. She’s really everything you could want in a leader for DACF: She grew up on a dairy farm, she has extensive experience in conservation, and she has a vision for Maine’s agricultural economy.”
Beal was nominated for the commissioner role by Maine’s ’s new Governor, Democrat Janet Mills, and is one of 13 women running state agriculture departments, including Colorado’s Kate Greenberg and Hawaii’s Denise Albano.
Mills was elected last fall following eight years of Republican Paul LePage running the state. Early on in his controversial governorship, LePage merged the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources with the Department of Conservation. Walter Whitcomb, a career dairy farmer who formerly ran the Maine Dairy Industry Association and was the Republican leader of the Maine House of Representatives in the early 1990s, ran the newly combined department. As commissioner, Beal represents, to say the least, a very different direction for the department—and she comes from a different background in agriculture, too.
Now, with Beal at the helm of the ag department, Maine is uniquely positioned to push forward into the role of regional breadbasket that she helped lay in the report—and set a national example for how to build a sustainable, healthy, and just regional food system.
Ramping Up Food Production in Maine
According to the report, Maine farmers would have to work an additional 3 to 4 million acres to meet the goal of producing half of New England’s food. Getting there would not only require significant growth but the reversal of existing trends.
Like most everywhere else in the U.S., Maine is losing farmland each year. The amount of farmland in the state shrunk by 10 percent to 1.3 million acres from 2012 to 2017, according to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture. Fortunately, farmland in Maine happens to be relatively cheap, and there is an enviable number of state- and nonprofit-run programs that help connect farmers with land to farms, which is drawing new farmers to the state.
Also working to its advantage, the average age of farmers in Maine is just below the national average, suggesting the state is succeeding in attracting new, younger farmers. The number of farmers under 44 increased by nearly 10 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to new data from the Census of Agriculture. (Demographics were counted differently in the new census, which makes it difficult to differentiate between actual demographic changes and changes that are the result of methodology.)
Aspiring pig farmer Ollie Jenkins, who runs a charcuterie called A Small Good, said the Maine Farmland Trust, under Beal’s leadership, was essential to building his business. “Without their help, we wouldn’t have been able to get on our property,” said Jenkins, who is now moving toward raising his own pigs on a 150-acre property in mid-coast Maine where he will live and farm with his wife Kelly Jenkins and their young daughter.
By working with Maine Farmland Trust, which puts development restrictions on properties it conserves so that they are limited to agricultural use, the Jenkinses were able to spend a third less on the property than they would have otherwise.
Supporting Farms of All Sizes and Types
New, younger farmers like Jenkins—who is thinning the wooded property into lots of both pasture and oak silvopasture to range pigs in—are often aligned with the state’s vital history of sustainable farming, which took root with the life and work of Scott and Helen Nearing, socialists and homesteaders whose Forest Farm became in the 1970s the epicenter of a modern homesteading movement that has been credited with changing Maine. And with agriculture nonprofits like the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and state seed companies Fedco Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds, it can make it seem like there’s nothing but small, diversified organic farms in the Maine.
But there remains a dwindling dairy industry that, along with potato growers in far northern Aroostook County, constitute commercial agriculture in the state, so much as it exists. At the Farmland Trust and now the ag department, Beal wants to support—and grow—them all.
“She doesn’t have these hard lines around certain kinds of farming practices,” said Ellen Sabina, Maine Farmland Trust’s outreach director. “We don’t specify that a farm we work with has to use certain practices—we just think that farming in general needs to be supported and uplifted.”
Instead of discussing sustainability in terms of specific inputs or practices, Beal talks more about resources and resiliency, and advocates for an all-of-the-above approach to farming. The diversity in Maine farms—from specialty growers to commodity farmers—is to the state’s advantage, as she sees it. “The farmers I talk to in Maine, regardless of their size, these are people who care deeply about this land,” Beal said. “They see it as their livelihood, and they see it as their responsibility to take care of it.”
As such, sustainability seems less about whether or not pesticides are being used and more about whether farms are the right size for the environment and available natural resources. Summer droughts have at times been a problem during the past few years, but there is still plenty of water, as well as plenty of space to not only conserve but actively grow the farmland footprint, which is the smallest it has been since colonizers arrived in the 18th Century.
‘Right Here, Right Now’
While she was quick to the point to “A New England Food Vision” when asked about her big-picture goals for Maine’s agriculture system, Beal was less forthcoming about the more specific, tangible goals she wants to pursue. (Granted, she’s also finalizing her budget.)
She did highlight the overarching issues that Maine farmers face and have faced for decades. There’s a shortage of farm labor in the state, with some growers relying on seasonal workers from countries such as Jamaica, who come to the U.S. on temporary H-2A visas or controversial prison work-release programs. Energy costs too are very high in Maine, and the state lacks any kind of significant agricultural infrastructure like processing facilities.
As of yet, it’s unclear what the department wants to do in order to address those issues, or to push Maine toward the kind of food system laid out in the vision report. But other agriculture leaders in Maine have some ideas, including Sarah Alexander, MOFGA’s executive director.
“We hope that the state can provide additional financial support for many of the wonderful programs that currently exist, like funding programs for new and beginning farmers, programs for transitioning to organic agriculture, and programs like Mainers Feeding Mainers,” Alexander said. “We would like to see the department really help prioritize getting Maine food into all Maine institutions and helping to solve some of the infrastructure needs for doing that like processing, aggregation, and distribution.”
Regardless of what specific direction she takes, Beal believes that this is prime moment to work toward the kind of food system she helped envision five years ago and has been working toward one way or another throughout her career.
“I absolutely think that the timing for doing that kind of work is great—it’s right here, right now,” Beal said. “And there’s a lot of interest building both amongst consumers, which is critically important—we need people to support a more localized, regionalized model for food production and consumption or there’s no reason for building it,” as well as from state governments and institutions that are shifting their purchasing goals to focus on local foods. “When you look at it across the boards there’s growing interest in this kind of work,” she said.
And with her new position, Beal—and the state, the region, and others across the country—has to opportunity to see if that vision can be made into a reality.