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October 31, 2011 | last updated December 16, 2011 6:07 pm

Protecting farms | A new campaign by Maine Farmland Trust aims to preserve 100,000 acres

When most Mainers drive by a working farm, they see hayfields, or apple trees, or potato blossoms. John Piotti sees economic potential.

"I've always seen this as an economic development agency. That's what we're all about," he says of the Maine Farmland Trust, where he's been executive director since 2006. Based in Belfast, the trust has worked on farmland preservation since 1999, and under Piotti's direction, dramatically accelerated the pace.

The trust has protected 25,000 acres since its inception, and is now setting its sights on 100,000. A fundraising campaign announced this summer has pledges of $6.2 million toward a $10 million goal, a result Piotti calls "pretty fair for such a difficult economic climate."

The $10 million will in turn leverage another $50 million in public and private funding, Piotti says, which he estimates the trust will need to reach the 100,000-acre goal.

While ambitious for a nonprofit with a $1 million annual budget, Piotti says the current campaign will only make a dent in the need. "We have a whole generation of farmers due to retire, and that means that a lot of farmland faces conversion to other uses," he says.

Economists have for years pointed out a basic mismatch between the value of agricultural land for farming and its potential value for development. In the days before cheap and fast transportation, farms used to ring cities — back when New Jersey earned its title as the "Garden State" — and farmland, usually flat and treeless, turned out to be perfect for facilitating suburban sprawl, a trend which continues today. The Maine Farmland Trust was founded to combat that trend and ensure that working farms, those businesses capable of turning a profit, continue to make a contribution to the state's economy and its sense of place.

Some southern Maine towns, such as Scarborough, where sprawl is most pronounced, have bought farms and leased them back to resident farmers. The trust uses a different model.

"We try to establish the value of the land for farming, and then sell an easement to bridge the gap between that and its development value," Piotti says. For those more familiar with conservation easements for forestland, recreation and open space, agricultural easements need to be structured differently. "A well-crafted easement for farms allows changes in crops, clearing of land and even construction of sheds and buildings," he says. "A farm has to respond to market changes just like any other business."

Those changes could conceivably even include housing, as long as it's related to farming. "Housing for workers can legitimately be part of an agricultural easement," he says.

Access to farmland

Russell Libby has been executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, better known as MOFGA, since 1995. Like Piotti, he's a founding board member of the farmland trust, and says MOFGA's programs dovetail with the preservation agenda pursued by the trust.

"We have farmers from all over the country who want to come to Maine," Libby says. "That's the exciting part." The hard part is finding suitable land at a price affordable for someone who wants to farm.

Piotti likes to point out that farming is a $2 billion business in Maine, one of the state's largest economic sectors. (Piotti served eight years in the Legislature as a Democrat from Unity, including a stint as majority leader. He notes that the farmland trust does not take positions on legislation, nor does it lobby at the State House.)

And contrary to a popular impression, the number of farms in Maine is growing, not shrinking. Over the decade from 1997-2007, the number of farms increased from 7,000 to 8,100, or by 13%. Nor are these merely hobby farms for retirees. "The change we've seen is that farming is now viable for a local market," Piotti says. "When I started at CEI [Coastal Enterprises Inc.] back in the '80s, we were all trying to figure out how to create local markets for farm products. We've succeeded. Now the big issue is access to farmland for farmers."

MOFGA tries to get farmers onto the land through a long-established apprentice program that takes novices and puts them to work with established farmers, learning the ropes. Now, there's also a more intensive, two-year journeyperson's program that prepares participants to take over their own farms. "We were just looking at this year's applicants," about a dozen, Libby says. "These are people who've been farming for years and, on average, have worked at five or 10 different farms."

A handful will be able to work at MOGFA's farm adjacent to its Common Ground fairgrounds in Unity, and many of the others will be placed on farms around Maine. So far, 100 people have completed the journeyperson program. Of those, all but two are now farming in Maine, he says.

Easements as a tool

The trust's basic model for keeping farms viable was established in 1999 when the newly re-funded Land for Maine's Future program was instructed to protect farms, as well as the other open-space projects. Lakeside Orchards in Manchester became a test case for both LMF and the farmland trust. Lakeside, which then had 186 acres, was all that was left of what had once been a 5,000-acre farm dating to the 1700s. Manchester, a fast-growing bedroom community west of Augusta, was building housing at a hectic pace.

"The owners, who were selling, wanted to keep it as farmland, but they couldn't figure out how to make the deal work," Piotti says. With state and related federal funding, an agricultural easement was purchased, with the proceeds going to the seller along with a smaller agricultural purchase price. Lakeside now has a thriving apple and pear business, with a popular year-round store along Route 17.

A more recent example of the trust's work is McDougal Orchards, an iconic New England farm near Springvale on Hanson's Ridge, within the fast-growing town of Sanford.

In this case, the owners of the farm, which had been in the family since the 18th century, wanted to stay on, but their business was struggling to stay viable. Ellen McAdam, a McDougal who with her husband, Jack, now owns the farm, says, "There were opportunities to sell before and we'd always managed to avoid them," but the turn-of-the-century housing boom was driving land values up sharply.

In 2005, the trust negotiated a plan that provided $279,000 from LMF, and an equal amount of federal funding to provide permanent easements on the farm, which has 30 acres in crops and another 270 acres in woodland. In addition to the traditional apples, peaches, nectarines and plums, it also markets winter squash and pumpkins to a largely local customer base.

Asked what the trust required of the family, McAdam says, with emphasis, "They made us write a business plan."

The business plan led to the formation of a family holding company, Hanson Farm Inc., that has changed several aspects of the operation, McAdam says. Rather than borrow from commercial institutions to finance projects, such as a recent store expansion, "We borrow the money from ourselves, and pay it back, with interest," she says. Without a lien on the property, a farmer can feel more secure about the inevitable ups and downs of the business, she adds.

News of the trust agreement also had the unanticipated effect of increasing sales. "People now know that it's protected forever as farmland, and it makes them want to support it, and local agriculture," she says. "They see this as an environmentally and socially responsible business."

Changing landscape

The emphasis on farm preservation at the state level continues, even though LMF has had only occasional bond issues go to the voters. The most recent $9 million bond in 2010, like its predecessors, was overwhelmingly backed by voters and has been parceled out by the Land for Maine's Future board. Of 22 projects chosen for funding, six are farms, scattered from Freeport to Dover-Foxcroft. If the deals are all completed, 1,539 farmland acres will be permanently protected.

Despite all the trust's projects — 122 easements throughout Maine, plus another 19 contracted under the trust's "Buy/Protect/Sell" program that works directly with buyers and sellers — Piotti says the trust is just scratching the surface.

"Maine has more than 400,000 acres of prime farmland that will likely be changing hands over the next 10 years," he says. "If you look at it that way, 100,000 acres is just a start."

About 80% of Maine's agricultural value is still in traditional commodity crops, such as milk, blueberries and potatoes that are sold to processors. But the direct-to-consumer portion — "or nearly direct, as in the case of local stores and restaurants," Piotti notes — represents all the recent growth in value. This does not mean, he hastens to add, that traditional agriculture is going away. "If you're planting 1,000 acres of potatoes in Fort Fairfield, there's no way you're going to sell them all locally," he says. "Most of them are destined for the McCain french fry plant."

But even up north, farmers can diversify. He describes one Aroostook County farm that, along with its commodity potatoes, has begun growing heirloom varieties to sell in farmers' markets in Boston and New York, with the farm name prominently displayed. "It's not so much the crop itself, as the way it's marketed, with a personal connection between the farmer and the person who ultimately consumes the food," he says.

When asked if the trust's 100,000-acre goal is realistic, MOFGA's Libby pauses a moment, and says, "When we look back a few years from now, we'll see it as extremely modest. Every study I've seen — and there are six of them now — shows that New England is going to become a more important food-growing region. It's about markets, about people's shifting buying habits and about the changing climate."

The trust will have a key role, Libby says. "As long as we protect the land, the demand and the buyers will be there."

Maine Farmland Trust
97 Main St., Belfast
Founded: 1999
Executive director: John Piotti
Annual budget: $1 million
Members: 3,202
Farm acreage protected: 20,355
Agricultural easements: 122
Fundraising goal: $10 million
Raised through mid-October: $6.2 million
Contact: 338-6575
www.mainefarmlandtrust.org

Douglas Rooks, a writer based in West Gardiner, can be reached at editorial@mainebiz.biz.

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