Focus is increasing on access to farmland and its potential as a renewed economic driver for Maine as potential new farmers look for land and established ones get ready to retire.
A New England-wide program recently got a boost with a $600,000 share of a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, and, locally, the Lewiston-Auburn region is tackling the issue, beginning with a sold-out conference next week.
The three-year USDA award to Land for Good is funding a program that addresses land access and transfer of land for farmers, and includes a New England-wide online link that helps potential farmers find farmland.
“Accessing land — and passing farms on to a new generation of farmers — are top challenges for Maine farmers of all types,” New Hampshire-based Land for Good said in a news release.
The organization is one of many taking part in next week’s LA Region Farmland Access & Food Economy Conference, being held in Auburn, which reached its 100-attendee capacity earlier this week and has a wait list.
Organizers said momentum is building across the state as entrepreneurs, farmers, manufacturers, culinary professionals and the tourism industry focus on the food economy.
The effort is also boosted by the desire of younger people and new Americans to try farming.
“We have the potential in our region to attract and retain people to ‘Grow it Here,’” the Good Food Council of Lewiston-Auburn said in a a news release.
“The future of farming in Maine — and what it looks like — depends in no small part on whether exiting farmers can transfer farms to the next generation of farmers and who gets access to land,” Jim Hafner, Land For Good executive director said in the Land for Good release.
“The land access challenge is particularly acute in New England, which has some of the highest prices for prime farmland in the country,” he said.
The $600,000 Beginning Farmer and Development Program grant that Land for Good was awarded in October was part of $18 million recently awarded by the USDA.
Land for Good’s share will fund Phase 3 of the New England-wide Land Access Project, which provides access and land transfer education, training and technical assistance to beginning and established farmers.
Maine partners in the program are Maine Farmland Trust, the Beginning Farmer Resource Network of Maine and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which also received a separate grant as part of the $18 million USDA package.
Some 36 organizations nationwide were awarded grants through the USDA to help increase access in a program run by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Also getting a share in Maine was the Lewiston-based Somali Bantu Community Association, some of whose farmers also take part in Land for Good programs.
The Land for Good grant will also help fund the efforts of the New England Farm Link Collaborative, which coordinates online posting of New England farm property opportunities through NewEnglandFarmlandFinder.org.
Land for Good is sponsoring a national Farm Link Clinic in St. Louis in April that will look at farm links across the country, some of which have been around for decades, and find ways to improve performance and effectiveness.
In Maine, 29% of farmland is owned by farmers age 65 or older, and their farms will change hands in the next 10-plus years, the Land for Good release said.
“Most of these senior farmers do not have successors identified to take over, even though they overwhelmingly express a strong desire to see their farms remain in farming,” according to Land for Good. “Yet a top challenge for new farmers is gaining secure and affordable access to the land they need to launch and maintain viable farms.”
The organization said that barriers to accessing farmland are a key source of increasing inequality in agriculture — most new and beginning farmers come from non-farm backgrounds and are more diverse than previous generations of farmers.
The organization has “hit on a crucial need and exciting opportunity,” U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine 1st District, said in the release. “We have an older generation of farmers looking to retire and a younger generation who are excited to start their own farms. Both want the land to stay in farming, but bridging the gap between them isn’t always easy.”
Pingree, who serves on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, said, “This kind of program has great potential in not only bringing parties together, but paving the way for successful transitions.”
Phases 1 and 2 of the program, which strengthened land access and transfer programs, were also funded by three-year USDA grant awards.
Haftner said the third phase has the same long-term goal of the first two phases — more New England beginning farmers accessing land to start or expand farm businesses.
“Most importantly, it supports and links to many other initiatives in the region that recognize that to keep land in farming and grow viable farm businesses,” he said. “We must improve farmers’ secure access to land and their ability to transfer farms to other farmers .”
Plans are to educate, train and advise more than 2,500 farmers in New England, as well as provide individualized technical assistance to 150 beginning farmers, help 200 farmers identify farm properties and connect with landowners and guide transitioning farmers through transfer planning.
In the past months, the phase has funded the New England Farm Succession School, which offers structured and sustained support to make decisions, engage families and organize the legal and financial mechanics involved in a farm transfer plan.
The school has helped five New England farmers and farming couples who want to plan for their farm’s transition, and 40 over the past three years, including some in Maine.
In Auburn next week, the farmland access conference will focus on the Lewiston-Auburn region’s chance to leverage its natural resources and “springboard economic development in the Food and Farm business sector,” said a news release from the Good Food Council of Lewiston-Auburn.
The region has a deep farming heritage and “vast farmland with prime agricultural soils,” the release said.
The council also stressed that many farm owners will retire in the next decade.
“At the same time, the LA Region is home to many who are searching for land to farm,” it said.
A week and half before the conference, registration reached the 100-person capacity of the Auburn Senior Center, where it’s being held.
The conference is an opportunity for relationship-building and education “around this historic opportunity and the abundance of options,” the release said.
Those attending include farm owners, farm seekers, agricultural service providers and community and economic development officials and organizations.
Organizers said they seek to “build a supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem for the growth of the farm and food economy in the LA region.”
The idea for the conference was spurred by listening to the community, said council Coordinator Julia Harper.
“This is an economic sector that the community clearly wants and has the capacity to grow, but there are challenges here both similar and unique to those faced all over the country,” Harper said. “With a diverse group of planning partners, we imagined this conference to be an opportunity to gather a unique mix of stakeholders who each hold a piece of the puzzle to focus on these issues, discuss challenges and work collaboratively toward solutions.”
Region is well-positioned for farming surge
The Good Food Council said a confluence of factors in the Lewiston-Auburn region makes the conference timely:
The decreasing availability of land is also a factor, the council said. According to Maine Farmland Trust, less than 4% of Maine is prime agricultural soil. Of that, 1% is already developed or in the process of being developed, and 1% is conserved.
“Those who believe growing the potential of local food in Maine, therefore, are working to keep the last 2% in working farmland production,” it said.
Besides the Good Food Council and Land for Good, hosts include Cultivating Community, Cooperative Development Institute, Somali Bantu Community Association, Land in Common Community Land Trust, St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, Maine Farmland Trust, and Androscoggin Land Trust.
Sponsors of the conference are Farm Credit East, the cities of f Auburn and Lewiston, Good Shepherd Food Bank and Agrarian Trust.