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April 30, 2019

Report: Maine's organic farms encompass less acreage, but yield higher sales

Photo / Tim Greenway Ben Whalen, co-owner of Bumbleroot Organic Farm, in Windham, picks spinach last year. The number of organic farms in Maine, as well as in the U.S., is growing, according to the the U.S. Department of Agriculture census.

Maine is in line with a national trend that shows growth in organic farming, but there are also "concerning" trends in the industry, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association said.

Nationally the number of organic farms counted in 2017 jumped to 18,166, up from 14,326 in 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2017 census found. The census, which is conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service every five years and was released this month, shows continued and significant growth in the organic sector.  

The total value of sales of organic products nationally more than doubled during the five-year period, from $3.12 billion to $7.2 billion. In Maine the number of organic farms held relatively steady, although the number of certified organic farms increased from 457 to 535, MOFGA said in a Monday news release. Farms that follow organic practices but gross less than $5,000 annually are exempt from organic certification but may be counted as organic in the census. The number of organic farms that are exempt from certification decreased during the time frame.

In line with the national trend, the value of organic products in Maine shows significant growth, MOFGA said. The total organic product sales for the state grew to $60 million from $37 million in 2012. Per farm organic sales in the state show a similar upward trajectory, with the average per farm total organic product sales calculated at $108,744 as compared to the average per farm market value of products for all other farms in the state, which dropped 6% since 2012 to $87,758.

'Concerning trends'

"The numbers for organic production shine a bright spot on a report that ultimately shows some concerning trends in Maine and nationally," the report said.

Those trends include:

  • The average age of farmers continues to rise. Nationally the average age of farmers is 57.5, which is up from 56.3 in 2012. In Maine the average age rose to 57.4 from 55.1.  
  • Maine had significant declines in acreage farmed from 2012 to 2017, with 1,307,613 acres in farmland, which is down from 1,454,104 in 2012.
  • The total number of farms in Maine declined from 8,173 to 7,600. 
  • Farms in the middle of the spectrum are being lost. There are more of the smallest and largest-sized operations.

"These trends are obstacles that require policies and resources that support organic producers as well as those transitioning to organic production as a clear path toward revitalizing agriculture," the MOFGA release said.

It added, however, that the 2017 census also ranked the Maine third in the nation for the number of beginning farmers, "which offers proof that support programs like MOFGA's beginning farmer programs can work to reverse these trends."

A recent survey of graduates of MOFGA's Journeyperson Program, which assists farms that have been operating for fewer than 10 years, found that 92% of respondents are still farming and 87% are doing so in Maine. Graduates of the program a total of about 10,000 acres in all 16 of the state's counties, representing nearly 800 paid jobs and $10 million in annual sales, according to the farming association.

The association said that policies and resources to support farms are one part of the work that needs to be done to support farmers, but individual food choices also make a difference. The number of consumers who buy local food directly from a farmer grew by 114% nationally, and sales to local and direct markets are growing, although they still represent a small fraction of total sales, MOFGA said.

"All of us play a significant role in creating positive change with our daily food choices," the release said. "Ensuring continued growth of the agricultural community in Maine starts with purchasing foods and other agricultural products that are certified organic by MOFGA, thus supporting local organic growers."

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