Keeping Maine Edible

words Rosie DeQuattro
portrait photography Benjamin Clay
farm photography Jenny Rebecca Nelson

The Milkhouse dairy farm and creamery in Monmouth.

Maine Farmland Trust President and CEO Amanda Beal.

What’s a nice land-based enterprise like Maine Farmland Trust doing in a place like Union Wharf in Portland? Ask Amanda Beal, MFT’s new president and CEO, whose southern Maine office resides inconspicuously between CBS Lobster and Bait Co. and Maine Lobster Direct on one of Portland’s most iconic commercial fishing wharfs, and she’ll tell you the location makes perfect sense.

MFT is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting land-based systems that produce food in Maine. It works to ensure there will be enough land to grow food in the future and to create greater food security in Maine. Fifteen percent of Mainers are categorized as food insecure—they don’t have enough to eat.

With its new location on Portland’s working waterfront, the organization has a front-row seat to ocean food systems as well. As Beal sees it, “There is as much pressure on the water side of the food supply chain as on the land-based side. And a lot of unseen hard work along the way.” It’s a kind of visual reminder to her “of the great number of components there are to moving food from producers to consumers.”

Beal’s lifelong interest in how we produce food began as a child growing up on her family’s Maine dairy farm and on Casco Bay. This turf-and-surf childhood gave her an abiding respect for the farming and the fishing communities of Maine.

Up to 400,000 acres of Maine farmland will change hands this decade because of aging farmland owners. As you might imagine, development pressure on this land is intense. The farmland protection tools and programs MFT uses not only prepare farms to permanently remain as farms and even expand, but also help beginning farmers purchase their first farm.

A keystone strategy is the use of an agricultural easement, which is, very simply put, a legal document attached to a property’s deed that does prevent it from being developed, but doesn’t necessarily limit its use to farming and agriculture. By distinguishing the development rights, it helps keep the potential cost of buying the land lower, in most cases.

MFT has the expertise and resources to bridge the gap between the two values so farmers who are selling their land don’t lose money and future farmers can afford the land and aren’t competing against developers. Since 1999, MFT has protected 55,000 acres of farmland in Maine.

It’s not an easy road to farm ownership the MFT way, but farmers with a lot of energy and tons of motivation can navigate their way to a whole new life, like Meaghan and Ross Nichols of High Hopes Farm.

When the Nicholses started to outgrow their small, diversified farm in Bristol, where they raise lambs, goats, ducks, turkeys, pigs and vegetables for themselves and for sale at their farm stand, they heard that a much larger farm nearby was for sale, one where they could expand their food production and steward the land.

It had been in operation for almost 50 years. The owner of the farm had passed away and most of the land now lay fallow. Developers were circling. The Nicholses had little savings; there was no way for them to buy the farm. Meaghan called MFT.

Under the organization’s guidance, the Nicholses managed the confluence of institutions needed to sign off on the final purchase—banks and lawyers, Realtors and many others. “It felt like trying to align the stars,” says Meaghan. But in the end the fate of the farm was sealed: The easement was in place and they were thrilled. “It is awesome because now the land is protected and it is to be used as a farm forever,” says Meaghan.

In Albion, the Holmes family—Katia, Brendan and their three young sons—joined every farm-link program in the Northeast. They looked in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York in search of their own land and found success in Maine. Thanks to an agricultural easement set in place by MFT that lowered the purchase price by a third, the Holmes family could afford to buy a 400-acre farm. Recently they added 200 more acres to their Misty Brook Organic Farm. “MFT was wonderful to work with,” says Katia. “They really get farmers on the land.”

In addition to leading MFT, Beal has been one of the brains behind the 50 x 60 Movement. The name stands for an extensive and collaborative effort by food systems experts, scholars, business people and government agencies to realize a time, projected to be by 2060, when New England could possibly produce at least 50% of its own food—thus, 50 x 60.

The challenge is laid out in a 45-page document, “A New England Food Vision: Healthy food for all, sustainable farming and fishing, thriving communities,” referred to simply as “the Vision.” Published in 2014 and three years in the making, the report is grounded in extensive research and feedback from stakeholders all over New England. But the seed of the idea came from a merry band of food and sustainability minded folks, some who were Mainers, who traveled to Italy in 2009 to the Spannocchia Foundation’s 1,100-acre organic farm and educational center near Siena, in Tuscany.

There they learned about the foundation’s mission to promote sustainable agricultural practices and how to preserve rural landscapes and traditions for future generations. The lessons they took back with them spawned multiple, cross-discipline discussions about sustaining and expanding food production in New England and resulted in the report.

Currently, New England provides about 10% of what it eats. But the region has the capacity—especially in Maine, which has the most land, adequate water and access to markets—to grow more.

With the right land-use conversions (analyzed and calculated in the report), New England could provide at least 50% of its food requirements. This would depend on a significant amount of Maine land, mostly forested, to convert back into agricultural production. However, there’s a balance to maintain—nothing equals forest for protecting water.

Worldwide, agriculture is the single largest consumer of water. The really big question then is how to go about this conversion without sacrificing water quality, which could have a negative impact on fisheries—another really important part of the food system and economy. Beal has it covered—she is currently working on a PhD focused on just this question.

The Vision is now read and used widely. It is used in keynote speeches at agricultural fairs, by sustainability minded “green” businesses and by agriculture students. At the University of Southern Maine, Michael Hillard, professor of economics and executive director of the new Food Studies program, says the college is building undergraduate and graduate curricula that examine the report—courses on food, power and social justice.

And in spring 2018, the college will roll out graduate-level policy courses further analyzing the goals of the Vision. The department is also beginning to hold discussions with local stakeholders about food system policy that examine what it means to build the kind of healthy, sustainable and just food systems described in the report.

Discovering under-the-radar efforts like these—like what MFT is doing, quietly improving the odds for farmers and farmland; and what students earnestly working toward food justice and equality are doing; and what those who are spreading the Vision’s word of healthy, adequate food for all are passionately pursuing—is like discovering that someone out there has got your back. And that is so Maine.

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