New developments in agriculture: the challenges, issues facing Mainers
Mar. 16—LEWISTON — The changing landscape of farming and related agriculture industries in Maine is raising questions about the viability of certain practices, even how people think of traditional farms.
These were some of the topics raised Thursday during the Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library.
With more than 7,600 farms in Maine, mostly small farms, issues such as PFAS contamination, labor shortages, housing, health care, food security and farmland conservation all play a role in the future of Maine farms.
Nancy McBrady, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and moderator of the discussion, said Maine's farmers are increasingly younger, female and new to farming. While that may sound encouraging, the costs associated with farming are rising beyond what some aspiring farmers can afford.
Jill Agnew, one of the panelists and a longtime farmer and owner of Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus, is concerned that many Maine farmers are aging out. When she and her husband bought their farm in the 1980s, she was 29 years old. She said 29-year-olds today can't afford to buy a farm, much less make a profit.
Labor costs for her farm were up 60% in the past two years while other expenses and taxes rose 30 to 60% in the same time, she said. She lamented that the price farmers get for their products hasn't changed.
"How do you keep up with that?" she asked. "Spinach is still $5 a bag and it was $5 a bag 10 years ago ... it's just not sustainable."
Tori Lee Jackson, another panelist and program administrator for agriculture and natural resources at University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said she brings a different perspective to the table. Among the top three emerging trends or issues she sees facing the industry in Maine are farmer wellness — both physical and mental health. Farmers, she said, are under increasing pressure, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jackson said she's spent a lot of her career working with beginning farmers and in the past five to 10 years, there's been a huge uptick in interest in farming among returning military veterans. They come with varied experiences and interests and their biggest obstacle is not financial. Many don't have the exposure to livestock, operating a tractor or even growing crops, requiring a lot more hands-on help.
Lessons learned from the pandemic include more awareness of local farms and their value and more widespread recognition by consumers of the issues facing farmers. Other concerns she sees include PFAS contamination, risks to the food system from viruses like avian influenza and the growth of solar farms supplanting crops on valuable land.
However, solar farms and agroforestry offer new opportunities to farmers and landowners.
Panelists Justin Triquet and Nikki Leroux talked about the potential and benefits of chaga mushroom farming in Maine, pointing to the vast tracts of forest that cover roughly 90% of our state.
Triquet, owner of Forest Fungi Farms in Livermore Falls, pointed out that timber harvesting is becoming less profitable for landowners and that chaga farming offers them a potentially profitable option. "By partnering with landowners and using their forest as a surrogate to grow chaga mushroom, it adds a hassle-free, zero-maintenance option for our landowners and now a new division of farming — agroforestry," he said.
He added that over 100,000 pounds of chaga mushrooms are imported into the U.S. every month, chaga that could be harvested in Maine and exported, rather than the reverse.
Food prices are not likely to go down even when inflation does, Jackson said, so Mainers need to continue to encourage each other and institutions like schools to buy local and fresh and support the state's farmers. Federal and state legislation like the federal farm bill should be directed more at small farmers where possible too.
Solutions to the myriad problems facing Maine's farmers start with discussion.
To watch or listen to the entire forum got to the Lewiston Public Library's YouTube channel: YouTube.com/@lewistonpubliclibrary291.