November 6, 2010

Farms key to Maine's economy, say experts

MADISON — Bolstering Maine farms will help create jobs and stimulate the local economy, a group of agricultural specialists said Friday.

Seven panelists at the annual economic development forum told about 45 people in Maine business and government that agricultural development is key to a bright economic future.

Sitting in a row at the front of the American Legion Hall, at the forum organized by the Somerset Economic Development Corporation, they also emphasized that more people are starting farms in Maine.

Between 2002 and 2007, the number of farms jumped by nearly 1,000 — to 8,136 — according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“All you have to do is manage it right, and what you have sitting on the ground is a source of income,” said panelist Gabe Clark, owner of Cold Spring Ranch in North New Portland.

Clark said his farm, which raises grass-fed beef cattle, relies on Maine businesses for nearly all components of its operations, including its beef suppliers, meat processing facility and equipment.

“Ninety percent of the money I spend goes to businesses in Maine. I want to directly support jobs with my business,” he said.

The state, however, needs more technical support providers for livestock operations, he said; and health care needs to be affordable for farmers, often a dangerous profession.

“It’s still too scary to get out there and risk everything I’ve worked hard for, over getting sick,” he said.

Panelist Russ Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said it’s important to build a culture where Mainers buy local foods, even if they spend just $10 per week. “Anything we can do to capture money ... has a major economic impact,” he said.

Maine could be the next major food source for New England, he said, considering other states have maximized their land development.

“How is New England going to feed itself in the future?” he said. “Every one of six studies looks at Maine as the major supply point for New England.”

Ann Mefferd, who owns One Drop Farm in Cornville with her husband, Andrew, said the biggest obstacle for young farmers is obtaining farmland.

“We’re here; we exist. Young farmers are on the rise. Hook us up with land, and we can feed New England,” she said.

Amber Lambke, who co-owns the Somerset Grist Mill in Skowhegan with Michael Scholz, said innovation in new markets is essential for economic growth. Through the grist mill, “I am not a farmer. I am someone trying to drive new markets,” she said.

Her husband, Dr. Michael Lambke, is participating in a Wholesome Wave Foundation “veggie prescription program,” she said, where he writes people prescriptions for vegetables at the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market.

“We need to partner creatively, think outside the box,” she said.

Tanya Swain, executive director of the Western Mountains Alliance in Farmington, said multiple levels of change are needed to improve the agricultural industry. The state doesn’t just need more farms and local foods consumers, it needs supportive policies, she said.

Don Todd, state executive director of the United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, and Ray Roberts, director of the Bangor USDA Rural Development office, outlined the loans and programs available to assist Maine farmers.

The Farm Service Agency provided 138 farm loans last year in Maine, Todd said, totaling about $28 million.

“If you’re not born into it or married into it, it’s very hard to get into farming. That’s where my agency comes in,” he said.

In the audience, Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, asked whether the potential growth in Maine would come from small farmer initiatives, larger industrial farms or both.

All who responded agreed it would be a mix of both. “We need the large scale and the small scale to proceed, to develop sustainably,” Clark said.

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