January 7

Pittsfield, Palermo farmers value land protection program

Among the hundreds who attended the first day of the Maine Agricultural Trades Show were farmers who have benefited from a program that keeps farm land available for family farms.

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Palermo farmer Daniel MacPhee grows fruit trees and organic seeds on the 80-acre farm he runs with his partner, Corinne Wesh, but what the young couple really hope to grow is a future for their kids in Maine.

click image to enlarge

FARMER: Pittsfield Dairy farmer Walter Fletcher is one of the area farmers who have been helped by the Maine Farmland Trust, which raises money to keep farmland in the hands of farmers.

Staff file photo by David Leaming

click image to enlarge

AGRICULTURE: Lilia, left, Cassia and Moriah Higgins inspect yarn Tuesday on display on the first day of the Maine Agricultural Trades Show at the Augusta Civic Center. Several thousand people were expected to attend the annual event for Maine farmers. The Higgins sisters raise sheep and pygmy goats at Fruitful Acres Farm in Newport. Lilia is holding family friend Naphtali Kulp, 1 month old.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

MacPhee, one of about 5,000 farmers and other attendees expected in Augusta over three days for the Maine Agricultural Trades Show, said help from the Maine Farmland Trust was crucial to grow both fruit and a farming future for their kids, Bennett and Annah, at their farm, Blackbird Rise.

MacPhee credited the Maine Farmland Trust, a nonprofit land trust organization that works to protect farmland, support farmers and advance farming, with allowing the couple “to be able to become productive members of the farming community in Maine,” he said. “There are viable markets (for Maine-grown goods). So we’ll have something to pass on to our kids.”

He said Maine Farmland Trust officials helped the couple work out a deal with their neighbors in 2012, when the neighbors wanted to move but also wanted to see their longtime farm go to another farming family. The trust also helped the couple later acquire another 15 acres across the road from their Palermo farm that had historically been part of the same farm. And they’re taking classes to learn about the business aspects of farming to increase their chances for success long term.

“Getting a piece of land is one thing, making it viable is another,” said MacPhee, who is also farm manager for Kennebec Valley Community College’s new sustainable agriculture program. “Maine Farmland Trust has given us the tools to make that work.”

Walter Fletcher, a dairy farmer from Pittsfield, also credited the trust with helping him expand his dairy farm, increasing the odds it will provide both he and his son with a chance to make a living on the farm.

John Piotti, president of the trust, said the trust purchased 200 acres Fletcher was eying for an expansion of his farm from someone who wasn’t selling it cheaply enough for Fletcher to afford. The trust purchased it and resold 100 acres of the parcel to Fletcher, with an easement on it restricting its use to farming and at a reduced price, and sold the other 100 acres to another farm, in a similar arrangement.

To fund such farmer assistance programs, the trust is seeking to raise $32 million, in addition to the $18 million it has already raised, to fund such programs with the ultimate goal of preserving the future of farming in Maine.

Piotti said because of aging farmers, some 400,000 acres of Maine farmland could be in transition in the near future, meaning the farmers may decide to sell their land. He said land often sells for a higher price if it’s sold for development, not to remain as farmland. He said protecting that land from development benefits everyone.

Gov. Paul LePage told attendees of the 73rd annual Maine Agricultural Trades Show 12-year-olds should be allowed to work in Maine.

LePage said Maine is not using one of its most valuable resources — its youth.

“We don’t allow children to work until they’re 16 but, two years later, when they’re 18, they can go to war and fight for us,” LePage said. “That’s causing damage to our economy. I started working far earlier than that, and it didn’t hurt me at all. There is nothing wrong with being a paper boy at 12 years old, or at a store sorting bottles at 12 years old.”

LePage has said previously he started working when he was 11. Maine law requires students who want to work before they reach the age of 16 to get a work permit from their school superintendent and meet other requirements.

LePage also told show attendees he believes Maine can strike a better balance between conserving its natural resources and developing its economy and that doing so would bring prosperity.

“You’re the folks we want to bring prosperity to,” he told several hundred people at a luncheon at the show. “If the revenues go up, I can go golfing. If not, I’m going to have to continue working 80 hours a week.”

Students from Mount Merici Academy, a private Catholic school in Waterville, briefly chatted with LePage. Students also took part in a scavenger hunt at the trades show.

State organizations, such as the Maine Milk Commission and Board of Pesticides Control, had meetings and training sessions at the show. In the auditorium of the civic center, many vendors had displays of tractors and other farm equipment, or offered services to farmers.

Janet Spear, a Nobleboro farmer, offered information about agricultural tours, at her booth, which in the past have included trips to Italy, Germany and Switzerland and, closer to home, Maine and Vermont farming-related sites. Stops on agricultural tours have included cheese factories, of course farms, and, in Italy, cooking lessons.

Spear, whose husband, Bob, is a former state agriculture commissioner, said the trips are a good way for farmers and others to see how things are done elsewhere and pick up lessons they might apply at their own farms.

Jim Peterson, of Dresden, a regional representative for Connecticut-based Bio-Safe Systems, hawked disease-and-insect-control products in the lobby of the auditorium. The firm sells both organic and standard sprays to keep pests and disease away from gardens.

“Some people tend to think if it’s organic, it’s going to cost too much and not work,” Peterson said. “We work to develop products that do what we say they’re going to do. And leave a light footprint.”

He said he’s seen increasing interest in sustainable, organic products from farmers.

The agricultural show continues at the Augusta Civic Center Wednesday and Thursday, starting at 9 a.m. each day. Wednesday will feature a new youth day designed to promote youth involvement in agriculture with special drawings, activities, and live animals.

Keith Edwards - 621-5647kedwards@centralmaine.com
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