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Sustainable Agriculture

Maine Farmers Design Systems, Involve Community

To better understand what farming really looks like in Maine, and what works for many of the producers who contribute to a $1.4 billion industry, University of Maine researchers received a SARE grant to survey farmers and conduct in-depth interviews. They contacted hundreds of Maine farmers and prompted them to define themselves along a range of production styles. The researchers then packaged those responses into a book and two videos intended to better inform other growers and the public about profitable, environmentally sound farms with strong ties to their communities.

Close to half of Maine farmers were either “designers” who combined a complex series of enterprises into an integrated biological system, or “evolvers” who started with conventional farms but were in transition to a farm producing several products in a more holistic fashion. Together, those farmers have gained a presence statewide, becoming the subject of a task force co-chaired by Maine's first lady that seeks to strengthen local agriculture.

“It's changed the language and discussion in Maine,” said project leader Stewart Smith, adding that their work demonstrates that smaller volume, local farmers cannot be overlooked. “State policy is clearly swinging toward recognizing two different agricultures that need different types of support.”

The profilees, 30 of them interviewed and 19 featured on a video that aired on Maine public television, share common traits, such being more connected with their communities, operating smaller but more complex systems, selling higher-value products to direct markets, and deciding to keep off-farm jobs.

“What drove me in this direction was to figure out how a biological system fit into the environment,” said Dave Colson, a vegetable farmer featured on the video. “My values called for a family-sized farm that was manageable by a family.” While profit margins were tight initially, “we did make it, and the farm has generated a positive income ever since.”

The project also strengthened the fledgling Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society by helping publish a quarterly newsletter and establishing its Farm Fresh Connection, which links Maine growers with a network of institutional and retail outlets.

In a related SARE grant, the project team collected footage for a 2-hour professional development video to inform agricultural educators about managing risk, sustainable practices for large farms, and marketing, from the farmers' point of view. The video was the centerpiece of half-day workshops for Extension, Farm Service Agency, and Natural Resources Conservation Service staff and was also shown to University of Maine students.

 

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