|Toki Oshima drawing.
Where We Are, What’s Ahead of Us, What We Can Do To Make a Difference
In his keynote speech at MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference in November 2012, just a month before his death, Russell Libby summarized MOFGA’s accomplishments, the state of organic agriculture, and what we need to do to feed Maine and New England with healthful crops. Here is his speech, edited; the complete talk appears at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESWM5oq57a8. After the keynote, a workshop covered the topic of Feeding New England; that workshop is covered below, as well.
The food system we’ve been running under for the last 40-plus years is anything, from anywhere, any time. Go in the supermarket – it’s the same food, the same kind of shelf layout, the same companies that control what’s going on. The only dynamic is who owns the companies at any given moment, and the amazing appearance of Walmart in the food world. I believe that more than one-quarter of U.S. food sales are through Walmart – so when you’re supporting people through SNAP benefits, more than one-quarter of those benefits go through Walmart also. If we really want to make a dent in how people eat, we’re going to have to crack that, to build alternatives.
How do we make organic agriculture grow? Tom Dorr, under secretary for rural development under George W. Bush, believed that the farm of the future, to be viable, was 250,000 acres under one operation. In Maine right now, that would be about five farms – one potato farm, one dairy farm, and blueberries and other crops off to the side. I don’t think that’s the vision we’ve been working toward all these years.
If we’re going to do something other than what Tom Dorr and Earl Butz envisioned, we’re going to have to build it, because nobody’s out there saying, “Rah, Rah, let’s go build a network, widely distributed, of tens of thousands of farms across New England.” It’s up to us to do it.
It’s also 50 years since Rachel Carson released Silent Spring. If anything, we’ve regressed in the last 20 years. We have great IPM programs for vegetables, for small fruit, but we’ve intensified agriculture for grain crops, which for years were not heavily sprayed. Now, between GMOs and their ramifications, including resistant weeds, we’re using more pesticides than we did 20 years ago on acres that wouldn’t have been sprayed traditionally. We have to find a way to break that cycle – by farmers saying, “We don’t want to buy that stuff,” and consumers saying, “We don’t want to eat that.”
What Does Something Different Look Like?
About three years ago I was on a plane to Italy for a meeting of researchers and farmers from New England with researchers and farmers from Italy. On the way I was having a conversation with Brian Donahue of Brandeis University, who said, “We really can’t imagine New England feeding itself.” I said, “I don’t know about New England, but I’m not so worried about Maine, because already we produce more calories than we consume here.”
For the last two years, a working group of about six of us have been trying to figure out what it would look like if we produced 80 percent of our food in New England 50 years out. It’s a long, slow process to change systems.
It’s clear that the only way it happens is if there’s a lot more agriculture. We figure we probably need another 4 million acres back in production in the region. Two million of those acres are spread across Maine – land that’s grown back into trees because we really haven’t had anybody to farm it; to care for it; markets for it. Those are all the things that we’re going to have to figure out and do, and that ends up being all about relationships.
Right now, the journeyperson program is turning out about 25 new farmers each year. The apprenticeship program has about 150 to 200 participants. Many others don’t go through our programs but are jumping in, saying, “We want to farm.” Over the last decade we’ve added over 100 new farms primarily just through the journeyperson program. That’s what’s going to make a difference – all these connections that you’re all building in these conversations and these sessions as we work our way forward and try to find who’s the next farmer and what are they going to do?
Journeyperson applicants at first said, “I’m going to grow vegetables and sell them in Portland. I’m going to grow vegetables and sell them in Brunswick.” The last few years we’re seeing diversity. “I’m going to grow ducks; I’m going to set up to be a duck processing facility.” Things that they probably wouldn’t have done if we didn’t have a lot of people doing the first parts of them.
Somebody is taking his animals to other farms and custom grazing so that he can have a bigger production base for his livestock without taking on all the capital costs of buying more land.
I think that you collectively, all who are here in this room, are the people who are going to make this happen.
We have people who are going to do farmers’ markets and CSAs. In MOFGA’s first year of 1971, we had one farmers’ market in Maine. The Portland farmers’ market started around 1780 and has run pretty much continuously since – one of the oldest markets in the country – made it through World War II. I talked to a farmer who sold there. He and his siblings would load up their sedan and use all their gas coupons to come to Portland in the very shady Old Port, pop open the trunk, and they had whole chickens from the farm. “Protein!” he said. “We did very well during World War II.”
Now we have Wednesday markets jamming, the Saturday market, the winter market, another winter market. These markets are full; we’re going to spill over and go to the next town, so all of a sudden South Portland has a market. People are looking more broadly at how they’re going to get there. I think we had about 120 summer markets this year, and about 30 winter markets.
Some of you say, “I don’t really want to go to market once, twice, three times a week. I’d like the people to come to me.” So farm stands, and stores – the things that start to take us out of this Walmart world, start to take us to a place where all of us have our special thing that we do – that provides us kind of a core of our income. Then we build from there outward.
We need that badly, because the economic system that involves money flowing all around the world is so tenuous. We could call it make-believe. We believe in it so it is. But when the people stop believing in it – and here’s where there’s a tremendous cross-politics, shared experience: There are a lot of Tea Party people out there whom we don’t agree with on a lot of issues, but on the local economy, they are not all that far from where a lot of us are. We need to find ways to have those conversations, to share knowledge, to build relationships that take us out of the high level politics of Washington.
A Call to Farms
This spring Brian Snyder (executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture) and I organized a meeting in Baltimore of groups around the country to talk about what is possible. What would it look like if we didn’t have a Farm Bill? We just said, these are our core principles. Build from our core principles, and worry about the Farm Bill and the dollars second.
We called it A Call to Farms. We started trying to figure out how to change the tone of the conversation, because of $100 billion a year that goes through the Farm Bill now, $60 billion goes for income support (SNAP and related programs); $10 billion for commodity support programs; $10 billion more for crop insurance and programs to prop up the status quo commodity agriculture. The rest goes for all the other things, including a lot of good money for conservation programs and organics.
But in a world where all of us are cautious and maybe even skeptical of the long-term viability of that whole system, what do we think is important? I’m going to throw out a couple of pieces we’re talking about, because I think they’re fundamentally what MOFGA and other organic groups are all about.
What would it look like if we said our core value is that we wanted the water leaving our farm to be as clean as the water landing on our farm? Or cleaner? We want farms to serve as filters, as water purifying systems, at the same time that we’re producing. We know that’s possible because we know the best farms (and well managed woodlots) do that.
High quality food for everybody: What if we actually had this goal? Nate Drummond this year grew a big bed of carrots for the local food bank, and volunteers from the food bank harvested, washed and stored them. Maybe we’re not in a position where we can write a check for a lot of money, but we’re in a position where we can help a lot of people by being very thoughtful and careful about what we’re doing.
On a personal note, we’ve been big organic supporters for decades, and I’m still critically ill, so what we eat isn’t sufficient in a world that’s polluted. So farmers also have to be vocal about the need for clean air, for clean water, for getting toxics out of our food system in every way possible. We can’t say that’s somebody else’s job.
There’s this perception that farmers are not environmentalists, yet I know so many of you and how you live your lives, and I know that’s absolutely untrue. But there’s a lot of hiding behind the farmer flag. So while we were having this small Call to Farms gathering, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance was using check-off money to build a popular PR image of agriculture to say whatever farmers do is good, and don’t talk to farmers about changing practices unless you’re a farmer. Who’s funding that? Monsanto, check-off dollars, Farm Bureau, all the big national commodity groups. In many ways that’s the conversation ahead of us: Can we build a base of support for each other and broad public support for this idea that we can do better? We’re doing the best we can with what we know, but right now most of the money that’s coming from the federal government is working against us, so we can’t just say, “More for us.” We have to say, “This is what’s important, and the money part is not the solution.” The money part is just part of it. The solution is really for us to be articulating very clearly what we want to be doing on our farms and how we want to make it happen.
I’m going to finish with one last run-through of MOFGA. We have such a strong base right now, and our new farmer training programs are the best in the country. We have a lot that we’ve learned from one another, and we need to do more of that. We’re not going to get by with 25 new journeypersons each year. Eventually we need to bring in and train a lot of people, and they’re not going to all be people from college. They’re going to be high school kids who just don’t fit in the high school world but are really good with their hands, know they want to do something physical, to be in the dirt, and we need to help them find a way to do that.
The financing system for agriculture and all the infrastructure is teetering, partly because the Farm Bill is failing and even more because nobody out there wants to fund the kind of agriculture we’re doing. Slow Money Maine has been a real powerhouse in moving ideas forward, making things happen on the ground, but the scale is not sufficient.
I did a little scribble sheet a few years ago: What do we need just to build the organic infrastructure in Maine over the next few years? It was $20 million four years ago, I think. A few of those investments have happened, but a lot more need to happen if we’re going to be successful long-term.
I think we do an extraordinary job of peer-to-peer learning, teaching one another. We need to build on that. The door is open. It’s as big as all of your dreams. If I’ve been reasonably successful at helping MOFGA grow, it’s mostly because I’ve been able to talk and listen to a whole lot of you and see what you’re doing and share with the next person and point you to you, and you make the connections. It’s one-to-one, it’s many-to-many, it’s how we’re going to change Maine agriculture in the future. So thank you all.
Questions and Comments
John Belding: Russell, don’t you think that Maine should be the first state to label GMOs?
Russell: I’ve thought that for 20 years. So far it’s been hard to get the Legislature to move in that direction. What’s interesting is that some of the Tea Party Republicans are inclined in the same direction, so we may be able to build some nontraditional coalitions around that issue. One of the things I didn’t talk about is biodiversity. Spencer Aitel at Two Loons Farm this year grew some gorgeous open-pollinated corn for his cows. He didn’t get it in the ground until late June, yet that corn looked better than most of the traditional corn being grown out there, GMO or not. There’s a lot to be said for living soil and good genetics, and one of the things we can do a better job of is telling that story.
Ellis Percy noted that his representative, Deb Sanderson of Chelsea, a Tea Party representative, wants that conversation about industrial hemp.
Russell, regarding a comment about MOFGA’s support from Land Grant and other institutions: One thing that gave MOFGA its early credibility was Frank Eggert, dean of the college of agriculture at UMaine, who was skeptical about organic. He did some trials, wasn’t skeptical any more, and that changed a lot of the conversation in Maine 30 years ago.
We need to be articulating our values, but we also need to support people in existing institutions who are inclined our way. We’re lucky in that right now in Washington, deputy secretary Merrigan and others are strong supporters of a lot of our work, yet I don’t have a lot of confidence that we’re going to win in the political battles in Washington over funding from USDA. Organic will always get some – we’re politically that strong now. But if we want more, we’re going to have to be much more vocal and organized than we’ve been before, because the forces that think biotechnology is the answer are very strong in those circles these days.
Regarding recycling humanure: We [MOFGA] have been more inclined to think that recycling human waste makes sense than most organic groups in the country, but it’s really hard when you contaminate the entire waste stream with industrial waste, with materials that are in wide household use. We have to tackle the toxics problem in our daily lives if we’re going to be able to think about responsibly using humanure on our farms. It’s one thing to talk about using the stuff from your own household; it’s another to talk about a waste stream that’s clean enough that we all have confidence in it on a continuing basis.
The place where I think it probably has the most relevance is in bringing a farm back. So if we’re talking about 2 million acres of land coming back, you need fertility to jumpstart that cycle again. That might be the fair place to start the conversation: the idea that you have a year with humanure or biosolids applied, and then you go through a three-year waiting period. I think that would be a healthy conversation for all of us to have.
Regarding what infrastructure is missing: Obviously missing are poultry slaughtering facilities, well-distributed livestock slaughtering facilities, scaled-up vegetable processing, distribution networks. If we’re talking about food moving from Maine to the rest of New England, we can’t all get in a van and drive to Boston. We’re going to have to think about trucking and learn from efficiencies that the industrial system has created while trying not to repeat the mistakes they’ve made.
About funding for additional infrastructure and farming: The Slow Money Maine group is focused on infrastructure, and two groups are looking at credit unions that would support farming: one for Maine and one regional. My rough number is, if we could get everybody in Maine to invest the equivalent of $10 a year, whether as a gift or deposit, that’s $13 to $15 million each year – enough to do the most critical projects. I think the credit union possibility is really powerful. It’s democratic, it’s cooperative, and it gives us all a way to solve some of these problems.
Feeding New England
During a subsequent Farmer to Farmer session called Feeding New England, Libby said that Maine produces more calories than we eat, as potatoes, milk, eggs and lobster contain a lot of calories, and we have a relatively small population. But in terms of our real food balance, of what we eat day-to-day, we produce about 20 percent of what we eat – which is high by national standards. Few states are producing even a fraction of that, because so much is traded back and forth.
When we talk about possibilities for the future, said Libby, we can’t just assume that Midwestern grain is going to be here to feed our animals. We have to think of what kind of structures, of systems, we can put in place where we’re actually feeding one another with resources that are at hand.
How many acres does it really take to have a grass-fed cow with minimal or nominal grain? Nobody’s thought in those terms for decades, said Libby, but as the price of grain has tripled in the last five years, we need to think in those terms now.
Preliminary Production Estimates
We can grow most of our vegetables, which would require 500,000 acres, said Libby; currently the entire region is producing 80,000 acres. We can produce 300,000 acres of dry beans and maybe another 10,000 of soybeans. If we’re thinking of protein in our diet, said Libby, “dry beans is where it’s at.” But many of Maine’s dry beans growers are in their 80s and 90s, so we need to learn skills from them soon. We produce basically all our dairy in the region now, but by using a lot of imported grain. Libby asked how we can minimize that importation.
We could produce half our fruit (350,000 acres), all our dairy, and most of our beef and lamb on grass (4 million acres, 3 million of that pastured), all our pastured pork, poultry and eggs (pigs in woods, poultry on pasture). About 750,000 acres would be available for some portion of our grain (for people and animals) and for vegetable oil.
Libby had read recently that a chicken in every pot on Sunday was a valuable economic marker around 1930 because that was the equivalent of a week’s wages – $14 or so for a chicken. That would be about a $100 chicken now, he said – and it’s hard to imagine people spending $100 for a chicken when they’re short of money.
Some of the best, prime land is in Southern New England, especially in the Connecticut River Valley, but much of it is developed, so Maine is where people look, where land is available.
Some preconditions that may require us to feed ourselves 80 percent of what we eat are already emerging, including the price of diesel ($6,000 to truck a load of vegetables from California) and changing weather patterns.
Logistical issues also exist. A few of Libby’s neighbors have been opening up 7- and 10-acre fields that had grown up in trees.
“It’s in those size pieces that it happens,” said Libby. “If we’re talking about another 2 million acres, that’s a lot of 7-acre fields. The skills, the fertility, the jump-starting the fertility cycle – how are we going to do that? We’re going to do it incrementally, not all at once. We’re going to have to find our way through. It involves much better nutrient recycling than we’ve got now, taking waste from seafood, marine enterprises, being creative about the use of the wood as it’s cut, such as ramial chipped wood as a fertility source. We all need to be experimenting and sharing with each other, because it takes a lot of labor, energy, money in capital equipment to open up these fields; and it’s going to take a lot of time. It’s happening.”
At the same time, many farmers are realizing that 3 acres of CSA provides only a marginal income unless they have a very good market, but 10 acres of crops starts to provide a living wage – or farmers find a specialty niche other than just growing vegetables, such as seed crops, and then 3 acres can be profitable.
The Role of Maine Fisheries in Feeding New England
Robin Alden, director of Penobscot East Resource Center, said the mission of the Center is to make sure there are fishing communities, particularly in Eastern Maine.”
When we talk about food, we are often addressing agriculture. How can we include fisheries? Fishermen and the fishing community can learn from the journey you’ve been on for the last 30 or 40 years. The community fisheries lens now is very similar to where the organic community was 30 or 40 years ago.”
Maine has almost 60 percent of New England’s coastline, 38 percent of the value of the landings, and 43 percent of the total landings for New England. Massachusetts, the other big player, has 51 percent. In the last 25 years, fishing rights for a number of species have gone toward Massachusetts.
“We can get more out of the natural system if we use it within its bounds,” said Alden. “It will be more productive and diverse than if we go down the aquaculture route with monoculture fisheries. Production per acre is higher with aquaculture, but whether that’s sustainable or means more value in the long run, I have my doubts.”
In 2010, 15 percent ($76,575,564) of Maine’s total fisheries production came from aquaculture, including these big three:
|Salmon (nine sites)
Alden said a spectrum exists between wild culture and aquaculture. Small-scale shellfish culture has a much lower footprint than finfish aquaculture, because it’s actually using what’s in the water and can be done on a small scale in terms of markets.
Wild culture harvests many species, from marine worms for bait to blue fin tuna that wander all over the globe.
Currently, 77 percent of the value of Maine fisheries is from Maine lobster – “a stunning development,” said Alden; 1 percent is from ground fish (cod, haddock, flounder), which used to be about one-third of the pie. Herring is much smaller than it used to be.
“We have an impoverished ecosystem,” said Alden, “and as a result, a big challenge in the market.”
What does it take to have community-scale fishermen – people who go home every night and are owner-operators? Alden said healthy stocks, access rights to fish, and profitability are needed.
She noted that the ocean bottom is not flat and includes places that are as different as the soil is on a farm. Having abundant resources involves working with a lot of local knowledge about those places and putting that into the management plans. For example, rotational management for scallops came directly from fishermen talking about their own bays.
Land use is connected to river health, which is connected to what’s happening in the ocean, said Alden. “Watersheds inland are so interconnected with, for example, localized cod and haddock spawning areas on the coast. I can’t wait for the next generation of conversation between farmers who are working and caring for the land and us, who are working and caring for the ocean.”
Right now, the whole eastern Gulf of Maine ecosystem, from the Penobscot River, east, is basically producing only lobsters. There are no ground fish in eastern Maine, said Alden. Some small codfish are being found in some lobster traps, but they don’t seem to be growing up because they don’t have the forage – the alewives and herring – that they need. “We hope that when the Penobscot River dams come down, we will see a restoration.”
Access rights to fish have been monetized, sold as federal permits, so they are like farmland now, and most are sold in Massachusetts. “This is a big challenge for us,” Alden continued. “We started the New England Fisheries Access Network (fisheriesaccessneetwork.org) to try to get some people permits and give access to people who have bought permits before they disappear. But this is a vanishing set of rights.” While federal government policy has been to encourage fewer fishermen, believing that we have too many fishermen chasing too many fish, Penobscot East is working in the other direction, encouraging more, smaller-scale fishermen, “but we’re swimming like those alewives up the stream,” said Alden.
Penobscot East is looking at how people can be fishermen rather than lobstermen, clammers or scallopers, “because if you’re stuck in one thing and you’re using a natural system, you’re not going to succeed.”
Access to a working waterfront is another issue. “If you can’t get your gear to your boat, or your product off your boat, you can’t fish. You need a lot of space to stretch your lines out or move your traps. We have lost the infrastructure in Maine for almost everything except lobster.”
And once you have the product, you have to turn it into food, Alden added – which requires shoreside infrastructure that can handle diverse products, “because if you’re fishing on a small scale, the ecosystem is going to give you different things in different years, and you’ve got to be able to be flexible.”
Marketing to the Consumer
Most fishermen think the market is the dealer who buys stuff off the dock, said Alden, rather than the consumer. “That’s a huge process that Maine fishermen are starting to talk about.” Community Supported Fisheries are limited, because Mainers eat about 20 million pounds of lobster each year, “and we’re trying to push 104 million pounds through that market. It can’t be done.”
Also, selling lobster at $2.75 and $3.25 a pound doesn’t work as a business. Alden sees branding and processing as ways to help fishermen succeed.
Distribution is challenging. Most fishing ports are at the end of long peninsulas, and huge land distances separate fishing ports – even those near each other by water.
“We have a lot to learn from you,” Alden concluded. “I think farmers have a lot to say about the shore world that fishermen don’t want to hear. Fishermen would much rather go fishing than think about the shore world. So the farmer-fisherman connection is very important. If we’re going to farm sustainably and have long-term, community-scale fisheries, we’re going to have to solve all these problems. The issue of fishermen’s ability to hear is basically bounded by the fact that the worst day on the water is better than the best day on land.”
Farmers’ Vision of the Future of Maine Ag
John Jemison, water quality and soil specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, related key lessons learned from 15 farmer listening sessions he conducted in 2011 with farmers and crop advisors, asking about their vision of the future of Maine agriculture and related issues.
Every group was enthusiastic about people wanting to know their farmers and to buy locally. “This is going to be increasingly important as we move toward the future,” said Jemison. “As this Maine food plan is being developed through the Muskie Institute and various people associated with that, one goal is to be growing about half of our food within the next 10 years.”
We have the land, water and markets to do this, he said. Farmers who are direct marketing “have an incredible opportunity to let people know why we do this, and to have an effect on people’s diets.”
Jemison’s research highlighted the “incredible degree of cooperation we have in Maine with farmers. When people know how to do something, it’s about 10 minutes before everybody knows how to do it.”
He spends a lot of time telling the public that it needs to be the co-producer growing the food. “By making that connection, we can keep things going.”
Farmers’ key concerns include the increasing price of oil and their dislike of regulations. They did not talk much about soil quality, productivity or unpredictable weather.
They said big farms will get bigger and we are getting a lot more small farms, which are nimble and are going to be increasingly diversified.
Working with these two very different populations will be challenging for Cooperative Extension. “We’ll have to do research on big farms with their equipment, and we have the ability to do research at the university’s Rogers Farm for small farms,” said Jemison.
Obstacles for Maine agriculture include the need for more markets, since many markets are saturated. “We need to get into institutions and other markets.” We also need better infrastructure.
One vegetable grower said that “regulations should make sense for all of us at the scales we’re at.”
We need new farm arrangements and new funding sources to help link people who want to farm with those who have the land.
Jemison asked, how can we save midsized farms? “I’m seeing new arrangements all the time, such as marketing arrangements – a vegetable farmer who wants to market with a pork producer…”
Health insurance, “a real kicker,” said Jemison, was identified as a key need.
One farmer said, “Most of us that farm, we have what I call a ticket, something that helps us so we can farm. My ticket’s a husband who works off the farm completely. Some people’s ticket is an inheritance to buy a farm or parents who help them buy a farm. You don’t need a ticket to become a biologist or office worker, but you need a ticket right now in Maine to farm, and that’s unacceptable if we want agriculture to grow and encourage younger generations.”
About 1 percent of the $31 million in food stamp dollars that come into Maine every month goes into the farmer’s pocket. Increasing that percentage will improve the health of Maine citizens using those benefits and will benefit our farms – just as getting more food into institutions will improve the quality of food served in schools, hospitals and nursing homes.
“We want to look different from every other place that’s grown agriculture,” said Jemison. To do that, we have to improve the energy situation.
“Today we put in about 10 calories of energy to get about 1 calorie of food energy out. That’s not acceptable. We can shorten the food chain, get food directly from the producer to the consumer. Processing, transportation, retail … I think we can easily get this down to 5 calories if we shorten the food chain.”
We also have to address climate and water issues. “If we’re going to grow Maine agriculture, how are we going to do it with this increasingly crazy, weird weather? Out of 199 people we interviewed, only one farmer said he was concerned about the lack of predictable weather. When we asked directly what kind of changes they were making on their farms related to climate, again, farmers tend to be a bit conservative; they say we haven’t been around long enough to know if this is really happening. As we approach farmers to talk about these things, we have to come in understanding that a lot of them have been listening to the wrong information.
“We know we’re seeing late season storms, really wet summers. I know that farmers are concerned about how they’re managing their land. But I think they tend to worry about things they can control.”
As one dairy farmer said, “We’re going to be ready to go in the field, and we’re going to get in there somehow.” Farmers want to control what they can control, said Jemison. “That’s how we should be approaching that industry.” (Some dairy farmers, he noted, are looking at shorter season corn.)
Potatoes face an uncertain future in light of climate change. Potatoes are a C3 crop, said Jemison. (Plants follow one of two photosynthetic pathways, called C3 and C4.) They will benefit initially from increased CO2, until temperatures – particularly night temperatures – increase; then yields will decrease.
“I thought potato growers would be asking, ‘Are we breeding potatoes for a warmer climate? How do we build our soils, increase disease resistance?’ Instead we heard, ‘Yeah, our growing season’s probably going to get a little longer, and it could be a good thing for yield, but it’s something we’ve got to learn to manage.’”
“We need to work with our farmers on what they can manage and try not to talk about climate change, because I don’t think that’s going to register,” Jemison concluded.
In Maine, the number of 1-inch storms in a 48-hour period over the past 50 years has increased by two-thirds. This will likely continue, said Jemison. “If we can do things to reduce tillage, to keep the land covered with good pasture, good forages, we’re going to be in good shape. But if we’re using conventional tillage, there’s about a 20 to 50 percent chance of exceeding the acceptable level of soil loss every year that we have these fields in intensive cultivation. So yes, we want to grow potatoes, but we need to grow them with longer rotations and have more land in production so that we’re not wearing out that resource.
“Anything we can do in a more conservation type of program, we have a 99 percent chance of not exceeding the acceptable level of soil loss. We need to find new crops, new opportunities for growers. We tried spring canola as something they could produce energy on the farm with. They haven’t done very well with that; haven’t gotten the yields that they want. So I’m going to suggest looking at winter canola, because it would provide cover on the land in the winter.”
We need more agricultural integration, more livestock integration, mimicking grass-based systems, “because they’re really good for water quality, and grass-fed beef is good for you.”
We need more diverse rotations, such as a double crop of a small grain and short-season corn. “We can get a whole lot more yield with that than with the full season corn. With an organic system it worked really well.
Jemison noted that a lot of conservation reserve program land is going to be brought back into production in Aroostook County. “How do we develop that so that we leave more buffer, don’t open the whole field up just because we can?”
We need better standards for spreading manure so that nutrients don’t end up in rivers.
“Farmers are optimists,” said Jemison. “If you give them the tools and tell them what they need to do and why they need to do it, I think that’s how we’ll get there.”
During the workshop discussion, Libby noted how little fish exists already – about one 4-oz serving per week per person. To increase that amount, we need to rebuild fish stocks and not let runoff from agricultural lands harm fisheries. So, said Libby, “if we’re going to bring more land into production, we’re going to have to take better care of it – buffer strips, really being cautious about whether it’s appropriate to open this land up.” Buffer strips can be planted with edible and medicinal perennial crops, he said.
A lot of land can be opened, and a lot shouldn’t,” said Libby. On land that shouldn’t be tilled, crops can still be grown. “Lauren Cormier is planting edible and medicinal shrubs in the buffer strip on Adrienne Lee’s land.”
Libby added that Robert Peter Coffin, a Maine poet in the early 1900s, said that we eat from the air, the water, the land. “If any of those parts are out of balance,” said Libby, “we don’t have a functioning long-term system. As we talk about a New England food system, that’s the challenge: Can we be intelligent enough at various scales to grow food and feed people who are hungry and be smart about it in terms of its ecological impact.” Libby reminded participants of one of Barry Commoner’s laws of ecology: There is no away.
When the Census of Agriculture numbers come out in 2012, Libby thinks they’ll show that Maine is producing about 23 to 25 percent of the food being consumed in state. Libby noted Paul Volckhausen’s long-time standard for his Happytown Farm household: 80 percent of the food comes from local sources and 20 percent from other places where he knows people are farming responsibly. Eighty percent “is as high as one can imagine New England doing for itself short-term,” said Libby.
Robin Alden reiterated the need in fisheries for flexible shoreside infrastructure, given climate change. “We had a lot of squid in the Gulf of Maine this year. We haven’t had that for a long time. All the squid permits were given out to New Jersey. We need to change that and be ready to process whatever comes along.”
One participant noted two problems with trying to sell lobster to schools and hospitals – the labor to pick it and allergy issues.
Regarding mercury and other pollutants in fresh water fish, participants were directed to www.maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/environmental-health/eohp/fish/.
Participants noted that other countries are well served when they can produce much of their own food. One said that when he was in Guatemala, all the best land was growing food for U.S. consumers. Another had read that food has been leaving areas of famine in every significant famine in the world since the Great Famine of China (1959-1961).
Regarding selling to food banks, one grower said she got about half the wholesale price and that she may not be able to afford to contract for the food bank this year at the lower prices it is proposing. Supplying a soup kitchen is not very viable financially but builds wonderful relationships, she said.
Another noted that it’s hard to ask farmers, especially new farmers, to feed the world because they’re barely making it themselves. However, on-farm solutions, such as having people work for food or offering plots where they can grow their own food, might work.
Polly Shyka noted the need for enterprise budgets using one template. “As a community, we could start to work with just that simple puzzle piece,” which would help lenders, infrastructure, farmers, and low-income people, because farmers would know what they could afford to donate.
Nicolas Lindholm said that relying on underpaid labor bothers him. “I wanted to create a model that didn’t rely on underpaid or undervalued labor. Only in the past two years have we been able to hire labor. We started them at $8 per hour, some quickly jumped to $10. This culture undervalues food. Gasoline and diesel get subsidies, nutritious food doesn’t.”
Barbara Damrosch said her Four Season Farm also starts people at $8 per hour and goes up from there. “Labor is a big expense for us,” said Damrosch. “We’ve conquered the soil fertility, growing issues. We have to address the labor issue. We need tools that are somewhere between the rake and the hoe and the combine. Nobody at the national level is interested in small farms.” Eliot Coleman, Damrosch’s husband, has been inventing tools such as a small tilther powered by a cordless drill, which saves time in tilling amendments in shallowly.
This year’s project is a small-scale greenhouse tractor with a bed former and other attachments that will probably enable Four Season to let at least one person go off and start his or her own farm.
“Eliot’s been trying to get somebody to invent an efficient greens harvester for mesclun mix, which is a terrible crop to grow because it’s horribly labor-intensive but very profitable if you can produce it.” A visitor to the farm took up the challenge and developed “the car wash,” said Damrosch. “It has a macramé brush that sweeps the greens into the hopper. You’ll see it in Johnny’s one of these days. If we had a policy that would encourage this kind of thing, I think farmers would succeed.”
Flip Wixson of Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen said they’re paying 25 percent of what growers get from farmers’ market, but for produce that’s not number one quality. “And we’re still way out of whack. If we’re paying $1 per pound for tomatoes, New Jersey is paying 7 cents. The only thing we can do is added value.” Because people will pay more for organic and local, they make sure people know their products have Maine-grown, organic ingredients. To prepare for crop failures, they buy from farmers in different parts of the state and they process different products. This was a bad apple year, for example, so they’re processing more blueberries. They’re working with growers to time crops so that ingredients for particular products are available at the same time so that they can be processed together, such as tomatoes, garlic and onions for sauce.
One young vegetable farmer found land by teaming up with an older dairy farming couple and found that many existing farmers are willing to do the same.
Another said that edible forest gardens and permaculture landscapes can redefine what farms can look like. He is also encouraging people in his Limington community to save money by growing some of their own food.
Asked how much home gardens contribute to Maine food economy, Libby said the USDA used to ask that question of farmers but stopped about 10 years ago. At that point, the food farmers raised for themselves was about 2 percent of the value of Maine agriculture – about $10 million worth.
“There’s no regular tracking that I know of,” said Libby. In traveling the state, he had noticed a lot more people growing gardens in the last few years than in previous decades. “We could probably add a point or two to the 20 percent of what people are growing,” he said, but the high value food items in the average American’s diet are dairy, eggs and produce, and most people aren’t going to produce their own dairy and eggs, especially given the price of grain. He suggested that fruit trees, over time, are probably the highest value crop for home gardeners to grow.
John Jemison noted that the hundreds of graduates from Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardening program are helping get food to a lot of places. “There are a lot of opportunities in towns: land that is just being mowed could be converted to food. We grow about 3,000 pounds of food from small plots and get it to low-income seniors in a couple of housing developments. It’s a little thing, but if it gets added to another little thing, and another little thing … it makes a big difference.”
Heather Spalding encouraged growers to make their voices heard. “It makes a big difference when farmers speak at legislative hearings.” She said that proponents of conventional agriculture believe that genetically modified organisms are going to feed Maine, so other practices need to be publicized. “When you have examples of systems that are functioning and viable, it’s important for you to testify or write a letter to the editor of your local paper, or host a meeting in your community with your local legislator.” She told growers to let MOFGA know when a policy issue comes to mind. “We have a public policy committee.”
Robin Alden added, “When you’re speaking of soil health, remember to connect it to the rivers and oceans. You’ll bring in others. We’re going to try to do the same thing, upstream.”
Russ Libby concluded, “We’re in such a good position, compared to so many places. We just need to keep building, piece by piece, and pull them together.”
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