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Local Foods Movement Ushers in New Era in Maine Agriculture
05/17/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

For the last 30 years, the big agriculture story has been the decline of the family farm, and the rise of the biotech giants, such as Monsanto. But early indications from the Cooperative Extension Service show that in New England at least, the small farm is poised to make a big come back. As Jennifer Mitchell reports, Maine's local foods movement has ushered in a new era for new farms - and new farmers.

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Local Foods Movement Ushers in New Era in Maine Ag Listen
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Farm 2

At the Cornerstone Farm in Palmyra, Henne Tierney produces field hogs - the pig equivalent of "free range."
 

"When we first got chickens," says Heather Donahue, "our very first egg - I went out and found my little bitty egg in the chicken coop. I was all excited, I picked it up and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, it's warm! It was just lain and it was still warm!'"

Donahue is a middle school teacher turned start-up farmer. "Farming isn't always pretty," she says. "It isn't always good smelling, it's not always quiet and bucolic. You know, there's a lot of noise invoved whether it's from tractors or cows."

But now, there's nothing else she'd rather do. She and her husband Doug purchased Balfour Farm in Pittsfield in 2010. He also gave up a successful career - as a construction contractor - to get into farming. But the couple have no regrets. It hasn't always been easy knowing what to do, Doug says, because people aren't taught how to farm - unless they've grown up on one.

Fortunately, they've had plenty of help from neighbors. "You know, if you were out making hay on a day that wasn't ideal, they would come by and stop you and catch you in the field and tell you that you were crazy or something," Doug says.

In America, there are more full-time prisoners than full-time farmers. But people like the Donahues may be changing that statistic. They're just part of a growing farm trend that started about five years ago and has picked up sharply this year.

"We're seeing a lot of interest from a variety of both ages groups and types of people, so that's what's really interesting," says Rick Kersbergen from the Cooperative Extension Service.

Kersbergen says the demand for information on farming in Maine is at a record high, with people moving to the state, purchasing small holdings, and wanting to know how to make the land productive for anything from hay to honey.

In response to that surge of interest, his department decided to offer a webinar this year called "So You Want To Farm in Maine." "And we had 160 people sign up for that," Kersbergen says.

And one simple reason may be contributing to the interest. "I think any new farmer looking to buy land in Maine would probably laugh at this, but I think that in general, Maine has affordable land," says Clayton Carter.

And with the average Maine farmer reaching retirement age within the next 10 years, there's more of that land available, at better prices than elsewhere in New England, says Carter, who started his professional life as a computer programmer in Boston.

Carter wound up in Etna, where he's been growing organic vegetables on his Fail Better Farm for the last few years; like the Donahues, he doesn't see himself going back to a 9 to 5 job.

Farm 1"I will not deny that there times thoughout the season when the stress just builds up to the point where you're like, 'Oh my God, what am I doing?' But then of course you get a night's rest, and have a great market the next day, and everything seems great again," he says with a laugh.

One thing that's helping new farmers stick with it, he says, is a partner. His is Hanne Tierney (left, holding a young field hog), whose Cornerstone Farm is 20 minutes to the South in Palmyra. Tierney produces field hogs - that's sort of the pig equivalent of "free-range."

Carter and Tierney save money by working together. They might share gas in getting produce to markets in Portland, and they can support each other by exchanging tools and resources. Of all these start ups, Tierney has been operating the longest - almost 10 years.

But unlike other industries, in farming at 10 years old, you're still just a start up, according to the USDA. Taking on a farm means literally decades of work and investment before a farm is considered "established" or profitable. With farms largely at the mercy of consumers and consumer trends, what that means for the new crop of little start-ups won't be clear for years to come.

But Tierney, like Carter and the Donahues, says she's putting everything she has into her farm - and she just hope the markets will bear out the trend. "I hope that the consumers understand," she says. "And it's partially our job to help them see how important it is to know your farmer - and know your food."

Photos: Jennifer Mitchell

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