Big Farm Small Farm

Raising crops has always been a difficult way to make a living, but twenty-first century Maine farmers are facing challenges the likes of which they haven’t seen before.

By Michaela Cavallaro

Photograph by Jennifer Smith-Mayo

Farming in Maine is an exercise in contrast. On one end of the spectrum are the lifestyle operations, with one farmer, a few acres, and a small but diverse array of crops sold to individuals. Located largely within easy driving distance of the state’s population centers, these farms can satisfy their owners’ urges to till the earth — but perhaps not their desire to draw a steady paycheck. On the other end are Maine’s large producers, which may boast a seasonal workforce of fifty or so, more than a thousand acres, and one crop — potatoes, broccoli, blueberries, or even rutabagas — that’s sold as a commodity. Though commodity farmers often receive a lower per-pound price for their produce than do small farmers, they make up for it on volume, which can be substantial.

What’s in the middle? Not all that much, actually. Rare are the midsized producers who can send a steady supply of crops to even a handful of grocery stores. If Mainers are to follow through on their demonstrated interest in eating locally — as well as making progress on existing efforts to further develop the state’s food system — we’re going to need some of those little farms to grow a bit bigger, while keeping the bigger guys healthy and strong.

And that could be a challenge. Consider, for example, a farmer’s basic requirement: affordable land in proximity to markets. This issue isn’t often a problem for Maine’s commodity producers, who tend to be located well inland of pricey coastal real estate and often have long-standing relationships with the whole-salers or distributors that buy their products. Much of this trade is invisible to consumers, who may have no idea that, for example, all the fresh broccoli sold in Hannaford Bros.’ 178 stores comes from Aroostook County four months a year.

For the state’s smaller farmers, however, land in close proximity to markets is at the top of their lengthy list of challenges, according to John Piotti, executive director of Maine Farmland Trust. “The growth in farming that has occurred in the last fifteen years has been oriented toward local agriculture, which means product that’s being marketed either directly to the consumer or close to direct,” Piotti says. “Places where there are good markets” — such as southern and coastal Maine — “have very high land values; those two things just go hand in hand.”

As a result, many young farmers must lease the land they farm on and live elsewhere, rather than buying a property where they can live and work. That’s the case for Mary Ellen and Austin Chadd, who have run Green Spark Farm on twelve acres of leased land in Cape Elizabeth for the past two years. The couple commutes to the land, three-and-a-half acres of which is currently in production, from their South Portland home. “We could live an hour-and-a-half away from the urban markets on affordable land with housing, but the soil may or may not be good,” says Mary Ellen Chadd. “So we decided to go with leasing, and have essentially collected a bunch of fields.”

Leasing land is not without problems, which range from logistical (the Chadds had to install a Porta-Potty, an electric pole, and a homemade walk-in cooler on the property) to financial (all their hard work on the fields isn’t building equity — something many of Maine’s older farmers relied on to support themselves after retirement). Still, the location gives Green Spark Farm access to a sizable market: the couple runs a farm stand on their leased land, and sells their produce at the Portland Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays and Sundays.

While leasing is a practical solution to the problem of land access, Piotti and Maine Farmland Trust don’t feel it’s sustainable, especially since the organization estimates that more than 25 percent of the state’s agricultural land — as much as four hundred thousand acres — will change hands in the next ten to fifteen years. As a result, the organization is in the midst of five-year campaign to raise $10 million and protect one hundred thousand acres for agricultural use via agricultural easements and programs like FarmLink, which matches farmers seeking land with sellers who want their land to remain in agricultural use. (The organization has raised $6 million already, and has preserved more than 19,000 acres of farmland in its twelve-year history.)

For the Chadds, farming on leased land makes for a basic living, though one without any safety net. They aren’t able to set any money aside for a rainy day, or to pay for health insurance — a major problem for Maine farmers of any size. So, like many of their peers, the couple crosses their fingers for good health and no accidents. “If one of us had a major injury,” Mary Ellen Chadd says matter-of-factly, “it would totally ruin the farm.”

By comparison, some large farms have sizeable-enough workforces that they’re able to afford health insurance. That’s the case at Crane Bros. Farms, a family potato operation in Exeter. “There’s just too much risk to go without health insurance,” says Jim Crane, who runs the business with his cousin, Steve. Their grandparents started the farm in the 1950s; the family’s fourth generation — Jim’s sons Ryan and Andy — recently returned from college and joined the business. “Our investment in the business means that we just can’t risk something happening to the immediate family members and key managers.”

And make no mistake: Crane Bros. is, by Maine standards, a big business, with as many as fifty employees during peak season. Like other commodity producers, the Cranes know exactly where their entire crop is headed each season. All their potatoes, which are grown on 1,400 acres in Exeter and Canton, are trucked to the Frito Lay plant in Killingly, Connecticut, which Jim Crane says uses Maine potatoes for about 95 percent of its annual production. “We’ve positioned our business so that [Frito Lay] can’t really live without us, and we’d have to make an awful lot of changes to live without them,” he says.

For smaller farmers, of course, there’s no such assurance of a fully sold-out crop. They must essentially hand-sell their produce at farmers’ markets or farm stands. A growing number of farmers have tried to mitigate the uncertainty inherent in this approach by adopting the community-supported agriculture model (CSA), in which consumers buy a “share” of the season’s harvest in exchange for an up-front payment.

At the same time, agriculture experts worry that the market for small growers, particularly in southern Maine, may be headed toward saturation. Within a three-mile radius of downtown Portland, for example, there are farmers’ markets three days a week (two in Portland and one in South Portland), as well as deliveries of CSA shares from several farms outside the area and a full array of local, regional, and national retailers selling in- and out-of-state produce. While the numbers aren’t as dramatic in Maine’s other population centers, the proliferation of avenues to buy local produce is similar. “I’m afraid there are not enough consumers,” says Walt Whitcomb, a dairy farmer who serves as commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture. “I feel the need to caution people that just because you till the soil and do a good job growing your crops doesn’t mean you can make a living.”

Still, some consumers, unwilling to add farmer’s market or farm stand visits to their busy schedules, would happily buy more local produce at the grocery store — if only there were more mid-sized farms to meet that demand. Wendy Ward, the local sourcing specialist for Hannaford Bros., says there are some crops, and some geographic regions, where there simply aren’t farms large enough to deliver enough produce for even one store.

The chain buys from eighty to ninety Maine growers, most of whom farm ten acres or less, and sell to five or fewer stores. (In a policy that’s unusual for the grocery business, Hannaford allows individual stores to contract directly with individual farmers.) If Maine is to continue to forge a leading-edge role in the local food movement, it will be critical to make buying locally an easy default choice for time-strapped consumers — meaning the state is going to have to find ways to boost small Maine farms’ capacity and financial stability, while continuing to support the large producers who underpin the state’s agriculture infrastructure.

“Maine has the land base for farming, we have access to markets, and we have agricultural capacity,” says Russell Libby of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. The only shortage we might face is young farmers being able to make a good living in an increasingly dichotomous industry.