Interest in farming on the Blue Hill Peninsula has grown in the past several decades, but there are impediments for young farmers who want to get started working the land.
Those issues were under discussion last week at the Halcyon Grange Hall in Blue Hill during the third annual farm issues panel discussion sponsored by the Blue Hill Heritage Trust.
It’s no secret that land prices, even in a depressed economy, are high in the region and those costs are often an obstacle to young farmers starting out. They rarely have any equity or collateral and it is difficult, if not impossible, to get financing for a farming operation.
Phil Retberg, who runs Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot, pointed out that 30 years ago or so, land was a lot cheaper and people who started farming then were not burdened with the same high mortgages young farmers face today. Mortgage payments are high, often forcing the farmer to work off the farm to supplement his or her income, and desirable fixed rate mortgages, Retberg said, usually come with higher interest rates.
“You put it all together and that’s [an extra] $300 or $400 a month I have to come up with just to keep from losing the farm,” he said.
There are some programs in place that ease that burden somewhat. The farmland that BHHT has protected, particularly in the Route 15 “farmland” corridor, is more affordable because of the protective easements placed on the land. One of the four panelists, Jo Barrett of the Land for Good program, stressed that there also are programs to work with willing landowners to allow farmers to work their land.
“They provide the land at no cost or at very little cost and that makes local food more available,” she said.
Those types of arrangements are important because even land with protective easements can be out of reach because of the lack of financing, according to another panelist, Erica Buswell of Maine Farmland Trust.
“They can’t get financing,” Buswell said. “That’s a major hurdle in all parts of the state.”
Barrett added that while the idea of communal farms did not meet with much enthusiasm among farmers, a multiple operator model might be acceptable. Under that model, several farmers could purchase or lease a large parcel of land with each having access to a specific portion of the property while perhaps sharing the use of a storage facility or a barn.
“They cooperate there,” she said. “They’re more like neighbors.”
Buswell agreed noting that while there is still a bias toward ownership, there are people who are interested in pooling their interests to create a diversified farm.
“They work together to access farmland together,” she said.
Affordable access to the land is one issue, but according to panelist Everett Ottinger, who as a MOFGA journey person operated Del Rio Farm in Penobscot, there is also a question of being able to afford to operate the farm.
“Even if you put a farmer on the land, if no one can afford a tractor, what have you done,” Ottinger said.
One solution that was raised was to find ways to make farming more profitable for the farmer. Panelist Noah Lorio, who runs Living Branch Farm in Blue Hill, pointed out that currently, local farmers provide only a very small amount of the food that is purchased and eaten on the Peninsula.
He estimated that local farmers produce about 1 percent of the food purchased in the region. One man suggested that a way to increase that amount was to find a way for farmers to sell to larger institutions in the area such as the hospital and the schools. Most schools purchase their food through Sycso, he said, and federal regulations limit access to local farmers.
Several people noted that some of these institutions do buy from local farmers and Paul Birdsall indicated that Horsepower Farm sells vegetables regularly to two schools.
Bob Sullivan of Old Ackley Farm in Blue Hill suggested that people will have to change their eating patterns in order for local farmers to gain more customers.
“You can’t get all things all the time,” he said. “And it takes a little effort; it’s not one-stop shopping. And you may pay a little more.”
One woman, however, said she has been buying locally for several years now and overall, she has found that she is spending between $200 and $300 less a month on food.
“We’ve changed the way we think about how we eat,” she said. “We don’t eat tomatoes in January. But the food tastes better. A boneless chicken from who-knows-where can’t compare to an Ackley Farm chicken.”
Finding ways to encourage more people to buy local food and developing more local farmers could become both a community building tool and an engine of economic development that would keep local dollars in the community. Barrett suggested that as farmers produced and sold more, the infrastructure needed to support farmers would develop.
“If more of us are raising meat, there might be an incentive for a slaughter house to set up here,” she said.
One last issue, regulation, was raised briefly. Local farmers have been at the forefront of promoting local food ordinances that guarantee the right of farmers to sell their products to willing buyers free from what are seen as overly restrictive state and federal regulations. Those ordinances, said Jim Schatz, a selectman from Blue Hill, met with a “tepid” response and did not have “a lot of teeth in them” even in the towns where voters adopted them. He suggested that rather than trying to change Maine state laws, the effort should be toward adding an exemption for small farms from regulations that were designed for larger farms.