When the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its 2012 farm census, there was plenty to boast about in Maine’s agricultural community. While the number of farms in the United States declined by 4 percent between 2007 and 2012, in Maine, the number of farms increased slightly. And while the average age of Maine farmers was close to the national average of 58, the number of Maine farmers under age 34 was on a promising upward swing, up 40 percent.

But one of the greatest areas of gain was overlooked: the subgroup of Maine’s black and/or African American farmers, showed a radical increase of 400 percent between 2007 and 2012. Maine’s population is only 1.4 percent black.

There weren’t many farms operated by black farmers in 2007 – just 17 – so relatively speaking there are still very few black farmers in Maine (68 according to the census). That’s a gain of 51 new black farmers, whereas the white farmer demographic held fairly steady (up four).

Meanwhile, the American Indian or Alaskan Native demographic took a steep dive, from 59 farmers to 17.

Those new black farmers may have been the biggest contributor to Maine’s overall gain in farms, up 38 in that five-year period to 8,173.

That’s certainly the conclusion drawn by Daniel Ungier of Cultivating Community, an advocacy group that has been working with immigrant and refugee farmers since 2002.

“It’s very dramatic,” he said. “Almost as if it will seem like we are exaggerating it.”

Ungier didn’t dig into the deep data of the farm census until months after it was released, and when he discovered the statistics on black farmers, he took a closer look at where they were operating their farms. He wanted to see if that steep increase was due to programs for immigrant farmers from the African continent – mostly people from Somalia but also immigrants from places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo – who are being nurtured and mentored by Cultivating Community.

“We have no way of saying that with certainty, but when you go down to the county level, most of them are in Androscoggin County, which is where we mostly work,” he said. “I would guess that we probably represent around two-thirds of that number.”

Cultivating Community has helped immigrant farmers access land in Cumberland County, but the majority of the farming being done by African immigrants is on a 30-acre parcel at the Packard-Littlefield Farm in Lisbon, leased from its owners specifically for the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project. That land is divided into small parcels, with some new farmers working on less than an acre, growing vegetables for their families and friends and also for sale at farmers markets and through CSA (community supported agriculture) shares.

He and others say there are many more immigrants eager to participate in Maine’s agriculture economy, but they need training and they need access to land.

Muhidin Libah of the Somali Bantu Community Mutual Assistance Association of Lewiston-Auburn said he believes up to 1,000 people in that area are eager to farm.

Cultivating Community simply can’t offer space for all of those people. “This is huge,” Libah said. “They can’t cover everybody.”

And the opportunities are needed: “We don’t have a lot of jobs in the Lewiston-Auburn area,” Libah said.

Libah’s group is working with landowners in North Yarmouth who offered them 3.4 acres this past growing season on a trial basis. He divided that land into 20 parcels and drew names from a hat from a waiting list of 50 people. The new farmers grew collard greens, zucchini, squash and cilantro. And corn. “The funny thing was everybody grew corn because that is what they knew from back home,” Libah said.

Because it was a trial run, Libah said, “we tried really hard to make sure they (the landowners) liked us.” They passed the test, he said, and next year the group will have access to 5 acres.

Proximity is an issue for many of these immigrant farmers, who might not have a vehicle of their own and have to rely on carpooling to get to their farms. Libah has been on a quest to find more land in the Lewiston area, but it has been challenging.

“Sometimes you talk to a landlord, you discuss it, you measure and the next day the same person is not answering the phone,” Libah said. “Or sometimes he yells at you and is telling you not to call him again.”

“I talked to a farmer in July, and he kind of just stopped talking to me. I don’t know what I did. I would like to restart that connection.”

He thinks about all that land he sees on the drive between Lewiston and North Yarmouth, land that looks ready to be farmed, and he wishes he could figure out a way to get access to it.

Nearly all of the black-operated farms reported in the 2012 farm census were small, in the 1- to 9-acre category, reflecting this experience of many farmers working side by side on leased land. (Only 10 of the 68 black farmers reported owning their land in the 2012 census.) And these farmers aren’t making much income from their farms.

In 2012, 39 black farmers made between $1,000 and $2,500 on their crops and 22 made $1,000. (That’s such a small amount as to seem neglible, but the census defines a farm as “any place from which $1,000 of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold,” during the census year.)

Lance Gorham, a soil conservation specialist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, began working with Cultivating Community in 2010 to provide training to beginning farmers on the Packard-Littlefield Farm. Some of it was very basic instruction, like retraining a Somali farmer who was used to growing purely for sustenance and planting in a circular pattern rather than in rows. Or introducing them to the concept of rotating with a winter cover crop; most of these farmers would have grown year-round back home.

“It’s a huge learning curve,” Gorham said.

The investment the government made in these farmers was small, he said, maybe $50 for things like seeds, irrigation and pest management tools, per half acre. The payoff is big, culturally and economically.

“It’s not only providing sustenance for many immigrants but providing a way of life and a valuable skill.” And continuing to invest in these farmers makes sense, he said.

“We might be helping that farmer who is only growing on a half-acre now, but it doesn’t mean that in 10 years they aren’t farming on 10 acres and running their own CSA,” Gorham said. “I can easily see that happening. There are several individuals on this farm that are clearly motivated. They’ve got the smarts. They know what they’re doing.”