Thursday, December 5, 2013
John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Thursday., Feb., 5, 2009. Jim Sampone and his wife Kate LeRoyer own and operate Winter Hill Farm in Freeport.
John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Thursday., Feb., 5, 2009. Jim Sampone, seen here with horse, and his wife Kate LeRoyer own and operate Winter Hill Farm in Freeport.
More people are farming in Maine -- often on smaller specialty farms -- as the state's agricultural community works to meet the surge in demand for locally grown produce, dairy and meats.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its latest five-year census this week, showing that the number of farms in Maine increased by 13 percent, to 8,136, from 2002 to 2007, compared with a 4 percent increase nationwide. The average size of a Maine farm declined 13 percent, to 166 acres, during the same period.
Overall, Maine farms recorded $617 million in sales in 2007, up 33 percent from 2002.
''There has been a tremendous growth in production,'' said Maine Agriculture Commissioner Seth Bradstreet.
Freeport dairy farmer Jim Stampone is typical of the trend toward small, locally supported agricultural businesses. Stampone retired from teaching last year to run his Winter Hill Farm full time with his wife, Kate LeRoyer, after building up a herd of 17 Randall Lineback cows, a Colonial-era breed that was brought back from the brink of extinction in the past 20 years.
The cows fell out of favor because they produce only about two gallons of milk a day -- the perfect amount for a Colonial-era family -- compared with the eight gallons a day produced by today's preferred breeds.
Stampone sells the milk at $7 a gallon to 40 families and a half-dozen restaurants and health food stores. He has to turn customers away.
''Our customers are paying a premium price for milk because they know how we treat and care for the animals. They know everybody has a name,'' said Stampone, whose cows are all named after flowers, such as Anemone, Magnolia and Iris.
Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said the demand for organic food has contributed to a surge in organic farms statewide. The number of organic farms rose 139 percent from 2002 to 2007, many of them dairy and vegetable farmers.
''We have had a pretty interesting influx of new young farmers,'' Libby said.
Meanwhile, more of these farmers are selling directly to consumers, through farm stands and farmers' markets, as well as directly to restaurants.
From 2002 to 2007, these numbers increased by 17 percent, according to the census. That has fattened small farmers' incomes.
''More farmers, who once were grossing $1,000, are now bringing in incomes between $10,000 and $50,000,'' said Jane Aiudi, director of market and production development at the Maine Department of Agriculture.
There is money to be made in farming, said Richard Brozozowski, educator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service office in Cumberland County. He said that as a test last year, he grew winter squash on a quarter-acre of land, harvesting 1,000 pounds that fetched about $500.
''With not a lot of effort,'' he said.
The number of acres being used for vegetable farming in Maine, excluding potatoes, increased 50 percent, to 10,421 acres, according to the census.
Less encouraging to agricultural experts was the drop in farm acreage, with the state losing 4,440 acres since 2002. That's something that bears watching, the experts said, even though it's just a 1.6 percent decline.
''We have to be constantly vigilant about saving our farming infrastructure,'' Bradstreet said.
York County was one of a handful of counties in Maine to gain farm acreage, up 3 percent from 2002. Libby said that is probably because of people reviving farming on existing lands that had been fallow.
Overall, agricultural experts said, the census provides an upbeat assessment of farming in Maine.
''The future in agriculture in Maine and New England is pretty promising,'' said Frank Wertheim, educator with the York County office of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: