March 23, 2011

Natural Foodie: Welcome to Maine – the way farming should be

By Avery Yale Kamila akamila@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

Not only is Maine the way life should be, it's also the way farming should be.

click image to enlarge

The growing number of shoppers at farmers markets, including this one in Monument Square in Portland, are one way Mainers are supporting small-scale, sustainable farms.

Avery Yale Kamila photo

On March 8, the United Nations released a report contradicting the philosophy of industrial farming by saying that the only way to feed the world's growing population is by relying on small, diversified, sustainable farms.

According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Maine is home to 8,100 farms, and more than 90 percent of them are classified as small operations. Maine is also ahead of the curve in the organic farming movement, with the number of certified farms doubling between 2006 and 2008, the latest years for which the USDA's figures are available.

"It's an interesting report as a jumping-off point on where Maine wants to position itself," said Walt Whitcomb, Maine's commissioner of agriculture and a dairy farmer from Waldo. "Maine is a place which really welcomes agriculture. Maine has certainly been a leader in the organic sector."

In a wide-ranging look at what works on the ground – particularly in developing nations – the report says that hunger is not a result of food shortages, but rather a product of poverty. One of the fastest ways to create jobs and cut poverty, the report says, is to encourage small-scale, sustainable farming.

It's a sound strategy for Africa and South America, and it also works in Aroostook and Somerset counties.

Earlier this year, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association released an economic study of Maine's organic farms and found that the operations generate more jobs than their conventional counterparts.

Another area the U.N. report calls into question is the estimate, often cited by industrial farming advocates, that by 2050 food production must increase by 70 percent to meet growing worldwide demand. The report points out that this rate of increase is based on the shaky assumption of more people eating factory-farmed meat in the future.

Factory farming relies on huge quantities of grain to feed its confined cattle, pigs and chickens. From a food security point of view, this is an inefficient use of resources, because humans would get more calories from eating the grain directly.

The United Nations Environmental Programme calculates that 3.5 billion additional people could eat today if cereal grains were not diverted to livestock feed.

Further proof of the faulty basis for the assumption came last week, when the Labor Department reported a 4 percent jump in wholesale food prices, the largest recorded in 37 years. Retail prices will soon follow, with the biggest price increase expected at the butcher's counter.

Since rising petroleum costs are one of the factors causing food price spikes, Russell Libby, executive director of MOFGA, predicts we will change our eating habits before we change our driving habits.

"People can adapt to eating less grain-fed meat before they can adapt to not driving," Libby said. "In this area, Maine has some advantages, because a lot of Maine's livestock production is based on grass and hay, and is done on land that is not useful for crops."

Finally, the report advocates for policymakers to fund and support farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing (such as MOFGA's successful Journeyperson Farm Training Program) and the nationwide network of extension services, which translate university research into educational programs for farmers, business owners and community members.

This last recommendation is welcome news to John Rebar, head of the University of Maine's Cooperative Extension program.

"The investment in programs like Cooperative Extension has not increased significantly in the last two decades," Rebar said when reached at the National Extension Directors Meeting in Phoenix.

Rebar also pointed out that the current federal budget proposal calls for a 10 percent cut in funding for extension services across the nation.

Maine, too, still has a way to go in cultivating a sustainable and resilient local food system. Like the rest of the country, the state has lost its once-extensive network of food processing plants and distribution companies. However, unlike other parts of the nation, Maine is beginning to see the first signs of a revival in this sector.

"If we could bring back more processing, distributing and growing, we'd see a significant increase in jobs in rural Maine," said Mark Lapping, executive director of USM's Muskie School of Public Policy and a distinguished USM professor.

This is where you and I come in.

"Ultimately, it's up to the consumer," Whitcomb said. "It's not by government edict that the consolidation of these processors happened. The consumer is king."

If low price is the goal, consolidation and factory farms are the answer. But if supporting the local economy, creating jobs, eating fresh food and enjoying a clean environment is the goal, then a sustainable local food system is the answer.

"Something has happened over the last 10 years," Lapping said. "Very quickly and without a lot of policy impetus, the local food movement arose. It's become very diverse and very robust."

"If you support the people who are farming at the family scale, they have a chance to survive," Libby said. "But if everyone is buying the lowest-cost product, there's push to the bottom."

Except here in Maine, where farming is rising to the top.

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be reached at 791-6297 or at: akamila@pressherald.com

 

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