MADISON – Bolstering Maine farms will help create jobs and stimulate the economy, a group of agricultural specialists said Friday.

Seven panelists at an annual economic development forum told about 45 people in Maine business and government that agricultural development is key to a bright economic future. They also emphasized that more people are starting farms in Maine.

From 2002 to 2007, the number of farms jumped by nearly 1,000, to 8,136, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“All you have to do is manage it right, and what you have sitting on the ground is a source of income,” said panelist Gabe Clark, owner of the Cold Spring Ranch in North New Portland.

Clark said his farm, which raises grass-fed beef cattle, relies on Maine businesses for nearly all components of its operation.

“Ninety percent of the money I spend goes to businesses in Maine. I want to directly support jobs with my business,” he said during the forum at the American Legion Hall, organized by the Somerset Economic Development Corp.

The state needs more technical-support providers for livestock operations, Clark said. And health care must be affordable for farmers, whose profession is often dangerous.

Panelist Russ Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said it’s important to build a culture in which Mainers buy local foods, even if they spend just $10 per week.

“Anything we can do to capture money has a major economic impact,” he said.

Maine could be the next major food source for New England, Libby said, considering that other states have maximized their land development.

“How is New England going to feed itself in the future?” he said. “Every one of six studies looks at Maine as the major supply point for New England.”

Ann Mefferd, who owns One Drop Farm in Cornville with her husband, Andrew, said the biggest obstacle for young farmers is getting farmland.

“We’re here; we exist. Young farmers are on the rise. Hook us up with land, and we can feed New England,” she said.

Don Todd, state executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, and Ray Roberts, director of the Bangor USDA Rural Development Office, outlined the loans and programs available to assist Maine farmers.

The Farm Service Agency provided 138 farm loans last year in Maine, Todd said, totaling about $28 million.

“If you’re not born into it or married into it, it’s very hard to get into farming. That’s where my agency comes in,” he said.

In the audience, state Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, asked whether the potential growth in Maine would come from small farmer initiatives, larger industrial farms or both.

All who responded agreed it would be a mix.