While an undergraduate at Yale in the late 1950s, Stewart Smith mapped out a 45-year-long game plan. He was an economics major, but he had many interests, including the family farm back in Maine. Instead of choosing one path, he decided to carve up his interests into 15-year increments.

He’d start by going back to Exeter in Penobscot County to farm, after which he’d give academia 15 years (“I wanted time to really dig into issues”) and then, 30 years on, he’d go into government and policy making.

Smith accomplished all that, impressively. In his 20s, he was the president of the Maine Potato Council (now the Maine Potato Board). During the Carter administration, he took a job with the USDA’s Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service in Washington, D.C. He came back to Maine to serve as the commissioner of agriculture under Gov. Joe Brennan.

He taught at Tufts and then became a professor of sustainable agricultural policy at UMaine in 1991, taking a two year-leave to serve as a senior economist to the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.

None of this happened in quite the precise order he’d imagined, and he left out a fourth segment entirely, the part of his career where he’d really cement his reputation as a mentor to the agricultural community, an important part of the work that has made him the first winner of our Elder Source Award. That’s when he went back to the land in earnest himself, to Lakeside Farm in Newport, where he is testing out the very theories of the Agriculture of the Middle model that he researched as an academic.

“Stew lives as a model,” said Nanne Kennedy, president of the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society (of which Smith was the founding director in 1999). “He lives by his values and he leads by example.”

He returned to farming in 2006 in Newport on his son Carl’s farm, next to his maternal grandparents’ farm. (Farming continues to be a family affair. His third and youngest son, Alex, has a 3-acre organic plot in southern Maine and his youngest of three daughters, Althea, helps out with Lakeside’s marketing initiatives.)

“He could have rested on his academic laurels,” Kennedy added. “But he thought it was really important to cycle back into his farm work and keep his hands dirty.”

Smith grows everything from beets to potatoes at Lakeside, and offers about 100 different products (including variations on a theme, like bunches of beets, bags of beets or bagged beet greens). He’s not so different from the typical vegetable farmer, except that he sells only wholesale, and usually to big buyers, like Hannaford or institutions like UMaine and Colby. That’s where the theories come in.

Agriculture of the Middle is a national initiative (Smith serves on the coordinating committee) designed to save what has been a dwindling segment of the agricultural community. It doesn’t refer merely to the size of a farm. It’s true that farms in this category are usually mid-sized – too small to be considered a commodity farm, but bigger than the kinds of small-scale farms that sell primarily at farmers markets or through CSA shares (community supported agriculture).

But the term also refers to how the food grown by those farms reaches markets. In the Agriculture of the Middle model, the farmer is at the center of the transaction, often selling wholesale and on a fairly large scale.

At Lakeside, Smith has scaled up enough to sell to the big customers. According to this model, by placing themselves in the middle of the value chain, farmers have a better chance of realizing enough profit to keep a farm going. The challenge is to provide larger, reliable yields but of the same high quality you’d see at a farmers market – not an easy thing.

“Lakeside is the demonstration of that,” Smith said. “This is my putting my money where my mouth is. How do you make these midscale farms work?”

DOOMSDAY INTO BLOOMSDAY

He’s doing it, but the funny thing is, as an economist, he’d written an article in 1992 that predicted a dire future for farming. He’d studied the farm share of profits for agricultural products and found it had dwindled from 21 percent to only 5 percent in 1990. Extending that trend line would reduce a farm’s share of profit potential to zero by the year 2020. Needless to say, he’s happy that prediction is not likely to come true in five years. “I caution people against that piece,” he says today. “There was an error in that data.”

Thankfully. But undeniably, the profit to the farmer remains very small, and slim profit margins pose a hazard to any business. As he well knows; Smith has been fighting the threat of vanishing farms as long as he has been farming. His father was proud to send him off to college, urging him to learn about the world. If he needed to learn more about farming some day, his father reasoned, he could always avail himself of the research going on through the Cooperative Extension service.

Did his father boast of his Yalie son? “He was someone who didn’t give many compliments,” Smith said. “But given his perspective, I believe that he approved.”

When he returned home after graduation, he joined his father, a second-generation farmer, in Exeter. “That didn’t work,” Smith said. His father resisted the son’s attempts to innovate. “He had his equity. He didn’t want any debt. He was very comfortable working equipment that was very old at the time. I knew something about the economies of scale, and I just knew that wasn’t going to work.” So Smith moved on to his own farm.

NEW OLD-FANGLED

He laughs when he thinks how his father would regard today’s farming climate, with its focus on organic, on farmers markets and on attempts to get locally grown foods into schools and institutions.

“He would have thought, ‘Boy, that’s really old-fashioned,'” Smith said. “He would have believed that industrialization was the wave of the future and the way to go. I am quite sure what he would consider the good farmers the ones who were beginning to use purchased inputs, rather than relying on livestock and crops integration.”

Smith himself was more open to old-fashioned farming, admiring the work ethic involved. As a young farmer and candidate for the Maine Legislature in the mid-’70s, Smith took note of the young farmers “from away.” Those encounters with back-to-the-landers proved formative. He’d campaign at mills and meet some of these new neighbors from Exeter who had small farms, working their second or third job of the day.

“I came to realize pretty soon that some of those folks were going to stay around and make it work. Not everybody who came to Maine made it past the first winter.” But the ones who did needed help. “I used some of that experience and knowledge when I was commissioner to build a policy that could be supportive of that kind of agriculture.”

But as he observed the growing numbers of small farms, and an increase in industrial farming, he also noticed the dwindling numbers of farms in between, the ones that didn’t want to make the leap into the industrial sector. “That’s when I became very interested in this idea of this middle agriculture that was disappearing,” Smith said.

Sustainable agriculture became his area of concentration. His goal, said fellow farmer Bob Spear, was to “get people to use the land and use it right.” And as such, he has helped shape a locally focused, environmentally conscious, 21st-century approach to Maine agriculture.

“He was really the first guy in Maine who got the farm community to begin to think differently,” said John Piotti, the executive director of Maine Farmland Trust (a winner of our Storyteller Award). He has known Smith for decades as they both worked toward a model of sustainable agriculture in Maine. “He has both spurred it and shepherded it.”

“Whenever I have a question about something that requires deep thinking, those are the times that I call him,” said Penny Jordan (whose new business, The Farm Stand in South Portland, won our Newcomer Award). “That’s the kind of man he is.”

And through all he’s done, all the careers he’s had, whether running for Congress (he got knocked out in a primary) or taking a leave from UMaine to serve as a senior economist for the Joint Economic Committee in Washington, one thing has been a constant for Stew Smith. “I’ve never been away from agriculture.”