The latest estimate from the Bureau of Economic Analysis lists Maine as the 47th slowest growing state in 2014 in terms of total production. At the same time, turnpike traffic through May reached its highest level since 2007 – auguring good prospects for the tourist industry and a general uptick in overall economic activity. And, up in Augusta, near where the tollbooths end, a stalemate between the governor and legislative leaders continued to delay passage of the FY 2016 budget and put the state’s bond rating at risk.

Just goes to show that there’s no single narrative that explains our economy. It’s a complex mix of often conflicting forces moving us in many directions simultaneously.

One of those forces that has generally escaped attention but has been surprisingly strong in recent years is our agriculture sector. While much of the public buzz has focused on locavores, foodies and the restaurant scene in Portland, a much more statistically significant trend has been the strength of farm incomes and farm employment through the Great Recession. Since the recessionary trough in 2009, total non-farm earnings in Maine have increased 12 percent, barely two-thirds the New England recovery growth of 18 percent. But over the same period, total farm earnings in Maine rose by 52 percent, equaling the growth for New England as a whole.

A largely similar pattern was true for non-farm versus farm employment. From the recessionary trough of 2010 through 2013, total employment in Maine increased by just 1.6 percent while farm employment increased by 7.4 percent – an increase of approximately 800 jobs. In New England as a whole, the trough to 2013 increase in total employment was 3.9 percent while the increase in farm employment for the same period was 9.9 percent. Even more significantly, this increase in farm employment occurred while the number of farm proprietors remained largely stable. In other words, farmers have been hiring. In 2007, the average Maine farm proprietor hired 0.37 outside workers. By 2013, that ratio had grown steadily to 0.50.

Clearly moving from hiring one-third of a worker to hiring one-half of a worker brings the term “scaling up” to a new low. It is, nonetheless, a far different narrative than the periodic doleful human-interest story of a struggling dairy farmer finally surrendering to the inevitable, selling the cows and giving up the old homestead.

Unfortunately, that picture is more likely to be the common perception of agriculture in Maine. And, while it does continue in many cases to be true, it is not the entire, or even the predominant, story in Maine agriculture today. That story is much more one of talented, studious and hard working business managers seeking to broaden their markets, diversify their product offerings, invest in their land and facilities, and, yes, even hire some additional workers.

This is a story not at the forefront of thinking about the future of the Maine economy. But it is a story that is quietly gaining listeners and that holds great promise for our future.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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