If there’s a bright future out there for Maine’s rural economy, it’ll come in large part from the land. Investment in traditional and emerging products is reinvigorating the forest industry, giving new hope to areas of the state long supported by the woods around them.

And then there are farms, which are undergoing their own exciting generational change.

Young farmers have taken to Maine like few other places – from 2007 to 2012, the number of Maine farmers under the age of 34 grew by 40 percent, compared to 1.5 percent nationally.

But there are a lot of older farmers too, those closing in on retirement without any family members to leave the farm to. That’s why so much farmland is changing hands, and will continue to change hands for the foreseeable future. Former farmland, too, will need to be converted back.

SPECIALIZED KNOWLEGE

That exchange is not always as simple as finding a willing buyer and seller. Buying farmland takes access to financing, and banks unfamiliar with how the farming industry works are often unwilling to take on the risk they see when a budding farmer walks through their door looking for a loan.

Enter the Maine Harvest Credit Project, which this week announced it has reached its $2.4 million fundraising goal. If its application before the National Credit Union Administration is approved, it will become the nation’s first credit union exclusively for farmers and food entrepreneurs. It is excellent news, and a sign of how Mainers in agriculture are taking control of the future of their industry.

The Maine Harvest Credit Union would have a specialized loan officer who understands food and farming. It will be based in Unity, the heart of Maine farming, and focus especially on loans for land, which are much needed – the Maine Farmland Trust, which is part of the project, estimates there is a more than $180 million gap between financing that is needed and what is available, with half of the gap related to land sales.

RAPID GROWTH

Maine’s farm and food industries are growing rapidly. Sales are increasing each year as new people and new ideas take root. Farmers and food entrepreneurs are creating an increasingly complex sector, one that is diversified and adds value to what comes out of the ground. Sophisticated and willing lenders are needed to finance that growth so that entrepreneurs can take advantage of new trends and markets.

Maine has a real opportunity here to build a literally home-grown industry. There is a growing appetite for locally grown and produced food, and climate change and population growth will make regional production of food more of a necessity. The traditional breadbaskets of the Midwest and California will likely struggle to produce enough food for everyone, and ship it in an environmentally conscientious way.

If New England is going to produce more of its own food, most of the responsibility will fall on Maine, where the most arable land is.

Farmers and other entreprenuers see these opportunities better than anyone, and are poised to jump on them. They just need the same financing as other businesses. Thanks to the dedicated people at the Maine Harvest Credit Project, they’ll soon have another place to get it.

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