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Agriculture & Foods - Green Acres

Research shows Maine farms are tapping into agritourism’s direct-to-consumer appeal

Farming in Maine can be a tough row to hoe. Pressured by huge national and international agribusinesses supplying giant grocery chains, family farms in Maine have been marginalized even within their own state, struggling to compete with hormone-enhanced beef and gas-ripened tomatoes trucked in from corporate-owned megafarms. Without a strong local connection, food quickly becomes just another packaged and processed commodity. As economic forces widen the gap between consumers and producers, the connection between farmers and their communities deteriorates as well, completing a socioeconomic one-two punch for the farming lifestyle. But Maine farmers are a tough breed, and their successes are evidence of the power of determination and adaptability.

Since the first settlers carved field from forest more than 300 years ago, farming in Maine has required hard work, long hours and more than a little luck. Farmers learned to hedge their bets against dry summers, killer frosts, plant pests and livestock diseases to ensure that there would be enough food on the table and money in the cupboard to get them through until the next season. Today more than ever, diversification continues to insulate the family farm from disaster, helping farmers to earn a decent income and maintain their connection to the communities in which they live.

“We’ve got a little bit of everything going on here. There’s always a new idea and a new project,” says Patty Treworgy of Treworgy Family Orchards in Levant. “Our entire operation is direct-to-consumer, so we really try to keep up with what our customers like or don’t like, and what they would like to see in the future.”

The Treworgys are not alone. According to a recent study by University of Maine School of Economics researchers Thomas Allen, Todd Gabe and James McConnon, direct-to-consumer enterprise is a critical part of the success of many Maine farms. The trio applied their combined expertise in economics to determine how consumer-oriented activities–from roadside stands to farm-based festivals–contribute to the success of Maine farms. The study was conducted in cooperation with Deanne Hermon of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, and funded by the Maine Agricultural Center at UMaine.

Using surveys and statistics from a variety of sources, the group identified a broad range of direct-to-consumer activities as examples of agritourism, and set out to determine how they influence the Maine economy and survival of the family farm.

“Research in a lot of states is looking at some of the same questions, trying to learn more about agritourism and the needs of farms involved in it,” says Gabe, an associate professor in the School of Economics. “We wanted to provide some solid information to use as a starting point for people in Maine.”

The researchers surveyed nearly 500 Maine farms that self-identified as agritourism businesses in records filed with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources. Of those surveyed, the majority depended on agritourism for more than half of their farm revenues.

“The surveys showed that agritourism is a proven economic development strategy for small farms,” says McConnon, UMaine Cooperative Extension business and economics specialist, and a professor in the School of Economics. “Trends in wholesale agriculture have made it more challenging for small farms to produce the kind of volume that allows them to continue to be price competitive. Agritourism allows small farms to diversify in ways that capture more consumer dollars, helping them to survive.”

For many of the farms, the potential profitability of direct-to-consumer sales began as a way to supplement shrinking profit margins of wholesale production. Diversification has been a key to the survival of Maine’s family farms, with income from a farm stand or a farm-based event making up for crop losses or sudden drops in wholesale prices for products.

“We started out making most of our income from the cows, selling them for breeding stock and meat. We did that for years, but it was a lot of work and was really time consuming,” says Andrea Smith, who operates the 52-acre Brae Maple Farm in Union with her husband, Allan. “We started to shift to selling more plants and vegetables, and now that’s our main focus. We do the farmers’ markets in Rockland, Camden and Belfast, and the Common Ground Fair, and we work a lot with the Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardeners Program.”

Farmers’ markets, on-farm events, community classes and other agritourism activities add complexity to their farm business. They have to plan planting and harvesting to jive with market schedules, coordinate farm duties and transportation to ensure products and people get where they need to be, and fill out reams of paperwork for government programs. From small hurdles to massive roadblocks, there are a lot of considerations that can stand in the way of success for an agritourism project, considerations many farmers may not have the time or expertise to handle effectively.

That’s where UMaine Cooperative Extension comes in.

Extension faculty like Donna Coffin of Piscataquis County provide training and expertise where and when farmers need it, helping to ensure a good crop and a mutually beneficial connection between farmers and their communities.

“Donna has jumped us ahead in many ways. By advising us on grants that are available and helping us put the grants together, she has helped us get new equipment, put bushels and bushels of food into the local food cupboard, and connect with educational programs on everything from storing vegetables to dealing with government regulations,” says Sid Stutzman, who runs Douty Hill Farm in Sangerville with his wife, Rainie.

With Coffin’s help, the Stutzmans and other area farmers got a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Grant to establish Maine Highland Farmers four years ago. Members jointly market their produce, print maps to guide new customers to their farms and organize educational talks on marketing their products and other subjects.

The connections agritourism fosters in a community have far-reaching implications. By strengthening the sustainability of small farms and creating jobs, agritourism plays an important role in the preservation of Maine’s small farms. Family farms, in turn, preserve rural communities and traditional Maine lifestyles that offer direct benefits to the tourism industry.

“We have people from Connecticut and Massachusetts who make our farm stand a seasonal stop. They buy pies and produce, and get their winter storage of potatoes, and we’ve gotten to know them,” says Stutzman. “When we make these connections, we are helping to define what central Maine is for the people who are here for a few weeks and for the people who live here.”

Agritourism fits well with the state’s tourism strategy to capitalize on the beauty of Maine’s natural assets, says Allen, a senior research scientist with UMaine’s Center for Tourism, Research and Outreach. “Natural resource-based tourism and ecotourism are two of the fastest growing sectors in the tourism industry. Agritourism is able to provide the authentic experience that many visitors look for in Maine.”

Gabe, McConnon and Allen conservatively estimate that agritourism activities currently generate more than $28 million in sales and support more than 1,700 full- and part-time jobs on Maine farms. In addition to the farm sales, the researchers used a statewide economic model to examine how agritourism activity relates to other businesses and industries across the state. Findings show that agritourism activity on Maine farms generates an additional $13 million of economic activity in non-farm businesses, pushing the total contribution to the Maine economy to approximately $41 million.

According to UMaine’s survey, a fourth of Maine’s agritourism farmers established their businesses in the last five years, and nearly half are interested in adding more agritourism activities.

The study also found that agritourism farms in Maine may benefit from establishing strong connections and linkages with tourism-related businesses and organizations in their communities.

Further research by McConnon, Gabe and Allen will include a study of the interactions between agritourism and other tourism-based businesses.

“We discovered a real gap in the research. There was no baseline for direct farm-to-consumer activity in Maine. This research is helping to fill that gap,” says McConnon. “Our goal now is to find out how best to support farmers who are pursuing agritourism activities.”

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