Extension Survey Finds Maine Farmers Optimistic about Future

Maine farmers surveyed recently for a University of Maine Cooperative Extension research project expressed optimism about the state’s farming opportunities and suggested business would improve if the “buy local” message reaches more consumers and institutions.

With support from the university board of trustees, Extension specialists and a Maine Business School professor surveyed about 200 farmers through 15 focus groups held in 2011 to see how they viewed the future of farming through 2025.

“We skewed invitations to younger farmers, but sessions were open to all farmers,” says John Jemison, an Extension water quality and soil specialist and expert on community gardening in New England. “We met with all commodities, and held sessions with mixed farmer groups.  In total, we met with 199 farmers and crop advisors.”

Farmers were asked what they are optimistic and pessimistic about, what changes are they are making on their farm because of changing weather and energy prices, what the state should do to grow Maine agriculture, and what their visions are for agriculture in 2025.

Farmers cited the growing “buy local” movement as a significant source of optimism. Efforts to expand local food purchases and consumption are key to maintaining the growth of agriculture into the future, the researchers reported.  “Another positive mentioned included availability of affordable land and water, and the potential to be able to feed ourselves,” Jemison says.

Respondents also cited the openness and helpful nature of other farmers in Maine as a source of optimism.

Many farmers believe large and small farms will continue to expand, diversify, take advantage of economies of scale, and explore new technology to reduce farm energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing sales by supplying locally grown food to hospitals, schools, universities and nursing homes, for example, will generate stable income and produce healthy food to improve the diet and health of Maine people, they said. Farmers also noted a need to capture more of the SNAP public assistance funds coming into the state.

Obstacles challenging Maine agriculture include limited opportunities with established farmers’ markets, loss or lack of infrastructure, and difficult regulations that make it hard for farmers to invest in their farms’ infrastructure, respondents said.

“For Maine to become the center or breadbasket for a regional food system, alternative arrangements are needed for middle size farms that are too large for intensive production and too small to enjoy benefits of economies of scale,” Jemison and co-researcher Stephanie Welcomer of the Maine Business School say in a report on the survey. “Improved access to capital could come from a new farmer fund to help young farmers buy land. Given the physically demanding nature of farming, alternative or group insurance plans for farmers are needed to take advantage of large numbers of farmers who can’t afford typical insurance programs.”

Researchers did the study to gauge how Maine farmers understand their competitive dynamics now and for the future, and what they need to make their farms sustainable.

“We hope that the results will be useful for several groups, including the farmers, policymakers and food consumers of Maine,” Welcomer says. The study provided valuable insight that could ultimately help increase support for Maine’s food producers and lead to increasing availability of fresh, local and healthy Maine food, she says.

Contact: John Jemison, (207) 581-3241; Stephanie Welcomer, (207) 581-1931