Friday, December 19, 2008

Revitalizing island food systems in Maine

Maybe it's the recession. Maybe it's just a sense of wanting to gain some measure of control over their basic needs. Perhaps it's a combination of these and other factors. Whatever the reason, Maine islands are producing more food than in they have in decades.

New England imports more than 90 per cent of its food and energy. That leaves the region incredibly vulnerable to outside sources to meet two crucial basic needs. Reversing this trend will require concerted action at every level of civic engagement. (GW)

Island farms make a comeback

By Bridget Huber
The Working Waterfront
December 18, 2008

When North Haven farmer Doug Record brought his first harvest of island-produced honey to the local farmers' market this summer, he sold all twenty pounds of the liquid gold in as many minutes. The next time he brought it to market, the same thing happened. There was no third time; customers came to his house and bought the rest before Record could get it to market.

Record and his wife, Julie, operate a farm called Sheep Meadow, which also produces eggs, meat, wool, and vegetables, all sold on North Haven. The Records are among a modest but growing number of small-scale farmers who, acre by acre, are revitalizing island food systems in Maine.

"It's partly a trend that we're seeing, with people wanting to buy local food. But people also want to support local business and especially a North Haven entity like ours. And the product we sell is good," said Julie Record.

A century ago, Maine islands grew much more of their own food than they do today. At island agriculture's peak, most families grew their own vegetables and raised animals and some larger farms supplied several towns with dairy and even exported produce to Boston.

By the final third of last century, most of those farms had gone by the wayside due to a number of factors including increased access to the mainland and its grocery stores, rising property values and larger numbers of young people opting to take off-island jobs.

Over the last several years, a number of new farms have taken root on the islands. Interest in local, sustainable food continues to rise, and many involved with these fledgling operations say they can't keep up with demand for their products and only expect to see their business grow in the coming years.

"There is a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm around this issue on the islands," said Bill McGuinness, a Little Cranberry Island resident and policy specialist at the Island Institute. McGuinnes organized the Sustainable Island Living Conference, to be held Nov. 8, where islanders will discuss community food production and island gardening, among many other topics.

These days, Maine islands are producing more food than in they have in decades. More island residents are planting backyard vegetable patches and many island schools have gardens that provide both produce for school lunches as well as fodder for hands-on science classes. Summer farmers' markets are well attended on many islands and small-scale commercial farms have popped up on several islands, such as Vinalhaven, Islesford, Chebeague and North Haven.

Still, island farmers, like their mainland counterparts, face many financial and technical challenges. Some of these issues are exacerbated on islands where land prices and taxes are steep, markets are limited and soil is often poorly suited to agriculture.

Though daunting, many of these obstacles are surmountable, said Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), which trains hundreds of aspiring farmers through its apprentice and journeyperson programs each year. Libby is speaking at the Sustainable Island Living Conference. In addition, Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch, organic farming experts and co-owners of Four Season Farm in Brooksville, a nationally recognized model of small-scale sustainable agriculture, will be speaking.

Though it may be unrealistic for new farmers to buy land to cultivate on an island, Libby said many large landowners are looking for ways to make their property more productive and might be willing to lease their land to farmers who would farm it responsibly.

Libby said farms could potentially create jobs on islands, too. Farms typically begin to hire help when they hit the three-to-five acre mark, Libby said.

"People are going to need to figure out relationships that allow beneficial land use, and it's got to be beneficial to both sides," said Libby, adding that some large landowners might be more interested in leasing land in exchange for fresh vegetables than the amount of rent a farmer could afford to pay. "The relevant part is can you provide food to the families that own that land. And can you farm in a way that's sufficiently responsible? That means not running tractors at four a.m. or spreading manure of the day of the Fourth of July picnic," he said.

Sheep Meadow is an example of what shape a creative land use arrangement could take. The Records are caretakers for a family, headed by John and Caroline Macomber, who summer on North Haven. The Records live, farm and operate greenhouses on the Macomber land. Some of the food they produce goes to the Macombers and the rest is sold on the island. "The people we work for are very wonderful, generous people and they support our endeavors. They also appreciate knowing where some of their food comes from," said Record.

If such an arrangement didn't exist, Record said it would be unlikely she and her husband could farm on the island, "Land values are just so high that we wouldn't be able to do it," she said.

But even people who own land on islands may not be able to farm it because of high property taxes, said Sandra Oliver, food historian and frequent Working Waterfront columnist, who called taxes and deer "the two main impediments to agriculture on the islands."

Oliver, who raises pigs and vegetables on Isleboro, said "If the community seriously wants to feed itself, it's going to have to do something to change the tax codes or ordinances so that the land under cultivation for food is not taxed as if it could more profitably grow a 22-room cottage," she said.

High taxes aside, Oliver said island farmers have advantages, "Otherwise, we have an ideal setup," she said, mentioning Isleboro's school garden that has raised awareness about local food and the island's popular farmers' market. She also said the island's growers have a captive market, since island stores are often more expensive than mainland ones and do not carry much fresh, high-quality produce.

For North Haven farmer Jen Porter, a local inn and restaurant, Nebo Lodge is also an important outlet for her produce. Porter said Amanda Hallowell, the inn's chef, has been a huge supporter. "I have certainly felt a huge boost this summer," said Porter, who estimates that she sold 90 percent of her produce to the Nebo Lodge. "Amanda is very open to what we are growing and will arrange the menu around what we have available," she said.

Porter, who got her start working on farms for three years in Chile, said she appreciates the camaraderie between farmers on North Haven. "I definitely think there a wonderful sense of camaraderie, there's zero competition," she said. Record echoed the sentiment, saying her husband and other beekeepers on the island often share information.

Furthering the community spirit, Porter, who helped found the island's farmers' market, said she may team up with two other island farmers next growing season and farm collaboratively, and hopes to plow up some of her land and make it available as a community garden space for other island residents. Porter said there isn't huge money in farming, but it brings other rewards, "We probably break even when you look at it all in terms of paying for babysitters and farm help but I think it's the beginning of pretty exciting movement," she said.

Even under the best of circumstances, most small farmers make razor-thin profit margins, but McGuinness and several of the farmers interviewed said that while it might be hard for island farmers to support themselves entirely through agriculture, it could bring in a significant part of their yearly income. Island farmers might boost their incomes by developing produce-based cottage industries such as jam or salsa, he added.

McGuinness said the Island Institute is looking into ways to support island agriculture, and plans to devote more energy to the issue in the future as a way to increase the sustainability of Maine's year round island communities, "The more self-sufficient the islands are, the stronger they are. It's not that we want to be disconnected from the mainland. We want to be connected to the mainland, but we don't want to be dependent on it," he said.

Porter said there are issues she'd like to see addressed, such as how to make island-grown produce available and affordable to year-round island residents. Record would like to see more would-be farmers matched up with the farms that sit unused on North Haven. And, in addition to tax reform, Oliver wants to see farmland that has been overgrown by trees reclaimed and used as pasture.

The three agree that the market will support more farmers and interest in island-grown food will continue to grow. "It seems like interest is brewing everywhere for local food and people want strong connections to where their food comes from," said Porter.


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