January 2, 2020

By Ramon du Houx

While California is the state with the most organic fruit farms per capita, Maine has the most organic vegetable farms, according to a recent study published by Health-Ade. Per capita, Maine ranks second in the country in the availability of organic food. There are about 37 organic farms per 100,000 people.

Maine has the most organic options for farms producing vegetables, with nearly 1,000 farms, yet certified organic acreage makes up only 4 percent of states total farmland.

MOFGA recently released an economic study which confirms organic farming is growing dramatically in Maine. According to the report organic producers generate at least $36.6 million in sales, support 1,600 jobs and keep 41,000 acres of farmland in organic production.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree touring an organic farm in Maine. courtesy photo

Still, there are countless farms haven’t undergone the certification process. Many Co-ops and local stores understand the hurdles to certification and, at times, accept products which haven’t been certified yet, but are truly organic.

Federal spending on organic agriculture has also grown in recent years. The 2014 Farm Act, for example, helped organic producers with the cost of organic certification. More recently, Congress passed an $867 billion farm bill that includes funding for organic farming research.

Certified organic food, according to the US Agriculture Department’s definition, must be produced without the use of conventional pesticides, petroleum- or sewage-based fertilizers, herbicides, genetic engineering, antibiotics, growth hormones or irradiation. Certified organic farms must also adhere to certain animal health and welfare standards, not treat land with any prohibited substances for at least three years prior to harvest, and reach a certain threshold for gross annual organic sales.

With the rise of cop-ops in Maine in the last ten years, and farmers markets the demand for organic produce has only grown. Add to the mix Portland and other cities becoming nationally known as “foodie destinations” the desire for organically grown crops is growing faster than the products.

“Over the last 50 years, there’s been an incredible community here that started with back to the landers in the ’60s and ’70s, who were interested in growing organically, and through our programs, we’ve created a number of beginning farmer programs that have attracted a number of farmers to Maine, which is I think why we are one of the highest per-capita states,” said Sarah Alexander the Executive Director of The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA).

The success of organic farms in Maine has a lot to do with non-profit organizations, like MOFGA, that have been working to preserve farmland, educate the public about organic practices, help farms diversify and ensure there will be a younger generation of famers in the state.

“We have an incredible state support network here, for beginning farmers and advanced farmers, to make sure that they have what they need, the tools that they need,” said Alexander. “People here support our farms.”

The University of Maine has resources to help anyone, farmer or not, start growing food. With campuses in key locations across the state the University has been and contuse to be a major center for agriculture.

Maine’s Common Ground Fair is the largest in New England and was envisioned by MOFGA farmers as a harvest celebration with organic food for sale. It’s become a cultural tradition. In started in 1977 with 10,000 people attending and now over 56,000 come. The event has become so popular MOFGA purchased of more than 200 acres of fields and forest in 1996 in Unity to host the event and grow organic food as a laboratory and educational center.

Maine Farmland Trust (MFT), the only statewide organization dedicated to protecting farmland, was founded by a group of farmers and farm advocates in 1999. Since then, MFT has expanded its program areas to not only protect Maine farmland, but increase farm viability by helping farmers thrive, and raising public awareness about the important role farms play in communities. MFT also helps young farmers find land to start their operations. This could be in an easement.

The Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets (MFFM) is there to sustain Maine farms, strengthens farmers’ markets, and helps bring the farming community together. MFFM is a resource for markets, farmers and customers. Now farmers markets are the norm in countless towns in the state. Just twenty years ago you had to drive for hours to reach one.

In Congress, Representative Chellie Pingree has been a long-time friend to organic farmers, she was key to the 2014 and 2018 Farm Act and other initiatives including helping farmers markets.

The changing climate necessitates urgent action, and farmers are an essential part of the climate solution. Climate change could jeopardize agricultural productivity, alter the nutrient content of crops, increase the price of food, and create other challenges. We need to support farmers in mitigating the effects of climate change now,” said Rep. Pingree.

Based on adoption rate increases in the last USDA Census of Agriculture, farmers are already environmental stewards and have a clear interest in adopting conservation practices and renewable energy systems. But agricultural activities contributed 8.4 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.

“We can reduce that number and sequester more carbon in the soil by providing farmers with more diverse, voluntary, incentive-based conservation options. USDA already has a suite of research and conservation programs that we can build off of. Unlike other industries, agriculture is unique in that crops can draw down carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil. Farmers are an integral part of the climate solution. My bill aims to give farmers the tools they need to become net-zero by 2040,” said Rep. Pingree. 

Pingree’s Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) calls for sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are undermining traditional weather patterns and creating a growing problem for all whose livelihood depends on predictable trends, especially farmers.

“American farmers can continue to provide healthy food sustainably, while playing a leading role in solving the climate crisis,” said Former Vice President Al Gore of Pingree’s proposal, “it rightly puts farmers at the center of a comprehensive plan to achieve net-zero emissions from the U.S. agricultural system by 2040—by harnessing science to advance regenerative farming practices in order to protect and enhance soil health while removing carbon from the atmosphere.”

Regenerative farming takes care of the land that is farmed without damaging the soil.

To reach net-zero agricultural emissions within the next 20 years, the ARA focuses on six concrete policy areas and offers solutions rooted in science that are farmer-driven. These goals include: increasing research to ensure existing agriculture research programs prioritize climate change research, as well as improve soil healthprotect, existing farmland, support, pasture-based livestock system, boost investments in on-farm energy initiatives and reduce food waste. The USDA’s Agriculture Innovation Agenda aims to cut agricultural emissions in half by 2050. Pingree’s bill would get them there.

State government helped promote farmers markets and recognizes the importance of locally grown agriculture in an era that climate change is disrupting food production across the world. Maine’s Climate Action Plan, released in December, incorporated important agriculture-related strategies. These critical strategies include:

  • Increasing by 2030 the total acreage of conserved lands in the state to 30 percent through voluntary, focused purchases of land and working forest or farm conservation easements.
  • Revising scoring criteria for state conservation funding to incorporate climate mitigation and resiliency goals.
  • Developing policies by 2022 to ensure renewable energy project siting is streamlined and transparent while seeking to minimize impacts on natural and working lands and engaging key stakeholders.
  • Increasing the amount of food consumed in Maine from state food producers from 10 percent to 20 percent by 2025, and then 30 percent by 2030 through local food system development.
  • Supporting the ability of Maine’s natural-resource economies to adapt to climate change impacts.
  • Engaging in regional discussions to consider multistate carbon programs that could support Maine’s working lands and natural resource industries and state carbon neutrality goals.
  • Increasing technical service provider capacity by 2024 to deliver data, expert guidance, and support for climate solutions to communities, farmers, loggers, and foresters at the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, Maine Forest Service, Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Department of Marine Resources, and the University of Maine.
  • Establishing the University of Maine as the coordinating hub for state-applied research on forestry, agriculture, and natural land-related climate concerns, including research around climate-friendly agricultural practices.

As the number of organic farms has increased, so too have sales of certified organic products across America. U.S. farms and ranches sold nearly $7.6 billion in certified organic goods in 2016, more than double the $3.5 billion in sales in 2011. Still, organic farming makes up a small share of U.S. farmland overall. There were 5 million certified organic acres of farmland in 2016, representing less than 1percent of the 911 million acres of total farmland nationwide.

The rise in organic farming in the U.S. coincides with Americans’ growing appetite for organic food, mainly due to the chemicals found in conventionally grown agriculture, over the past few decades. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, retail sales of organic foods expanded rapidly from 1994 to 2014. And in 2015, the Organic Trade Association estimated U.S. organic retail sales at $43 billion, representing double-digit growth in most years since 2000, when the USDA established national organic standards.