We Could All Help Save Maine's Farms

A commentary by Russell Libby

Every year Maine misses anther chance to combine good food and more jobs. By putting our money, literally, where our mouth is, we could keep $100 million more circulating in the local economy. How? By making a commitment to spend $10 a week on locally-produced food, purchased as directly as possible from the farmer.

Last year, Maine families spent about $1.6 billion on food to be consumed at home, and nearly $1 billion more on food away from home.

Yet Maine farmers saw relatively little of that money. According to the Census of Agriculture, consumers spend only $5 million a year in purchases direct from the farmer. Even if we count the locally produced food sold through grocery stores, I estimate that Maine consumers are responsible, in total, for just $25 million in purchases of Maine produce.

The potential market for Maine foods, at just $10 a week per household, is $128 million for the six months from June through November. That's not counting food we eat at restaurants, or during the rest of the year, or food bought by visitors to the state.

What would the results of that commitment be? First, we would guarantee a future for hundreds of Maine farms. Right now, we have about 600 farms with 5,000 acres in vegetable production targeted to in-state consumption. There are about 300 farms producing fresh berries for local use. Several hundred orchards produce apples, pears, and other fruits, and more of their products would have to be directed to local use. We would need, at the least, to triple vegetable and berry production.

A rough rule of thumb is that an acre of vegetables feeds 40 people; meeting Maine's vegetable needs would take roughly 30,000 acres.

Second, making that commitment means we are all actively supporting our fellow Maine citizens. If we are serious about maintaining rural communities and open space in Maine, we have no other choice. Either the existing farms are supported by their neighbors, or they won't be in business for much longer.

We can't, and shouldn't, rely exclusively on tourism-based economic activity to meet our daily needs. Every week Maine families spend more than $30 million on food, most of which comes from somewhere else. It takes a lot of tourist visits to offset that continuing drain.

Third, supporting local farms is often the best way to get the kind of food you want. If you are looking for organic produce, making connections directly with the farmer is often the only way to find it. Sometimes it is easy to do the right thing.

Fresh salads in early June, strawberries for the 4th of July, the first sweet corn of the summer, blueberry pie, and tomatoes warm from the field are experiences none of us want
to miss. All we need to do is build on our favorite foods, and we can top the $10 level quickly. And we'll keep hundreds of Maine farmers in business with each meal. Shouldn't this be the summer that you make the extra effort to buy from local farmers?

Russell Libby was Executive Director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in Augusta. This commentary was reproduced with the permission of the author.