For many sectors of the Maine economy, the story is one of decline and stagnation. But for Maine’s organic farms, growth is the theme.
Maine added the most new organic farms — 139 — of any state in the nation between 2008 and 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2014 Organic Survey found. Indiana, Iowa and Pennsylvania were next.
Maine had 517 organic farms last year. Although the number is growing, organic farms account for less than 10 percent of the 8,173 farms the U.S. Department of Agriculture tallied in Maine in 2012.
Driven in part by the growth of organic farms, the number of farms and the total amount of farming acreage has grown in Maine since 1997 while it has declined nationally. The total value of Maine’s crops has grown as well.
While government programs can help, many attribute the growth — especially in the ranks of young farmers — to innovative, private-sector programs such as an apprenticeship program run by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association; conservation programs such as those run by the Maine Farmland Trust, which lower the cost of farmland; and cooperatives that make it easier for growers to get their products to large buyers.
Maine’s organic farms are newer than average, with 35 percent of them having been in operation for less than 10 years. Nationally, 29 percent of organic farms are less than a decade old, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2014 Organic Survey.
MOFGA’s Farm Apprenticeship program is one major driver of Maine’s youth farming movement, drawing new farmers from other states. It connects people who want to learn about organic farming with experienced farmers. Apprentices work for room, board and a stipend. About 1,500 people have gone through the program. About 20 percent have continued farming.
The next step is MOFGA’s Journeyperson program, which provides two years of support to new farmers. The support includes a mentor, $600 toward help with business planning, access to MOFGA’s loan fund and used farm equipment pool.