January 12, 2011

Two big announcements at Agricultural Trades Show

AUGUSTA — Products weren't the only thing attracting Agricultural Trades Show attendees Tuesday.

Politics did, too, including the announcement of an open-space campaign and a study touting the economic benefits of organic agriculture.

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association released a study Tuesday saying Maine's organic producers generate at least $36.6 million in sales, support 1,600 jobs and keep 41,000 acres of farmland in organic production annually.

MOFGA Executive Director Russell Libby said "Maine's Organic Farms: An Impact Report" analyzed the current state of organic agriculture in Maine using U.S. Census data.

Among the report's findings:

* MOFGA certified 339 organic farms in 2008;

* 582 farms are selling organic products, a figure that includes smaller farms not required to be certified organic under federal law;

* The average number of positions on organic farms in 2007 was 2.7 per farm, compared to 2.3 for other farms;

* An organic dairy farms support an average of four jobs per farm;

* Organic farmers are younger, and more likely to be staffed by women;

* Maine's organic farmers manage 38,767 acres in organic production -- double the amount since since 2002.

"Organic agriculture represents a real opportunity for Maine's economic future," Libby said. "Young people are choosing to farm here, and they're creating jobs and businesses that support their local communities."

The report can be found at the MOFGA website.

Also Tuesday, Maine Farmland Trust announced it was seeking to purchase 100,000 acres for farming, at an estimated cost of $50 million.

"The economic impact from that 100,000 acres is expected to exceed $50 million each year," said Taylor Mudge, founder of the State of Maine Cheese Company who is heading the Trust's fundraiser. "So this is really a good investment."

The organization already has raised $5 million and expects to bring in an additional $40 million from other sources. But it's the first $10 million which is critical, Mudge said.

Seth Bradstreet, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, said Maine needs profitable farms, but that alone is not enough.

"A profitable farm today does not ensure a profitable farm tomorrow especially not if that farm will transfer its value as house lots, not farmland," Bradstreet said. "No farmer can afford to be profitable if they pay too much for farmland."

Maine Farmland Trust Executive Director John Piotti said, "To secure farming's future, we need to protect more farms. That will assure that the land is there to grow food and available to future farmers at its value as farmland, not house lots. "

Since its inception in 1999, the Trust has helped save over two-thirds of all the protected farmland Maine. But that only translates into about 22,000 acres, or less than 2 percent of Maine's farmland, Piotti said.

"Maine agriculture is positioned well for the future, but only if we protect the underlying land base," Piotti said.

The Trust recently purchased Kents Hill Orchard, a 91-acre apple orchard in Kennebec County, and is seeking a buyer for it.

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