Monday, May 20, 2013
As farming shifts from large commodity farming to local farms that actually produce food that is good for you, it would be great if we still had enough land around us to produce our food.
After we hand over hundreds (or thousands) of acres of land for big box shopping centers, parking lots and access roads, or to small and large housing developments, that land is effectively out of commission for growing food -- forever.
"Progress" over the last 30 years in Maine has meant active promotion of suburban sprawl, both commercial and residential. One result is that we have diminished our farm acreage from 1.4 million acres to 1.3 million.
"Progress" has not lowered our local taxes, nor has it created enough jobs, nor has it improved our quality of life. Our downtowns are failing; our school populations are shifting to the suburbs at great cost with little educational benefit. And where are the new jobs?
A very real form of progress, however, also has been happening all on its own without a lot of encouragement -- small farming in Maine.
Small farming -- under 100 acres -- is the fastest growing sector in Maine's $1.7 billion agricultural economy. These farms tend to be owned by younger farmers who develop their own local markets through Community Supported Agriculture, farmers' markets, sales to restaurants and other methods of direct food sales.
A lot of these new farms use organic practices -- since 1988, organic farms have increased more than 800 percent to more than 600 farms., generating more than $100 million in economic impact.
The best thing about this kind of farming -- aside from good, local food -- is that it's not going to raise your taxes. Cost of Community Services studies show that farmland costs an average of 37 cents for every local tax dollar collected, while residential development costs an average of $1.19 per dollar collected.
I know that when I take my morning jog and see right to 10 school kids waiting for their buses on my one-mile route, those kids are costing us $80,000-$100,000 per year in school costs. I would guess that the property taxes generated from the properties I jog by (including mine at $2,000 per year) might come close to about $50,000 or less.
What would happen if this kind of farming was actively promoted?
A recent book published by Maine Farmland Trust, "Cultivating Maine's Agricultural Future," shows what can happen when local governments and citizen groups actively promote farming within their boundaries.
In Unity, the adoption of a comprehensive master plan in 1992 led to a new land-use ordinance that was friendly to local farming. Then a local group, Unity Barn Raisers, set about making specific changes in the town, including establishing a farmers' market, rehabbing a Grange hall into a community center, working with the local food pantry, and protecting more than 1,500 acres of farmland.
In Monmouth, an informal group of farmers and farm advocates formed Monmouth Grows in 2001. Since then, they have created group marketing materials for farms; participated in community events to promote local farming; hosted local events and workshops for farmers and school children, and posted gateway signs to show local farming support.
In Bowdoinham, a Department of Community and Economic Development was formed in 2002, funded with tax increment financing from a gas pipeline project. The local DCED provided consulting assistance to farms, started a farmers' market and started a buy-Bowdoinham campaign to encourage residents to buy local products.
"Cultivating Maine's Agricultural Future" advises individuals and town officials to adopt a number of strategies to begin the task of preserving our future food production, some of which include:
* Farmland inventories: Identify the farm and food operations in each town. Even better, examine soil survey maps to determine where the best farmland is located and try to steer development away from those areas.
* Connect farms and schools, including curriculum development and bringing local food into the school cafeterias.
* Farmers' markets. Towns and cities can play a big part in establishing a local farmers' markets. In Gardiner, for example, Gardiner MainStreet provides the fiscal umbrella for the four-year-old Gardiner Farmers' Market, and the city of Gardiner provided use of the Commons for its location.
* Tax policy. Municipalities often resist state farm and open space tax abatement programs because they are not reimbursed by the state. But since farmland requires fewer services than residential land use, it is only fair that farms should be assessed at a lower rate.
All this means that if we want to protect our rural landscape -- and guarantee the future of the food we eat -- it's pretty much up to us to do it at the local level.
Denis Thoet owns and manages Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org