There are 90 land trusts active in the state of Maine. One, the Maine Farmland Trust in Belfast, stands out in its number of employees, funding and aggressive approach to saving farmland. To date it has helped protect over 57,000 acres of farmland across Maine and has provided over 500 farm families with services including farmland protection, farmland access and business development. Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, describes the Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) as Maine’s premier land trust.

According to Whitcomb, John Piotti, Maine Farmland Trust’s president and CEO, was instrumental in turning a sleepy organization with two members into an award-winning statewide nonprofit organization. Maine magazine listed Piotti as one of the top 50 people who have made a difference in the state. For the past 10 years he and his staff have made it their mission to nurture sustainable rural communities by protecting and supporting farms and farmland. In July, Piotti left MFT to bring his innovative approach to protecting farmland for farmers to the national level at the American Farmland Trust in Washington, D.C. He leaves behind a thriving nonprofit.

A huge part of MFT’s success is its large membership. With over 6,000 members, individuals and businesses, they have enormous financial support. That membership base and the amount of programs enable it to employ over 30 individuals with a range of expertise. With that size staff, all programs receive consistent, focused attention. They have a reputation for responding quickly to inquiries and delivering what they promise, including long-term oversight of easements.

Andy Smith, Caitlin Frame and their son, Linus, on their Forever Farm in South China, Maine

Although MFT’s main focus is on southern and central Maine, their ongoing partnerships with the other 90 land trusts and agricultural organizations help them to reach farmers and farmland in other regions of the state. Their extensive connections with producers and buyers are key to setting up a farming network that supports farmers as well as the communities in which they live. Ellen Sabina, MFT’s outreach director, credits MFT’s success to its strong community support and the organization’s serious efforts to communicate with the public.

The ways in which MFT communicates are varied and mostly effective. Like many land trusts, they have an annual journal, Maine Farms, for MFT members. The magazine debuted in spring 2015. It offers insights about cutting-edge farming in Maine. Its content includes stories of farmers who give firsthand accounts of how they and their farms have benefited from their partnership with the MFT. These personal stories are also available in films that explore the growing pains of the local food movement and other significant issues facing today’s farmers. Traveling photo exhibits at well-advertised events provide a springboard for community discussions related to farming.

76th Annual Maine Agricultural Trades Show

Maine’s January trades show will once again take place at the Augusta Civic Center. This, free, three-day annual event will offer visitors a mixture of agricultural classes, education and product displays as well as an expanded farmers market. The 2017 trades show theme is “Maine: Local, Quality, and Sustainable.”

Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, said that it won’t be easy to follow the 75th show that was held last year. Last year’s event, which was a celebration of Maine’s agricultural past and future, was a huge hit. This year’s show will include many familiar events and displays, and it will be an opportunity to network, to enjoy events like celebrity chefs cooking Maine products and to attend educational workshops. Some workshops will focus specifically on how farmers can most effectively meet the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act. The act, signed into law by President Obama in 2011, is meant to shift focus from responding to food contamination to preventing it. The workshops will help farmers to implement the new standards and get their produce successfully to market. There will also be an unveiling of a new mapping project at the January 2017 show. Collaboration between the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and Maine’s Office of Tourism has resulted in the creation of a detailed map for the upcoming tourism season. The map includes myriad activities visitors can do in rural parts of Maine. Whitcomb explained that the map identifies locations for pick-your-own farms, corn mazes, sugarhouses, hiking trails, parks, all of Maine’s 140-plus farm stands and hundreds of other opportunities for visitors and Maine residents alike to get out and experience what is happening on the local level.

Whitcomb is happy to say that last year’s experiment to have a farm stand at the show was a huge success and that it will be expanded in 2017. He likes that attendees walk away from the show with Maine produce in their bags and not just brochures and business cards.

Ultimately the goal of the trades show continues to be building economic opportunity for Maine’s farmers. The show gives producers a chance to meet and talk directly to wholesale, retail and institutional buyers. It creates opportunities for farmers to learn about agricultural grants, to learn how to access stimulus money available for agricultural projects and to discover new innovations. He also said that it is a great opportunity for farmers who are considering moving to Maine and those locals who are considering moving into farming.

Farmland protection and easements

A few times a year, MFT will buy an entire farm, protect it with an easement and then resell it in whole or in parts to new farmers. This is how Cooper Funk and his wife, Marina Sideris were able to purchase their farm in Camden. A densely populated and financially stable town on the coast, the value of developable land is particularly high and the value of farmland is low. His farm was purchased first by MFT with a combination of community fundraising and federal grant money. It was the last viable piece of farmland in Camden and MFT received huge community support in its efforts to purchase the farm. Funk explained that MFT did all the leg work to make it possible to purchase their 40-acre farm. By focusing on issues like soil maps, the legal issues, and connecting them with available federal government grants and setting up a customized easement for their current and future farming needs, MFT helped with each step of the sale. Cooper now farms what MFT calls a Forever Farm, a farm that will never be subdivided for development but that will instead remain a viable food source for future generations.

Dan Curran on his farm.

Andy Smith, of The Maine Milkhouse Farm in South China, Maine, credits MFT with lowering barriers to entry that he and his wife, Caitlin Frame, faced while dreaming of becoming farmers. For Smith that meant at the closing, MFT paid about 20 percent of the cost the farm because their 280-acre farm is included in an agricultural easement. The top priority when drafting an agricultural easement is the individual farmer and his future plans; this makes the process more flexible than other kinds of land easements. It includes provisions to allow for fencing, farm buildings, land clearing and other improvements that the farmer foresees in the future. Smith and Frame bought the farm from a retired farmer who had not considered MFT when selling his farm. However, he was eager to sell his property and happy that MFT put the buyers in contact with him. He allowed Smith and Frame to draft an easement with MFT to purchase the land. The calculation for determining what land will support an easement is complex and requires an assessment that includes variables like market analysis, soil maps, assessment of the farm’s existing infrastructure as well as an assessment of the surrounding community’s food needs.

Another way that MFT protects farmlands is by accepting donated land and drafting easements for the landowners. When a farmer donates land to be protected by an MFT easement, certain rights and restrictions of a property are given free of compensation. The donated easement ensures that the donor’s land will be available for farming into the future but it also comes with some financial benefits. A donated easement can be considered a charitable donation and thus deducted from taxes. Donated easements help landowners avoid capital gains or estate taxes and in some cases help to reduce property taxes.

MFT’s central office located on Maine Street in Belfast, Maine

MFT only purchases parcels of farmland for easements that qualify under their strict guidelines. The benefit for the farmer is ready cash that they can reinvest in the farm or use to pay off debts. Farmers also benefit from selling an easement on their land by being able to extract some equity before passing it on to the next generation.

Dan Curran of Curran Farm in Sabattus, Maine, is a second-generation farmer who placed all of his arable land, 90 acres, in an agricultural land trust with MFT last spring. He was born on the Curran home farm in 1950 and decided to place the farm in trust to ensure its use as farmland for his three children. All of them support his decision to place the farm in an easement with MFT. Curran said, “Anything that keeps land in farmland is worthwhile.” Curran is also happy with the way that MFT’s Farmland protection project manager, Nina Young, quickly responded to all of his questions about the easement program.

Farm viability

For MFT, protecting farmland is only the first step in securing a future for Maine’s farmers. They offer various services and assistance to working farmers. They help individuals with developing business plans, cash flow analysis, product pricing, farm labor and personnel management and finding farm loans and other funding. They hold workshops, namely Farming for Wholesale and Four Season Farming. Their Farm Viability Program also provides grants to nonprofit organizations, schools, community groups and individuals who need funding for projects that specifically increase food sustainability.

While many support MFT’s efforts to preserve open space and farmland in Maine, not everyone agrees with their approach to land conservation. MFT is aware that easements and land protection does not work for everyone. They encourage landowners to carefully consider how an easement will change their relationship to their land. While they say that few landowners regret granting easements on their land, easements do place restrictions on what was once private property. An easement most commonly causes problems when its restrictions prevent the owner from some use that the farmer did not anticipate before granting the easement.

Andy and Linus, walking with their dairy herd

With an expected 400,000 acres of Maine farmland expected to change hands in the next 10 years as farmers retire and sell out, MFT is clearly aware of their need to continue to develop and finetune their programs. The working theory at MFT is that where there are vibrant thriving farms, there are also sustainable rural communities. Amanda Beal has recently taken over as MFT’s president and CEO and she is eager to continue Piotti’s work. Her long-term goals are summed up in the question, “What do we need to be doing to make sure we are going to have successful farmers in 50 years?”