Why We Should Stand Together as One in Agriculture

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In agriculture, we’re making a conscious effort to learn more about consumer perceptions, as we strive to strengthen consumer trust and identify what consumers are looking for in the marketplace.

We appear to be living in an era where issues are increasingly more divisive and polarizing, regardless of whether you’re referring to politics, food or the way we raise animals and crops. Myths and misinformation are surfacing everywhere we turn, including on social media, in the news media and even sometimes in our own families.

As farmers who produce safe and affordable food here in the Northeast, we need to rise above this divisiveness and bridge the gaps between urban and rural, consumer and farmer, and even occasionally farmer and farmer, to identify common ties that bind us all.

In agriculture, we’re making a conscious effort to learn more about consumer perceptions, as we strive to strengthen consumer trust and identify what consumers are looking for in the marketplace. Sometimes it can be challenging to make changes that satisfy all of society’s rapidly changing needs, but it can also present us with opportunities as well.

For example, many consumers tell us they want locally grown food. They say they like knowing where their food comes from and purchasing food from a trustworthy farmer. I know many local and trustworthy farmers who are growing and producing a variety of tasty, safe and fresh agricultural products. Meanwhile, it is also important to note that many of those trustworthy farmers also raise and grow high quality food that is sold in your supermarket, as opposed to a roadside stand.

Many buzzwords are associated with food production, including terms like conventional, local, sustainable and environmentally-friendly.These words can cause confusion with the public, and even occasional friction within our industry.

Pennsylvania Farm Bureau believes there is room for everyone in agriculture. If there are farmers out there willing and able to meet specific consumer needs, it’s a win for consumers and all of agriculture. At the same time, it can help farmers prosper and ensure opportunities for future generations.

As we move forward, the agriculture community needs to stick together. With farmers comprising less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, it is not in our best interest to disparage the production practices of another. We’re all farmers, and we’re all in this challenging industry together. Yes, we are passionate about what we do, including growing and producing food for our friends, our community, our state, our nation and even the world. We can have our own niches, but we must hold tight to the common tie of agriculture. At the end of the day, we’ll be a stronger industry if we can stand together as one.

As we do that, we need to remember to be inclusive of the next generation of agriculturalists, such as FFA and 4-H members, Collegiate Farm Bureau students, members of Young Farmer and Rancher groups, and our own sons and daughters. They are all our future.

Although it hasn’t always been easy, one of my greatest joys is having my sons work right beside me on the farm. They often challenge me to think a differently, look at new avenues for potential revenue and give me a fresh perspective. We are all better because of it.

We have to do more than just make room for these new farmers – we need to engage them and help them rise. Just because some of our new generation and even some of our seasoned folks, don’t necessarily fit the “traditional” or “conventional” mold of agriculture, it doesn’t mean we should leave them out.

As farmers, we expect change and often embrace it. So, instead of focusing on how we may have different approaches to growing and marketing food, we should recognize that we are all interested in producing high quality products that meet and exceed the expectations of consumers. When we stand together and are one with agriculture, there should be plenty of opportunities for all of us to thrive.

NYFB’s Stance on WOTUS

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With the new rule, WOTUS was no longer defined by being just navigable water where you could float a boat. Now the federal government considered dry farmland or a roadside ditch that was occasionally wet following a rainstorm to be bodies of water, too.

Regulatory reform has long been a priority for farmers. Numerous local, state and federal agencies have a say in almost every aspect of farming. The regulations, paperwork and costs can be quite burdensome when all you want to do is get out into the fields and do your job of growing food and caring for livestock.

This is why Farm Bureau was so concerned when the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers went down the controversial path to greatly expand the Clean Water Act by redefining the “Waters of the U.S.” With the new rule, WOTUS was no longer defined by being just navigable water where you could float a boat. Now the federal government considered dry farmland or a roadside ditch that was occasionally wet following a rainstorm to be bodies of water, too. That never made much sense to farmers.

This defies the plain wording of the Clean Water Act as intended by Congress who writes the laws of the land, not federal agencies. Congress did not write the Clean Water Act to give the federal government unlimited control over all water. Because of the WOTUS Rule as implemented, farmers simply cannot reliably know what is and is not regulated. A mistake can mean $50,000 a day in fines or a loss of use of farmland entirely. This action places an undue burden and increased regulatory control on farmers with no added benefit to the environment.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told us that they would exempt standard farm practices. Therefore, it should not be a big deal to switch from growing wheat after using the land for grazing, for instance. Actually, that scenario turned into a big deal after the EPA condemned the land, even forbidding it from being cultivated for many years. California farmer John Duarte is fighting such a charge in Tehama County, California.

Farm Bureau has been aggressive in challenging the rule. At the national level, the Ditch the Rule campaign brought many of our issues to light. New York Farm Bureau members sent thousands of postcards to the EPA asking officials to withdraw the rule until reasonable changes could be made. Instead, the EPA launched a counteroffensive to discredit publicly what farmers were saying. Launching a website and a social media campaign, and funding anti-farm billboards are not wise uses of taxpayer money, especially at a time when the EPA was asking for public comments. The U.S. Government Accountability Office also issued a legal opinion, upon completing an investigation, which found EPA had broken the law with its lobbying campaign advocating for its own rule.

Luckily, we were not alone in opposing the WOTUS rule. Nearly 30 states sued the EPA citing that both Congress and the Supreme Court had drawn a reasonable distinction between federal and state waters that the EPA’s proposal ignores. In turn, two federal courts have blocked the rule for now, but we need much more to be done. President Trump has stepped forward to ask the EPA to review the rule with the hope that it will be rescinded. Farmers across the country and in New York applauded the reasonable request. However, we cannot let up in opposing the rule until it has been reversed.

This does not mean we are looking to dismantle regulations that have proven value in keeping our water clean in this country. Healthy natural resources are important for what we do every day. It is why we value being good environmental stewards. We just want sound environmental policy that has scientific justification to back up the decision-making. We need a balance that is workable on farms in this country.

We are confident the courts will find this is a violation, and we will look to our congressional representatives to hold the EPA accountable to follow the intent of the law that Congress established under the Clean Water Act. It is Farm Bureau’s goal to pursue rational and effective environmental policies. Necessary regulations are one thing. A federal agency that oversteps its bounds and circumvents Congress is quite another.


MFBF’s New Legislative Session Benefits the Farmer

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This winter marked the beginning of the 2017-18 legislative session on Beacon Hill in Massachusetts and a new session means starting the process over again with filing and re-filing bills.

This winter marked the beginning of the 2017-18 legislative session on Beacon Hill in Massachusetts and a new session means starting the process over again with filing and re-filing bills. The Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) was the driving force behind filing agricultural-related bills and has supported numerous others that benefit farmers.

Another version of the Omnibus Bill, a conglomeration of a number of bills and provisions, has been refiled in the both the House and the Senate. While this year’s bill contains many provisions that MFBF supports, there are some that the organization is concerned about. As the bill progresses, MFBF will continue to monitor it in order to address these concerns.

As the session progresses, MFBF will be sending alerts and other information to members on how they provide support for these bills and hopefully move them along.

HD1356 – AN ACT TO PROMOTE THE CARE AND WELL-BEING OF LIVESTOCK

Creates a board within the Department of Agricultural Resources consisting of farmers, local humane organizations, veterinary organizations and relevant state agencies.

The board will be charged with ensuring livestock is treated humanely and will be given the ability to create relevant regulations, guidance, etc.

HD2338 – AN ACT ESTABLISHING AN AGRICULTURAL TOURISM STUDY COMMISSION

Agritourism is a growing business in Massachusetts, but is running up against conflicts with local zoning, agricultural preservation restrictions, etc.

This bill creates a Commission to explore how to appropriately support and expand this growing sector.

HD645 – AN ACT TO PROMOTE AND STRENGTHEN AGRICULTURAL PRESERVATION

This bill would delete a very broad and vaguely worded provision of the statute governing the administration of the Agricultural Preservation Restriction program. This provision has been responsible for significant conflict and misunderstanding in the administration of the APR program.

HD3032 – AN ACT TO ESTABLISH ESTATE TAX VALUATION FOR FARMS

This bill would ensure that for estate tax purposes, farmland is taxed at its agricultural value. Presently inherited farmland is taxed at its highest and best use. Often that means that those inheriting farmland have to sell some of it to pay the estate tax.

The bill contains a provision that if land is converted from farmland within 10 years of inheritance, that appropriate back taxes are paid.

SD258 – AN ACT RELATIVE TO APPLICATION DEADLINES FOR AGRICULTURAL, HORTICULTURAL, OR RECREATIONAL LAND

Paperwork for Chapter 61a is due Oct. 1 of each year – right in the middle of the growing season. This bill would move the deadline for applying for Chapter 61, 61a and 61b to Dec. 1.

Currently, if a municipality simply does not respond to a Chapter 61b application, the application is denied. This bill would give the town 90 days to respond. If they fail to do so, the property is automatically enrolled in 61b.

HD891 – AN ACT RELATIVE TO NON-CONTIGUOUS FARM LAND

Under Chapter 61a, qualifying land must be at least five contiguous acres. This is becoming a barrier to many small farms who farm less than five acres, as well as opening up new farmland where much of what is available is less than five acres in size.

This bill would allow land to be enrolled in 61a so long as there was a minimum of 5 acres, and non-contiguous plots are within 10 miles of each other, or within the same municipality.

Cultivating Relationships on Pennsylvania Avenue

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Regardless of your political persuasion, I think we in agriculture can agree that the pendulum of federal regulations has swung too far.

If you were watching some of the post-inauguration festivities on television or social media, you might have seen a strange sight on Pennsylvania Avenue.

After Donald Trump was inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president, the celebration kicked off with an inaugural parade. A tractor brigade participated in the parade, making its way through the streets of our nation’s capital – including past the White House.

Our own American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall was behind the wheel of one of those tractors. And even closer to home, two members of the Pennsylvania FFA State Officer Team were marching in the parade – holding a sign announcing the tractor brigade.

It was a welcome sight for farmers.

And I hope it’s a sign that times are changing in Washington.

Regardless of your political persuasion, I think we in agriculture can agree that the pendulum of federal regulations has swung too far.

We point back to the misguided “waters of the U.S.” rule, commonly referred to as WOTUS, as the standard bearer for overregulation – for good reason.

Although the intentions of protecting water quality and preventing pollution are goals on which farmers and bureaucrats agree, government officials often fail to comprehend the unintended consequences of their plans to meet those goals.

Under the previous administration, the Environmental Protection Agency broadened the agency’s regulatory reach under the Clean Water Act. We believe they worked to skirt the law while extending their jurisdiction far beyond “navigable waters” (think Susquehanna River or the Ohio River) to distant tributaries, seasonal streams and ditches.

While that philosophically may seem like a good idea, the practical on-the-ground reality is far from ideal. Under WOTUS, farmers would need a federal permit to perform even routine tasks, such as treating crops. In addition, farmers could be stuck in limbo waiting for EPA to decide if their land is subject to additional regulations under the rule. An entire growing season could come and go before we receive an answer from EPA, jeopardizing our ability to harvest those fields.

More importantly, farmers do not make land use decisions that result in the loss of our productive soil or contamination of the water that sustains our crops and animals. That would be a poor business decision and fly in the face of the conservation ethic that is ingrained in farm families.

But we in agriculture had a tough time getting anyone in the EPA to understand those practical realities.

That’s why we at Farm Bureau are strongly supporting Scott Pruitt as the next EPA administrator. The attorney general from Oklahoma played a major role in leading the legal fight against the WOTUS rule. We are hopeful that he gets the opportunity to “ditch the rule” as EPA chief and formulate a new water protection rule that works for agriculture.

We are also heartened by the choice of Sonny Perdue to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farm Bureau was fortunate to have a good working relationship with former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack and we have every expectation that will continue with Sonny Perdue.

Perdue comes from a farm background and is trained as a veterinarian. As a two-term governor of Georgia, he has the experience and prudence to lead a diverse and complex federal agency that is crucial to the success of farm families.

Under Perdue’s leadership, the agency will implement a new Farm Bill that we hope will come to fruition in 2018. Farm Bureau has already started the policy development process around a new Farm Bill – including getting help for our beleaguered dairy farmers – and we will continue to play a large role as the legislation is shaped.

We fully expect Perdue to utilize the skills he developed working on a farm in conjunction with his political experience to lead USDA through these crucial times in agriculture.

As the Trump administration settles in, we are hopeful that the promises of rolling back unneeded regulations, creating a level playing field for businesses and implementing a fairer tax code indeed play out in the months ahead. At the same time, we will work with the administration to ensure our voice is heard on trade and immigration.

Rural America played a crucial role in the last presidential election. Our hope is that rural America stays engaged over the next four years – and that Washington, D.C., listens to voices from the heartland.

Photo: Pattie Calfy/istock

Rural America: The Road Ahead

road in a rural area

Rural America still counts. We still have a voice. Our opinion matters.

Rural America still counts. We still have a voice. Our opinion matters. There were some who didn’t put much stock in that belief before the election of President Donald Trump last November, but his presidency has turned the political world on its head. It was largely rural voters who elected him to the highest office in the land.

I will admit that even I was not expecting the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. However, hearing the news took me back to December of 2012 when U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told us that rural America was “becoming less and less relevant.” His message was that rural America needed to be more proactive and less reactive on the issues that affect many of us in agriculture.

In my opinion he wanted us to toe the line as President Obama and his administration imposed their will against our very way of life. No longer was American agriculture capable of opposing added regulatory fiat by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Labor or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Rural America was expected to acquiesce as our way of life was changed from what we knew.

On election night, rural America said, “Not so fast.”

So, we now have Trump and a U.S. Congress controlled by the Republican party. What does this mean for agriculture in New York and the Northeast? It is going to be a mixed bag. When it comes to immigration reform, we will be looking at border enforcement, perhaps a wall, and identification verification before we get any comprehensive reform. Farm Bureau has long said an enforcement-only approach would cost American agriculture tens of billions of dollars and would raise food prices for consumers. Along with border enforcement, we need a workable guest worker program that will allow for greater legal access to seasonal and yearround farm labor.

On the trade front, Trump has been very clear on his disdain for free trade agreements, and it is certain that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is dead as we knew it last year. This is concerning because greater access to world markets and a fair trade system that doesn’t allow for tariff retaliation on U.S. exports are essential for growing the farm economy. If TPP alone had passed, the American Farm Bureau Federation estimated that it would have increased cash receipts and net exports from New York by $111.4 million and $66.2 million per year, respectively. It also estimated that the increased marketing opportunities for New York’s farmers and ranchers would have added more than 500 jobs to the New York economy. These are economic opportunities that we still must push for with the new president.

On the positive side, we should see a slowdown and pullback on the many burdensome regulations that have affected businesses of all types. Hopefully, we will say goodbye to the expansion of the Waters of the U.S. that looked to regulate dry farmland under the guise of the Clean Water Act.

It is early in his administration, but we are hopeful officials will be friendlier to rural America and agriculture in general. Hopefully, the new administrator of the EPA will work with agriculture and rural America to establish open lines of communication and allow us to partner with the agency on issues to benefit the environment instead of dictating to us what the rules will be. Tax reform is also on the list as both Trump and congressional leaders have announced plans to reform the current tax code.

We in agriculture have much to gain and lose with the incoming administration. It is imperative that Farm Bureau, at all levels, remains vigilant on our positions and advocates for our rural way of life.

I encourage everyone in farming communities across the region to keep reminding Trump and our elected leaders at every level of government that to ignore rural America has consequences.

Looking Back on 100 Years of New Hampshire Farm Bureau

New Hampshire Farm Bureau 100 year logo

Over 100 years ago, in March 1913, a handful of folks met in Newport, New Hampshire, to form the state’s first County Farm Bureau.

Over 100 years ago, in March 1913, a handful of folks met in Newport, New Hampshire, to form the state’s first County Farm Bureau. Within the next three years, every other county in the Granite State had followed suit and in December 1916 the New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation was founded.

Dedicated to analyzing the problems of farmers and rural families and formulating action to improve them, Farm Bureau has been advocating for agriculture ever since. We have seen many changes in agriculture and at Farm Bureau over the past century. From the horse-and-buggy days to the beginning of the computer age, Farm Bureau has always been involved, constantly meeting the challenges.

What that really means is that the agricultural community in New Hampshire – our membership – has been dedicated and passionate about bettering their lives and the lives of those around them through championing agriculture and the rural way of life. From Farm Bureau’s inception, through their support and involvement at the county and state level, our members have built an organization that has affected real change on the landscape of New Hampshire. Supporting and cooperating with like-minded organizations, building a reputation as the voice of agriculture to our legislators and continually fostering the next generation of leaders has buoyed New Hampshire Farm Bureau’s success. In a rapidly changing world, the same principles will lead us to new successes in the future.

As a grassroots organization, N.H. Farm Bureau has always faced challenges from the ground up. From county meetings to our policy development process, everything starts with our members. That is why it was so special to celebrate 100 years of N.H. Farm Bureau with them in 2016. Over the course of the year, each county held a special event to mark the occasion. The celebrations started in January with a bonfire in Cos County and culminated in November with the 100th annual meeting of the New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee in Meredith.

The year 2016 also saw the Associated Women of New Hampshire Farm Bureau publish “Our Farming Heritage Lives On,” a 250-page book featuring stories and photos of New Hampshire’s longest-running farm families. Years of hard work compiling and editing the contents of this book have paid off in a volume that is a must-have for any library, historical society or history buff. The year-long celebration was the perfect opportunity to reflect on the long history of Farm Bureau and some of the more memorable moments and people.

N.H. Farm Bureau’s second president, “Uncle George” Putnam, served from 1917 through 1950. His philosophy of cooperation spurred Farm Bureau to take part in the organization or sponsorship of groups like the Merrimack Farmers’ Exchange, Manchester Dairy Co-op, New Hampshire Cooperative Marketing Association and more. It was also Farm Bureau policy that instigated the formation of the New England Milk Producers Association. That philosophy still holds true today. Farm Bureau support of New Hampshire Agriculture in the Classroom and the New Hampshire Plant Growers Association are just two examples. Farm Bureau is proud to work closely with those who offer valuable resources to the farming community, like the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.

Expanding access to electricity and telephone services to rural areas was a priority in the 1930s and ’40s. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same as, today, American Farm Bureau is pushing a similar expansion for broadband internet. Farmers need to have access to the most effective tools at their disposal in order to succeed, whether that be in production or marketing. N.H. Farm Bureau helped address one aspect of marketing in 2016 through legislation defining “agritourism” within the state definition of agriculture. Working closely with legislators, the Municipal Association and others, Farm Bureau was central in making sure this legislation protected the creativity of farmers without abandoning the responsibility to be good neighbors.

With the resurgence of local food initiatives and more informed consumers, agriculture in New Hampshire has seen an increase in farms operating within the state. That trend runs opposite of the country as a whole, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture. The growth here could be due in large part to New Hampshire’s women and young farmers.

The percentage of farms with female principal operators in the United States is reported at 14 percent in the most recent Census while in New Hampshire that figure is just over 30 percent. While statistics show that the average age of a farmer is rising, N.H. Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer Committee continues to see ambitious and talented farmers under 35 who are committed to agriculture and their community. In 2016 alone, the group organized the collection and donation of over 8,000 pounds of meat and produce to local food pantries from member farms across the state. Young Farmers are also taking leadership roles in organizations like the New Hampshire Fruit Growers Association and the Northeast Pork Association.

Looking back, there are many programs, actions and people who highlight the importance of Farm Bureau. Looking forward, there is work to be done. Farming isn’t easy and increased regulation and scrutiny continue to make it harder. Connecting farmers with the resources available to help them, sharing their story with the public and providing a voice for agriculture in the legislature all have been the foundation of Farm Bureau for the past 100 years. The philosophy that has guided the organization since its formation remains today and will continue throughout Farm Bureau’s next century of service to the agricultural community.


Guide to the Maine Farmland Trust

a farmland in maine

Maine Farmland Trust helps to protect and preserve.

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, the 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.

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, the 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, the 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.

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 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.

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?”

Photo by Jenny Nelson, courtesy of Maine Farmland Trust.


National FFA Convention: Farming’s Future Is in Good Hands

soil and plant in the palms of a hand

It was an amazing experience to see so many young people interested – and involved – in agriculture assembled in one location.

How about 65,000 blue jackets?

It was an amazing experience to see so many young people interested – and involved – in agriculture assembled in one location.

In October, I had the chance to attend my first National FFA Convention since I was in high school. Witnessing a sea of blue corduroy jackets was breathtaking and inspiring.

My only regret is that it took me this long to find my way back to the FFA national convention.

As a kid, 40 years ago, I was active in FFA and 4-H. I was the Derry FFA chapter president and received my state degree. My children were active in both of these outstanding youth organizations. And I look forward to seeing my grandchildren begin their ag education journey, if they choose.

What struck me most about my experience in Indianapolis for the FFA convention was the optimism and enthusiasm these young folks have for the future of food and farming.

It’s no secret that farm checkbooks have seen better days. As a dairyman, 2015 and 2016 milk prices have given me much to worry about and many new gray hairs.

It’s only natural for folks like me to become jaded. We wake up every morning to farm, only to find new regulations, more constraints, misinformed media campaigns and low commodity prices.

I’m not saying that I’ve grown sour on agriculture’s prospects, but in the daily bump and grind of farming, it is sometimes difficult to see the forest through the trees.

Thankfully, I received notification in late summer that the Pennsylvania FFA state officer team had nominated me to receive an honorary American degree, and I was invited to Indianapolis to receive the award with 134 others. As you know, October is a difficult time for a dairyman – or any farmer – to leave the field and take a road trip.

But I’m grateful for the reason to make the trip.

As anyone who’s been honored to receive an honorary American (or state) degree would agree, I don’t think I’ve given back to FFA as much as I’ve gotten out of the organization.

I didn’t realize it then, but the experiences afforded to me and my peers through the FFA have made such a lasting impact on my life and on my farm.

I was honored to receive the honorary degree plaque, but did so with humility and a greater commitment to the young men and women who will take over the responsibility of growing, transporting, processing and marketing food for the planet’s rapidly growing population.

To be part of an event where the future of farming was so energetic, so lively, so motivating, it helped me again see the larger picture.

Growing food and feeding communities is less about the present, and more about the future. These kids (young adults) are keenly aware of today’s global commodity prices. They understand, firsthand, the unfair criticisms often aimed at today’s farm families.

But they’re excited and prepared to shoulder the responsibility of growing more food on less land than we did.

They’re going to embrace technologies and practices not yet developed to leave a smaller environmental footprint than today.

Having served as a local 4-H leader for decades, and getting to know state FFA and 4-H officer teams over the years, I’ve witnessed this enthusiasm firsthand.

But to see 65,000 young people sharing that energy and passion is a game changer.

I am confident that our vocation is in good hands, and I am excited to see the innovation they will bring to food and farming.

I hope that you’ll join me and the Farm Bureau in supporting our young people in agriculture and the organizations that are committed to helping them grow into tomorrow’s leaders.

Read more: FFA Provides Training Ground for Agriculture and Leadership


Agriculture Inspires Young Farmer’s Photography Passion

agriculture-inspires-image

Kevin Keenan’s new love of photography and his already existing love for agriculture quickly merged.

A western New York man’s new passion for photography developed from his love of agriculture. Now, through his camera lens, he is hoping others can see the wonderful things he has long known about life on the farm.

Twenty-four-year-old Kevin Keenan is an agricultural technician from Caledonia, New York, by trade. He works full time as a precision planting technician at Growmark FS, but he has always been involved with agriculture. His family still manages part of the land from his grandfather’s farm. Keenan Farms sparked his initial interest in agriculture. Then a close childhood friend had a larger farm down the road where, growing up, he began spending his free time. He eventually started working summers there and was hired full time for a period after college.

At the beginning of his career, photography wasn’t really on his radar. “It just kind of happened,” Keenan said.

In his spare time, he would capture agricultural snapshots from around the area. His mother had a digital camera that he started playing with just for fun in 2014. He quickly realized that he needed to “step up his game,” so he purchased a better camera soon after.

Keenan’s new love of photography and his already existing love for agriculture quickly merged as he was sitting in a farm field taking in the view.

“I can vividly remember: it was an awesome sunset and I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could capture that,’” he said.

It really came together later that year. He attended a dinner at a neighbor farmer, who had a guest speaker who emphasized that farmers need to share our stories. “If we don’t do it, no one will,” he was told.

The message really stuck with him, and now that’s what he tries to do. He wants to share the stories of farmers with other people through his photos. He has also started using drones and a GoPro to capture the action up close in video format. He now posts his work on his Facebook page at Kevin Keenan Photography. One video is of a nearby wheat harvest and another of #Plant16, a popular hashtag including photos and videos of the 2016 planting season.

Going forward he hopes to continue growing his Facebook page and taking on more projects. This year he shot some of the billboard photographs for Livingston County’s Farm Fest. Each year six to seven billboards around the county display photos of farm families from the area.

“This type of photography is kind of (a) niche market. We are surrounded by Livingston County, which is the highest grain-producing county in New York state. There aren’t many other photographers around here that are focusing on the same type of thing,” Keenan said.

He encourages other young people who are interested in photography to talk to other photographers.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to them. Just go out and learn; just do it,” Keenan said.

Keenan has extended his network by becoming a member of a local photography society. They meet twice a month and offer educational opportunities and critiques, and are involved in local and national competitions.

He continues to strive to share the stories of agriculture and the people who live it.

“Paul Stein, who is 81 years old and still actively farming, is the perfect example. I think about how cool his life has been. How do you share that with people?” Keenan said. “I still haven’t mastered it.”

But people are starting to notice as he is developing a following on social media. He also received the 2014-2015 Most Improved Photographer award from The Genesee Valley Photography Society. He is well on his way to opening up new eyes to the beauty of agriculture and the passion people have for it, in front of and behind the camera lens.

Is Manure to Blame for the Bay’s Fish Problems?

image of a bay fish

Manure gets too much blame, farmer-biologists say.

The reproductive cycle of fish in the Chesapeake Bay is unusual. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has found male fish in the Susquehanna carrying eggs. And intersex fish have been found. That is simply wrong.

The USGS is monitoring the Juniata River, Swatara Creek (which is a river-size stream) and other watersheds in the mid-Atlantic area. All show male fish with female sex features. Interestingly, the females do not show male attributes.

Farmers have shouldered most of the blame for pollution problems in the Chesapeake Bay. Conventional wisdom said it was manure runoff and chemical fertilizer in the bay watershed that was destroying fisheries. Nutrients were pouring down the Susquehanna from New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland into the watershed.

Many felt that farmers had to be stopped. This mantra, based on some solid scientific research, has been repeated for over a quarter of a century. To agriculture’s credit, much has been done about the situation.

Now comes Cleon S. Cassel, owner of Cassel Vineyards of Hershey in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, to say that manure is not the deep cause of the problem. Yes, he concedes, manure and fertilizer runoff caused problems in the past. But what is hurting the fishing industry – and will hurt it even more in the future – is the runoff of drug store medicines like estrogen from birth control pills, diabetes medications and other legitimate pharmaceuticals. Road salts are not helping. Neither are waste products from hospitals and pharmaceutical plants.

Cleon and his sons, Chris and Craig, all hold master’s degrees and all taught biology. Chris got his master’s degree studying stream runoff at mine sites, so he knows about sampling procedure and research in watersheds.

“This has become a terrible PR problem for farmers,” Cleon said. He would like to see groups like Farm Bureau expend more effort defending farmers and less bragging about crop yields increasing a few percentage points.

This spring, Chris took his biology classes from the Milton Hershey School out to sample every tributary to the Swatara near Hershey. His findings point to drugs and female hormones in the water. That, he said, is why the males show female attributes but not vice versa.

Others concur. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the (USGS) published work in 2009 based on the Potomac and other area watersheds that showed that at least 82 percent of male smallmouth bass and 23 percent of the largemouth bass had immature female germ cells (oocytes) in their reproductive organs.

“Our findings suggest that intersex is both more widespread than previously known, and, at least in the sampled streams, is not related to a single chemical or source,” said Vicki Blazer, a USGS scientist at the Leesville experimental stream lab in Kearneysville, West Virginia.

This condition, a type of intersex, is a disturbance in the fish’s hormonal system and is an indicator of exposure to estrogens or chemicals that mimic the activity of natural hormones. Several other abnormalities were also noted by the researchers from the National Fish Health Research Laboratory, some affecting female bass.

Blazer has looked at why so many male smallmouth bass in area watersheds have immature female egg cells in their testes. Recent research by the USGS points to myriad sources including wastewater treatment plant effluent, agricultural and stormwater runoff. Any or all may contribute to reproductive endocrine disruption, as well as the immunosuppression they found.

Working with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service, two scientific papers were published by the researchers. (Later, Blazer got the American Fisheries Society’s 2010 Publications Award for her article investigating fish mortality.) Based on the results of these studies, no single chemical or source could be identified as causing the intersex abnormalities. Scientists point out that multiple chemicals not solely associated with agriculture or wastewater treatment plant effluents may be responsible.

Maryland Department of Natural Resource (DNR) surveys have documented strong reproduction and abundance of smallmouth bass in recent years. “The Potomac River main stem, Monocacy River and Conococheague Creek remain premier smallmouth bass fishing destinations for anglers,” said John Mullican from Maryland DNR.

White sucker fish also showed a tendency to react to hormones. This surely is a bad portent for the Chesapeake Bay.

Biology background

In addition to being a farmer, Cleon taught biology at Lower Dauphin High School. His son teaches biology at Hershey School. They know biology. Their thoughts are backed up by scientists ranging from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to the National Geographic Society. Their land has been cultivated by the Cassel family since 1903. The Swatara is about a mile from the home farm. Craig and Chris, along with and their wives, Becky and Jody, are the fifth generation to work the farm and are part of the three generations of family that currently work the land near Hershey. Cleon is looking to the future – and the sixth generation is at the rabbit-showing stage in their career.

To date, just 2 percent of the population – farmers, and sometimes golf courses, cemeteries or other green areas – have been asked to bear the onus of the bay’s problems, the Cassels said.

Chris said Blazer’s collection sites are in an area of minimal agricultural runoff. However, he noted there are numerous wastewater plants, institutions like the Milton Hershey Hospital and pharmaceutical plants in the watershed.

Hormones are killing the Chesapeake Bay for fishermen, the father and sons said. “We have regulations for 20 percent cuts in nutrients. We ought to demand 20 percent cuts on estrogen and road salts,” Cleon said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture is aware of the issue but has taken no action to date. The Cassels want the government and other researchers to expend more effort researching hormones and road salts as killers of fish. It is not that they deny manure is part of the problem. They freely admit that it is. However, after 30 years of work with farmers, environmental conditions in the bay are barely holding their own despite huge improvements in reducing ag runoff.

A look at manure

Chris noted that the fish gathered for study outside Hershey were netted near the Hershey Medical Center. No mention of the medical center is made in the research, although he said every male bass taken in that area showed female organs.

“We’ve been beating up farmers about manure ruining every watershed,” noted Sheila Miller who, with her husband, Mike, runs Deitchland Farm near Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania. “Even the kids in school think farmers are to blame.”

Cleon agreed. “The Amish are the easiest people to blame. They never go to court. They never fight back. Farmers are second easiest.”

While Miller is adamant that farmers should not be putting manure into streams, she noted the amount of work that has been done – starting with the decades-old practice of contour farming and continuing to today’s BMPs (best management practices).

The Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) agrees that farmers have done well. “Farmers have made good progress in reducing sediment, nutrient and pesticide losses from farm fields through conservation practice adoption throughout the Chesapeake Bay region,” CEAP stated.

Most cropland acres have structural or management practices – or both – in place to control erosion. Nearly half of the cropland acres are protected by one or more structural practices, such as buffers or terraces. Reduced tillage is used in some form on 88 percent of the cropland. Adoption of conservation practices has reduced edge-of-field sediment loss by 55 percent, losses of nitrogen with surface runoff by 42 percent losses of nitrogen in subsurface flows by 31 percent, and losses of phosphorus (sediment attached and soluble) by 41 percent.

Producers have reduced N by over 45 percent of 2025 targets, phosphates by 32 percent and sediments by 30 percent. Even watchdog agencies concede that ag has done a lot. Farmers have accomplished 50 percent of what they were asked to do to get the bay to a level of nutrients and sediments where it can start to regenerate itself.

Even critics agree that it is likely more has been done by farmers than has been counted. This is primarily because projects that are not cost-shared fly under the government’s radar.

Since it is easy to document cost-share projects – state and federal agencies do a good job of that – those projects are well known. However, improvements producers do on their own are harder to track.

The problem is that the success story is not uniform. CEAP said, “Opportunities exist to further reduce sediment and nutrient losses.” But, as Chris said, that is only part of the problem. And the big, low-hanging fruit is in drugs, not manure.

Historic record

The USGS got involved long ago. In the summer and fall months of 1996 and 1997, an unusually high prevalence of skin lesions in fishes from tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay surprised the fishing community and scientists. These skin lesions ranged from small petechial hemorrhages to abrasions to deep ulcers penetrating underlying muscle and visceral organs. A variety of fish species were involved as indicated by results of surveys conducted by several state and federal agencies during this time period.

In addition, two fish kills involving primarily juvenile Atlantic menhaden occurred in August 1997. The fish kills as well as the variety of fish lesions were attributed to the presence of the toxic dinoflagellate, Pfiesteria piscicida. Because menhaden were the most frequent target of acute fish kills and episodes of fish lesions in the Chesapeake Bay, the penetrating ulcers so common in this species are now viewed by many as “Pfiesteria-related” and thought to be caused by exposure to Pfiesteria toxin.

Even earlier, however, there was reason to doubt that manure or farm fertilizer were the major cause of fish kills. Every farm boy or girl over a certain age remembers being sent down to the pond on the homeplace with a bucket of fertilizer and ordered to toss in some scoops to encourage growth.

The Cassel operation has a couple of farm ponds including one just below the horse barn – a building that used to house 100 head of cattle – that are full of thriving fish. They have received manure, but not estrogen or road salt, since 1948. Other farmers have healthy ponds that have received manure or fertilizer runoff for decades, too.

“Our pond has some of the best fishing in Dauphin County and it is way over-nutrient loaded,” Cleon said.

Cleon noted an old booklet from the folks at Zett’s Fish Hatchery in Drifting, Pennsylvania, that encourages landowners to sink a bale of straw in a pond and add a sack of manure to the mix to encourage smaller aquatic life to feed. “We’d go to jail if we did that today,” he said.

Most farmers are on board with reducing manure and fertilizer runoff. However, manure may be only part of the issue. So-called “nanoparticles” – those man-made bits of material included in hundreds of products ranging from drugs to sunscreen to sporting goods – are what the Cassels and others suspect are doing the bulk of the damage today.

Rebecca Klaper Ph.D., professor at the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, studies nanoparticles. She wants to know what happens when something so small gets into the environment. Scientists still don’t know how these tiny particles interact with the environment and living things, she said. Using environmental genomics, she has studied waterways from Wisconsin across the Great Lakes into Pennsylvania.

To predict the potential impact of nanomaterials on the environment, her group examined properties of nanomaterials that may make them toxic or cause them to impact populations. She uses the aquatic model species Daphnia magna, D. pulex and Oncorhynchus mykiss (rainbow trout) in an effort to make predictions about the impact of current and future nanomaterials and their toxicity.

“Our initial studies have found that nanoparticle toxicity is influenced by the core structure of the nanomaterial as well as how a nanomaterial is introduced into suspension,” Klaper said. For example, titanium dioxide nanomaterials are an order of magnitude less toxic than their fullerene (nC60) counterparts. In addition, smaller particles are more toxic than larger aggregates. “We are continuing this research with other nanomaterials,” she said. A complete investigation will not be a rapid process.

Core particle structure and surface chemistry both act to impact toxicity, immune response and behavior. “Taking a systematic approach to evaluating nanomaterials will provide a basis with which to make predictions about the characteristics of nanomaterials that may affect their interactions with aquatic species,” Klaper said.

Ultimately, she hopes to be able to provide guidance on what makes nanomaterials harmful to the environment and ideas on to how to create environmentally sustainable nanomaterials.

Whatever the cause of the bay’s difficulties today, most observers would agree that anything that impacts the health of the bay should come under review.

Focusing on farmers and manure runoff, to the exclusion of other potentially more-damaging causes, is bad for everyone.

“The finger-pointing at farmers is not going to go away,” Chris said, noting big pharma has too much money in the game to allow that.

Research efforts flow to areas where dollars are available. Nobody in academic research wants to do anything that would cause pharmaceutical companies to withdraw research dollars, he said. However, he sees some hope since wastewater treatment operations know they have “a secret problem” and are working on ways to treat effluent.

“Nobody wants to say, ‘We have met the enemy and they are us,’” Cleon said. “But it is interesting that all the researchers’ findings (of sex-distorted fish) are close to populated areas, close to research facilities, close to pharmaceutical plants.”