In Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Penny Jordan can point with pride to the farmhouse where she, her father and her grandmother were all born. After a career in corporate health care, Penny returned to the farm at age 40 to help her dad and brother build a farmers market and farm-to-table restaurant on one of the first homesteads in the state.
A decade later, Penny is still there, but recent times have been a financial struggle for her family. A few years back, the farming future of the Jordan family was in peril. Her mother was ill. Her father, Bill Jordan, strangled by the costs of running the farm and caring for an ailing wife, had gotten into a serious financial bind.
There weren’t a lot of good options for the Jordan family. Pay off the bills by selling the farmland to developers?
“This is one of the prime vistas in all Maine,” Penny said, waving to the open expanse across the gravel road to a golden field, with views to the coast. “Great views, on a hill — all the land around is going from farmland to neighborhoods. We had an impossible choice — face foreclosure or sell some of our land to a real estate developer.”
She waved to a series of new homes in the neighborhood. “The land for the new houses just over there cost over $100,000 just for the lot. Financially, selling the land to a developer was our best option.”
But the Jordans didn’t want their historic farmstead to be carved into driveways and backyards. They wanted to keep it a farm.
Nonprofit preservation mission
Into the breach came John Piotti, executive director of the Maine Farmland Trust. Founded in 1999, MFT is a nonprofit whose mission is to retain Maine’s vulnerable agricultural land base and keep Maine’s prime farmland from disappearing into “a vast tract of ranch homes.”
MFT is working to support and secure the transfer of farming from one generation to the next. Through a variety of easements that guarantee the land in perpetuity for farming use, and a series of creative and flexible cooperative ventures with counties, the state, the federal government and private benefactors, MFT is able to purchase land from families like the Jordan family at close to market price and sell, lease, or lease with a buy-back provision, to a next generation of family farmers.
The MFT’s website is a virtual market and meeting place for farmland owners who want to sell or lease their land, and farm seekers who are looking for good land to buy or lease. The website is a meeting place for farmers who can tell how many days till first frost by feeling the soil, and newcomers who learn how to slaughter their first pig by watching YouTube videos.
MFT’s objective is to protect 100,000 acres of Maine farmland by 2014. Even at farmland prices, the 100,000-Acre Campaign is expected to cost $50 million, a large financial hurdle, but it is one that MFT expects will pay back $50 million each year according to the economic models developed for MFT.
So far, MFT has preserved more than 17,000 acres. The next jump to 100,000 is a doozy, but, as Piotti says, preserving the state’s farming capacity and character makes the goal a necessity.
MFT works closely with other nonprofits in Maine, including the Maine Organic Farmer and Gardeners Association, which recruit, train and foster young farming talent in Maine. Piotti explains that the vision at MFT isn’t aiming to create a huge agribusiness.
“We hope to build a strong stable medium-sized agricultural capacity that can serve our regional needs,” he said. “There are 20 million acres in Maine and most of it is undeveloped. All the rest of the New England states could fit inside Maine, It’s a big place.”
Piotti, a Maine transplant from his native Nantucket, Mass., is a former Maine state representative. He was the speaker of the state House of Representatives until losing his bid for re-election. Piotti sees Maine’s potential as a breadbasket for the five New England states.
“It’s not only the right thing to do for our farmers. It’s also what we need to stave off the economic realities of future food production for our region. Looking ahead, he says, the “highest and best market use for Maine’s farmland won’t be real estate development, it will be food. MFT is looking at a 25-year window before the economic realities of food production catch up with us.”
Recruiting the next generation of farmers
Like many states, Maine’s family farming population is aging, and for many longtime farming families, the best exit strategy has been to sell the land to the highest market bidder for residential and commercial development, or for parklands and recreation.
Rarely, even if a farming father transfers his land to a farming son or daughter, has farming been the best financial return on the land. As a result, the farmland base in Maine has been shrinking rapidly over the last decades. In areas where there were 500 farms 75 years ago, only two or three remain in operation today. One hundred years ago, Maine had as many as 4 million acres in food production. Now, the local farm acreage in active cultivation is less than 1 million acres.
“We have to retain Maine’s prime topsoil so that it is used for food, not for development,” Piotti stresses.
In neighboring Massachusetts, state agriculture commissioner Scott Soares estimates there is less than a three-day supply of food in the event of a total transportation or weather disruption, which is a strong argument for a regional food shed based in nearby Maine with its much larger land base.
Until MFT was founded, farmers were without a legal or financial advocacy mechanism to bridge the gap between best offer and keeping acres in agricultural production. Of course, as a nonprofit, Maine Farmlands Trust has to raise money to fund its operations and to underwrite its efforts.
“If we do it right,” Piotti said. “Maine’s family farms can feed all of New England over the next 20 to 25 years.”
But even with help from MFT, getting the easement, organizing the sale is not a fast or easy process.
“I have never had to work that hard with so many people and handle so much paperwork for anything!” Penny Jordan said. “And it wasn’t a simple matter to get my father on board at first either. But when my father looked at the final deal, he said to me, ‘Girl, you did well.’ Coming from a man like Bill Jordan, that means a lot.” And what is the future of farming for a family like the Jordans? “Among the three of us, there is one 18-year-old nephew. He seems to like to ride a tractor. We’re hoping.”
Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and founder of letstalkaboutfood.com. She is a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, the food editor for Stuff Magazine and has contributed to Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, among others.
Photos, from top:
Penny Jordan at her family’s farmstand in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
A farm, owned by Chelli Pingree on North Haven Island, that is part of the MFT preservation program.
Credits: Louisa Kasdon