Local Farming, Part II 

There are about eight thousand farms in Maine. That number’s not only holding strong, it’s growing. And it’s also changing in other ways. Last night, we met the family at Thomas Farms of Garland. They’re holding their own in a tough economy– and there’s many like them across the state.But they’re also being joined by a new generation of farmers.”Each person has their thing they do. Mary and Kevin and Peter do the cattle thing. Terry tends the crops, and I just float around,” says Jim Thomas.Thomas Farms of Garland works like one of its well-oiled machines.Most of the people here say, given the choice, there’s not anything else they’d rather do.”I can do something different every day, if I want to. There’s always something different to do. My brother, we always joke, is the plumber, the electrician and the mortician,” says Mary Wilson. She’s Jim’s daughter and the president of Thomas Farms of Garland, Inc.The number of dairy farms in Maine has been holding fairly steady at more than three hundred. That’s despite continued obstacles, including the price of milk.”Those family farms that are struggling with the low price of dairy products and the milk price– I think we’re going through an aggressive change. And the landscape will look different certainly in the future. We’re going to lose some folk, but we’re also gaining some people,” says Seth Bradstreet, Maine’s agriculture commissioner.He calls family farms an industry in transition. “I think we’re converging from an older generation to a newer generation. We’ve got a lot of young folk coming in, young farmers, family farmers.”Bradstreet says, outside the dairy industry, the average age of farmers in Maine is getting younger, and the total number of farms in the state continues to grow. He believes a movement toward healthy, locally produced foods is helping bring new people into the mix, including lots of folks with 10 to 20 acre parcels, where not everyone in the family works on the farm.”Once they understand the needs of the local community and their surrounding area, we’ve see a lot of growth in the production in those types of farms,” he says.Maine farmers are also marketing and selling their products in new ways.”We’ve got a lot of online buying clubs that are in their infancy here. We’re very aggressive in the future of how that should handle. And CSAs are alive and well,” Bradstreet says.While new farmers are entering the field, it’s not for everyone. And on established farms, hard decisions are being made.”Does a next generation want to pick up the work ethic of seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 52 weeks a year? That’s a real tough lifestyle. And if you haven’t lived it, it’s tough to imagine. It’s got to be in your blood, and in your mind for you to be successful,” he says.On the Thomas Farm, Mary says the challenges are worth it for her family.”I think about retirement once in a while, when you might have a little more time off. But I can’t imagine not farming,” she says.”We are a fragile agriculture economy here in Maine. All the entities in the industry need to continue to support everybody else,” Bradstreet says. “It’s like a family. You talk about the family farm, and that’s essentially agriculture in the state of Maine.”