Farming in Maine can be a tough row to hoe. Pressured by huge
national and international agribusinesses supplying giant grocery
chains, family farms in Maine have been marginalized even within their
own state, struggling to compete with hormone-enhanced beef and
gas-ripened tomatoes trucked in from corporate-owned megafarms.
Without a strong local connection, food quickly becomes just another
packaged and processed commodity. As economic forces widen the gap
between consumers and producers, the connection between farmers and
their communities deteriorates as well, completing a socioeconomic
one-two punch for the farming lifestyle.
But Maine farmers are a tough breed, and their successes are evidence
of the power of determination and adaptability.
Since the first settlers carved field from forest more than 300
years ago, farming in Maine has required hard work, long hours and
more than a little luck. Farmers learned to hedge their bets against
dry summers, killer frosts, plant pests and livestock diseases to
ensure that there would be enough food on the table and money in the
cupboard to get them through until the next season. Today more than
ever, diversification continues to insulate the family farm from
disaster, helping farmers to earn a decent income and maintain their
connection to the communities in which they live.
"We've got a little bit of everything going on here. There's always
a new idea and a new project," says Patty Treworgy of Treworgy Family
Orchards in Levant. "Our entire operation is direct-to-consumer, so we
really try to keep up with what our customers like or don't like, and
what they would like to see in the future."
The Treworgys are not alone. According to a recent study by
University of Maine School of Economics researchers Thomas Allen, Todd
Gabe and James McConnon, direct-to-consumer enterprise is a critical
part of the success of many Maine farms. The trio applied their
combined expertise in economics to determine how consumer-oriented
activities — from roadside stands to farm-based festivals — contribute
to the success of Maine farms. The study was conducted in cooperation
with Deanne Hermon of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and
Rural Resources, and funded by the Maine Agricultural Center at
Using surveys and statistics from a variety of sources, the group
identified a broad range of direct-to-consumer activities as examples
of agritourism, and set out to determine how they influence the Maine
economy and survival of the family farm.
"Research in a lot of states is looking at some of the same
questions, trying to learn more about agritourism and the needs of
farms involved in it," says Gabe, an associate professor in the School
of Economics. "We wanted to provide some solid information to use as a
starting point for people in Maine."
The researchers surveyed nearly 500 Maine farms that
self-identified as agritourism businesses in records filed with the
Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources. Of those
surveyed, the majority depended on agritourism for more than half of
their farm revenues.
"The surveys showed that agritourism is a proven economic
development strategy for small farms," says McConnon, UMaine
Cooperative Extension business and economics specialist, and a
professor in the School of Economics. "Trends in wholesale agriculture
have made it more challenging for small farms to produce the kind of
volume that allows them to continue to be price competitive.
Agritourism allows small farms to diversify in ways that capture more
consumer dollars, helping them to survive."
For many of the farms, the potential profitability of
direct-to-consumer sales began as a way to supplement shrinking profit
margins of wholesale production. Diversification has been a key to the
survival of Maine's family farms, with income from a farm stand or a
farm-based event making up for crop losses or sudden drops in
wholesale prices for products.
"We started out making most of our income from the cows, selling
them for breeding stock and meat. We did that for years, but it was a
lot of work and was really time consuming," says Andrea Smith, who
operates the 52-acre Brae Maple Farm in Union with her husband, Allan.
"We started to shift to selling more plants and vegetables, and now
that's our main focus. We do the farmers' markets in Rockland, Camden
and Belfast, and the Common Ground Fair, and we work a lot with the
Cooperative Extension's Master Gardeners Program."
Farmers' markets, on-farm events, community classes and other
agritourism activities add complexity to their farm business. They
have to plan planting and harvesting to jive with market schedules,
coordinate farm duties and transportation to ensure products and
people get where they need to be, and fill out reams of paperwork for
government programs. From small hurdles to massive roadblocks, there
are a lot of considerations that can stand in the way of success for
an agritourism project, considerations many farmers may not have the
time or expertise to handle effectively.
That's where UMaine Cooperative Extension comes in.
Extension faculty like Donna Coffin of Piscataquis County provide
training and expertise where and when farmers need it, helping to
ensure a good crop and a mutually beneficial connection between
farmers and their communities.
"Donna has jumped us ahead in many ways. By advising us on grants
that are available and helping us put the grants together, she has
helped us get new equipment, put bushels and bushels of food into the
local food cupboard, and connect with educational programs on
everything from storing vegetables to dealing with government
regulations," says Sid Stutzman, who runs Douty Hill Farm in
Sangerville with his wife, Rainie.
With Coffin's help, the Stutzmans and other area farmers got a
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Grant to establish
Maine Highland Farmers four years ago. Members jointly market their
produce, print maps to guide new customers to their farms and organize
educational talks on marketing their products and other subjects.
The connections agritourism fosters in a community have
far-reaching implications. By strengthening the sustainability of
small farms and creating jobs, agritourism plays an important role in
the preservation of Maine's small farms. Family farms, in turn,
preserve rural communities and traditional Maine lifestyles that offer
direct benefits to the tourism industry.
"We have people from Connecticut and Massachusetts who make our
farm stand a seasonal stop. They buy pies and produce, and get their
winter storage of potatoes, and we've gotten to know them," says
Stutzman. "When we make these connections, we are helping to define
what central Maine is for the people who are here for a few weeks and
for the people who live here."
Agritourism fits well with the state's tourism strategy to
capitalize on the beauty of Maine's natural assets, says Allen, a
senior research scientist with UMaine's Center for Tourism, Research
and Outreach. "Natural resource-based tourism and ecotourism are two
of the fastest growing sectors in the tourism industry. Agritourism is
able to provide the authentic experience that many visitors look for
Gabe, McConnon and Allen conservatively estimate that agritourism
activities currently generate more than $28 million in sales and
support more than 1,700 full- and part-time jobs on Maine farms. In
addition to the farm sales, the researchers used a statewide economic
model to examine how agritourism activity relates to other businesses
and industries across the state. Findings show that agritourism
activity on Maine farms generates an additional $13 million of
economic activity in non-farm businesses, pushing the total
contribution to the Maine economy to approximately $41 million.
According to UMaine's survey, a fourth of Maine's agritourism
farmers established their businesses in the last five years, and
nearly half are interested in adding more agritourism activities.
The study also found that agritourism farms in Maine may benefit
from establishing strong connections and linkages with tourism-related
businesses and organizations in their communities.
Further research by McConnon, Gabe and Allen will include a study
of the interactions between agritourism and other tourism-based
"We discovered a real gap in the research. There was no baseline
for direct farm-to-consumer activity in Maine. This research is
helping to fill that gap," says McConnon. "Our goal now is to find out
how best to support farmers who are pursuing agritourism activities."
by David Munson
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