With the Cumberland County Fair starting this weekend, and the Fryeburg Fair coming on its heels, fall is the season to showcase Maine’s farms.
In addition to the pumpkin and squash competitions, exhibition halls and livestock shows at the fairs, farmers are also preparing for the harvest, finishing up a season of farmers markets, and welcoming people onto their land to pick their own produce.
While it is an exciting time of the year for farms, it is also an interesting time in the history of Maine agriculture, one marked by transition, creativity and hope. The rising desire for local food – the heightened awareness of where our food comes from and how its production influences our lives – has shone a spotlight on farms, and in Maine that has led to ideas and partnerships that bode well for the future of agriculture.
Farming, which in its history was first used for individual, then community, sustenance before moving predominantly to a large-scale, industrial model, is now slowly returning to the community level, where food is grown, not produced.
But with this shift comes a challenge. Decades of corporate farming, accompanied by overwhelming marketing, have led us in large part to stop questioning what goes into the food that is going in our bodies. It seems the most basic task, one key to our survival, has been lost for a while. It is only now coming back.
Locally produced food can become the rule rather than the exception, but it is going to take a day-to-day effort from us, the consumers.
The farmers, the other end of this equation, are already meeting us more than half way. They are fully embracing this new age of agriculture, in which the health of a community and its farms are inexorably linked. Farms, like Rippling Waters in Steep Falls, are working with schools and senior citizen programs, gaining customers while providing healthy meals to those in need. They are diversifying into areas like agricultural tourism, with activities like giant pumpkin growing, corn mazes and behind-the-scenes tours.
And they are expanding, offering things like locally raised meat, eggs, candles and crafts to go along with produce, and bringing it all to the ever-growing number of farmers markets and farm stands.
Now, more people need to be willing to visit the farmers markets and farm stands as much as they do the supermarket, to get what they can locally before filling in the blanks with food shipped in from elsewhere.
Sure, it could be a little more expensive in the short term – no small consideration when money is tight.
But the difference – fresh, local food instead of food grown and shipped from hundreds or even thousands of miles away – will be made up in time, with more vibrant local businesses that create jobs and pay taxes, and healthier citizens who demand less from the health-care system. It will mean food without chemicals, and livestock less susceptible to disease.
It will mean, in short, a stronger Maine.