Sweetening Maine's economic pie

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While all attention was on maple syrup last week, a little publicized news item caught our eye that was surprising: Honey production is up in Maine, significantly.

For many years now, the honeybee population has been struggling. Colony collapse disorder is something most Americans by now have heard about. It’s especially worrying since farmers around the country rely on bees to pollinate most of their crops, and without bees our food options are quite limited.

In Maine, the good news is that honey production was up 25 percent, to 470,000 pounds in 2015, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. The number of colonies likewise jumped 25 percent, to 10,000. Yield per colony averaged 47 pounds, unchanged from 2014. Honey prices increased during 2015 to $5.51 per pound, up 10 percent from $4.99 per pound in 2014, the data service reported.

Maine officials had more good news to add to the national figures regarding honeybees. The number of licensed beekeepers in Maine has almost tripled in the last decade, and registered hive counts have jumped from 5,000 to 10,000 in the same time.

Gov. Paul LePage took notice of the upwardly trending figures, saying the news is “yet another sign that Maine agriculture continues to make progress toward the goal of becoming the breadbasket of New England.”

He’s right. Maine is nearly as large as the five other New England states combined, and has hundreds of thousands of acres of tillable farmland. And Maine farmers are taking advantage. In the last decade, there’s been a real push to “get back to the land” with hobby farmers popping up and small farm operations becoming trendy, especially as Maine consumers become more interested in local food and restaurants feature locally sourced food. The throngs flocking to maple producers on Easter weekend is proof that Mainers appreciate a good, local food source.

What we find most remarkable is the fact that honey production is up at all. We’ve been bombarded with bad news regarding the nation’s honeybees for many years now and never thought we’d see something so positive. Everything from neonicitinoid pesticides and Mexican killer bees to cellular radiation and electrical wires have been blamed for causing the decimation of honeybees. So, this bit of good news, reached in the face of such challenges, is a feather in Maine food producers’ cap, and adds to Maine’s reputation as a state where farmers can thrive despite the hurdles.

The news regarding honey is just one small element of Maine’s thriving food-based economy. Other sources of pride statewide include Backyard Farms in Madison harvesting greenhouse-grown tomatoes, Wyman blueberry fields Down East, white potatoes grown in Aroostook County, Cold River Vodka sourced from potatoes grown in Fryeburg, not to mention the millions of pounds of lobsters caught annually along the coast. Add to those major sources the myriad small food producers supplying farmers markets that are appearing in so many small Maine towns and you’ve got yourself an economy that is attuned to Mother Nature, as well as current food trends. Many folks understandably want to know the person who grows their food, and there are viable ways to make that happen here.

Maine doesn’t have skyscrapers, is losing its industrial sector with each paper-plant closing, and only has a handful of large employers. But what we do have – lots of land and clean water – we are putting to good use to make the state prosperous and successful. We won’t ever replace the Midwest and Great Plains as the breadbasket for the entire country, but it’s reassuring that Maine is diversifying its own food options and making a good name for itself in the process. Made-in-Maine is something we can all be proud of, farmers and consumers.

-John Balentine, managing editor

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