Those of us at Maine Farmland Trust firmly believe that we need to employ many different types of tools to get more farmers on the land. Cooperative ownership is one of those important tools. By incentivizing such ownership, LD 1338 — An Act to Create and Sustain Jobs through Development of Cooperative and Employee-Owned Businesses — has the potential to be an important part of increasing access to farmland in Maine.
MFT is a statewide organization with a growing membership that works to protect farmland, support farmers and advance the future of farming. In our work, one of the biggest challenges we face is that Maine farmers age 65 and older own or manage 36 percent of the farms in Maine, but more than 90 percent of them do not have identified successors. These farmers manage more than 400,000 acres of land.
Such statistics are a concern because they suggest that the future of these farms, and all of the acres they steward, is uncertain. Connecting landowners with incoming farmers helps keep this land in production, whether through a sale, lease arrangement, or by supporting a farmer’s search for land. Many of MFT’s programs, including Maine Farmlink, our Purchased Easement Program and the support services we provide to beginning farmers are focused on achieving that goal.
Cooperative ownership can provide many important benefits to agricultural producers. These benefits include:
• Creating an economy of scale for smaller farms that allows them to access needed services or facilities, lower their costs, increase production to open new markets, generate more income and increase access to capital;
• Sharing the costs, burden and risk of growing, marketing and distributing products;
• Combining knowledge, skills, labor and other supports; and
• Providing a longstanding vehicle to transition land, resources and businesses among produce.
MFT has witnessed the benefits of cooperative ownership firsthand. New Roots Cooperative Farm is a producer cooperative founded by four graduates of Cultivating Community’s New American Sustainable Agriculture Program (NASAP). The four farmers are Somali-Bantu refugees who have been farming in the United States since 2006 at NASAP’s incubator farm in Lisbon Falls. In January 2016, MFT was able to help New Roots find a 30-acre parcel of the former Gendron Dairy Farm in Lewiston along with Cultivating Community, Cooperative Development Institute, and Land for Good. The four co-owners of New Roots incorporated as a cooperative to share land, markets, infrastructure and resources, and this ownership structure has allowed them to expand their operations successfully.
Given the amount of farmland that may soon change hands, Maine needs as many tools as possible to ensure the transfer of this land from one generation of farmers to the next. Doing so will ensure that farms continue to play an essential role in Maine by feeding communities and stimulating the economy.
LD 1338 provides important tax incentives for establishing cooperatives such as New Roots that will increase access to farmland and provide important economic, labor, marketing and risk-sharing benefits. For all of these reasons, we hope that citizens across the state will ask their legislators and the governor to help preserve farms through cooperative ownership and support L.D. 1338.
Ellen Sabina is the outreach and communications director for Maine Farmland Trust in Belfast.