LEWISTON — It’s the time of year when people in Maine start seeing a plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables showing up at local farmers markets, farm stands and other markets.

Agriculture is of course a year-round sector of the economy, which gets a significant seasonal boost. But as the flowers bloom and the fruits start forming, there are concerning trends unearthed in the latest census of agriculture here and across the country.

Every five years the U.S. Department of Agriculture takes the pulse of the nation’s agriculture sector. The 2022 USDA Census of Agriculture shows there are fewer farms in Maine than just five years ago, fewer acres available to be farmed and fewer farmers. This mirrors a national trend of a slow decline of 7% of farms in the same five years, according to the USDA census.

Farms are a driver of the economy in Maine, especially in rural areas, according to census data, with agriculture making up 4.9% of the state’s gross domestic product, or GDP, worth just under $1 billion. And data shows Maine farms took in more money than ever in sales.

Yet, according to the census breakout for Maine, there were 7,036 farms in 2022, down from 7,646 in 2017. This loss is attributed to higher production costs, labor costs and shortages, and unpredictable growing seasons. Nationally, the number of farms dropped from more than 2 million to 1.9 million, or 142,000 fewer farms, a decadeslong trend.

Freshly collected goose and chicken eggs sit in a basket Friday morning prior to being cleaned and packaged at Valley View Farm on Sopers Mill Road in Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

The 2022 census shows in Maine there were 13,053 farmers, or “producers,” down from 13,414 in 2017. An agriculture producer is defined as anyone engaged in the production or harvesting of an agricultural product. They do not have to own the land but must have a majority ownership interest in the agricultural product.


The USDA counts 1,184 farms in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties in 2022, down 211 farms from 2017.

An average of 97% of the farms are small, family-owned. Very few are commercial, some are homesteads, and some are subsistence farmers with an average of 112-141 acres.

Maine Farmland Trust offered this assessment: “While there are some positive trends, the results of the 2022 ag census underscore the challenges facing Maine agriculture — and why we all must continue to act together to support farms and protect farmland.”

The reality is that more than 82,000 acres of Maine farmland fell out of agricultural production within five years.

The number of farms with dairy cattle and pigs as their primary means of production fell by 30%. Dairy farms have been particularly hard hit in recent years, with the number of dairy farms cut in half between 2010 and 2022, to a current low of 145.

Maine’s top agricultural products include potatoes, milk and other dairy products, chicken eggs, blueberries, floriculture and maple syrup.


Old Crow Ranch in Durham raises grass-fed beef, seen in 2023, and pasture-raised pigs. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file


The summer of 2023 was a disaster for many farmers in Maine, with record rainfall and overcast days leaving farmers with low yields and plenty of headaches.

“Challenging,” is how Seren and Steve Sinisi describe 2023. They own and operate Old Crow Ranch in Durham, raising grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pigs, which they sell wholesale to Farmers’ Gate Market and direct to consumers at their farm store on the ranch.

Andy Smith and his partner, Caitlin Frame, own The Milkhouse Dairy Farm & Creamery in Monmouth. Smith described the last year as “not great,” adding the loss of dairy farms in the state is “extremely concerning.”

In 2018 Horizon Organic stopped buying organic milk from The Milkhouse, which at the time amounted to half the farm’s production. Horizon pulled out of the Northeast entirely two years ago, forcing Smith and Frame to move to direct marketing of their products.

“We process a lot of our milk on farm, and what we don’t process ourselves we sell to other small cheese makers in the state,” Smith explained. “We make mostly yogurt, we also bottle some raw milk.” They sell to natural food stores from Kittery to Blue Hill and into central and western Maine.


“We also sell some yogurt at a bunch of Hannafords and a lot of bulk yogurt to school districts, and Colby (College) and the University of Maine just started buying this past year,” Smith added.

Customers can purchase organic dairy products and other farm offerings, seen Wednesday, directly from The Milkhouse Farm & Creamery in Monmouth. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

With no organic grain suppliers in Maine and only one in the region, Smith worries that the loss of more farms could force Morrison’s Custom Feeds in Vermont to pull out of the market.

Down the road in Auburn, Kathy Shaw owns Valley View Farm and offers a different perspective. “We had a really good year as far as product availability and farm sales went.”

But she admits that her first term as a state legislator — where she sits on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee in the Maine House of Representatives — has taken a lot of time away from the farm.

Shaw said she was able to have a good year because she learned from her great-grandfather and has built greenhouses and high tunnels.

“When I started farming, I thought, you know, I just can’t rely on vegetables. I have to have other things as well, and I think that’s a really important piece to a farm. Like the dairy farmers, they’re stuck because they’ve got a highly perishable product.”


Andy Smith and his partner are well aware of the need to diversify and that’s why they also sell beef and other livestock and have focused on organic dairy products. But he says that segment of the market has softened after prices peaked in 2015-16.

“They’ve fallen quite a bit. And then of course inflation, increased costs — and organic farmers are losing money just as much as conventional farmers are now,” he said, adding it’s a source of frustration, especially in the organic products market.

Andy Smith, co-owner of the The Milkhouse Farm & Creamery in Monmouth, takes a moment with his herd Wednesday. Smith says 2023 was not a great year, but knowing their organic yogurt is feeding thousands of Mainers makes it all worthwhile. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“You know, to have companies that are portraying themselves as a savior of the small family farm, and they’re not paying their producers enough money to survive.”

Americans drink about half the milk they consumed in the 1970s the USDA reports, with some consumers turning to plant-based alternative products and further diluting the market. Even though milk remains heavily subsidized, as grocers lose money on milk, more and more producers cannot make ends meet.

The consensus of farmers interviewed for this story is that a gallon of milk should be priced between $10-$14 in order for producers to break even or squeeze out a small profit.

Kathy Shaw holds “Trouble,” a month-old lamb, Friday that follows her around everywhere after its mother abandoned her at Shaw’s Valley View Farm on Sopers Mill Road in Auburn. Shaw, who has diversified her farm offerings, says she had a good year last year and is optimistic about farming. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal



The state of Maine is one of six in the New England Food System Planners Partnership that has established a goal of consuming 30% of locally sourced foods by 2030. In order to reach that goal, the partnership says each state will need to maximize the use of agricultural land and fisheries, support job growth among farm workers and invest in regional distribution channels that connect small-scale farmers to a range of retail fronts.

Many farmers see the need to diversify their revenue streams if they want to survive. But adding agritourism, or a tiny house for short-term rentals, or even just a farm store can become a bureaucratic nightmare because many small municipalities have not arranged the structures or activities into local code.

The Milkhouse Farm & Creamery in Monmouth, seen Wednesday, hosts an honor system farm stand with meats, dairy and various value added farm products. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“For the town of Durham, we have nothing that clarifies what agritourism is — it’s not defined,” Steve Sinisi said. “There’s no definitions for ‘agricultural’ in this town.” It’s a work in progress as the Sinisis and other farmers try to put together an agriculture commission to offer advice and experience to the town as it works through these issues.

Maine Farmland Trust is also working with farmers and municipalities, and that’s where Thatcher Carter comes into play. He’s the organization’s municipal policy associate.

“Part of my job is to work directly with town governments, local municipal officials to support the development and the enactment of farm-friendly policy and planning strategies,” Carter explained. That includes renewable energy, which some communities fear is gobbling up valuable farmland.

“I’ve worked with a few communities on solar siting ordinances to build in provisions that balance the need for farmland protection and also renewable energy development,” he added. Carter is also working with the town of Durham, “to help them explore whether forming a municipal agricultural commission would be a good fit.”


Carter adds that it’s not that small towns aren’t interested in helping farmers, they are short-staffed and have a long list of priorities.

“Agriculture is in some ways … it’s a unique use, because agriculture is commercial. It’s often residential as well — farmers live on their farms. And then it’s also a natural resource. Farmland is a threatened resource in Maine. So, when municipalities are looking to create ordinances and regulatory processes for agriculture it can get tricky simply because of all of the different dynamics at play.”

Maine Farmland Trust teamed up with the state to update a policy and planning guide for towns, called Cultivating Maine’s Agricultural Future.

The Milkhouse Farm & Creamery in Monmouth, seen Wednesday, has its own farm stand for organic dairy and other farm products and is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal


The state’s agriculture department has identified key challenges facing the agriculture sector, including an aging workforce, labor constraints and costs, high costs of production, lack of control over pricing for some commodities, climate change, PFAS, the cost of land and development issues.

USDA data shows that about one-third of the farmers in this state are 65 years old and older. That is especially concerning to younger farmers like Steve Sinisi, who is in his 40s.


“When those older farmers are not there to help train and teach and pass on (the knowledge) … The guys I work with are 30 years older than me. What am I going to do when they retire?”

Farming is hard, physical work and Sinisi admits it catches up with everyone eventually, himself included. “I want to be optimistic. I do love what I do, and it’s hard when you get to the point of like … why am I doing this?”

Andy Smith may be frustrated, but he says in the end, it is very gratifying work. “It’s very tangible, you know, to create food that’s nourishing people. … To know that the yogurt that we’re making in our little plant here is being distributed to thousands of people all over the state every week.”

Kathy Shaw is a glass half full kind of person. “We need to eat three times a day, we do. And if we don’t eat three times a day, what are we going to do? So, I’m not pessimistic about this, I’m optimistic. … I think the future is as broad as our imaginations will allow it to be.”

Linda Haley, left, of Auburn looks around the greenhouse Friday as she shops for green peppers and other items with farm owner Kathy Shaw at Valley View Farm on Sopers Mill Road in Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal


Farmers’ markets are opening across the state, as are local farm stands and markets. Gov. Janet Mills has declared June as Maine Dairy Month to help promote dairy farms and farmers.

Open Farm Day is coming up at the end of next month, on July 28. It’s an opportunity to visit a farm and discover more ways to enjoy farm products year-round. The event also allows visitors to explore host farms throughout the state and start a dialogue with a farmer, rain or shine.

To find a participating farm, visit realmaine.com/agritourism/.

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