New England Farmland: Something Worth Saving
Growing up in Maine, I was always surrounded by summer and fall vacationers. My family ran a small bed and breakfast where we welcomed a constant flow of travelers looking to settle into the slower pace that Maine offers. Our mostly forested state is known for its idyllic coastlines and rolling hills with picturesque New England farmhouses and barns supporting a culinary landscape to satisfy any palette. Our rocky barrens grow the smallest, sweetest blueberries, while pastures of hay nourish our dairies and livestock farms. Everywhere you look, our agricultural landscape and natural resources are tied to our identity and what we value most. Our state motto, “The way life should be,” hints at the feeling many visitors and Mainers share: There’s something worth saving here. Yet we have seen the development pressure increase each year. In my lifetime, I’ve seen fields that once produced hundreds of pumpkins for families to wander and pick from each October turn into housing lots with single-family dwellings and sprawling yards. Farmers are getting pushed further away from viable markets to sell their products, while fishermen are forced to live further inland as working harbors transform into respites for the rich.
The attributes that brought my family here, that kept our inn full, and that ultimately made me stay are now the most threatened. Development pressure threatens the natural resources that provide both sustenance and opportunities to recreate and escape the busy world. With these changes to our pastoral landscape come both challenges and opportunities. Protecting agricultural lands from development is one opportunity that offers solutions to support a changing environment.
Since starting at AFT, I have seen how policy develops from an idea to meaningful implementation. How small changes in the language of a bill can ensure that more people are impacted and supported. I’ve begun to learn about the programs that exist across New England, creating the structure and roadmaps to protect our New England farmland. While our policy priorities evolve with the changing opportunities and challenges of agriculture in this country, one of our top policy priorities will always be investing in state farmland protection programs.
New England has been at the forefront of farmland protection efforts by establishing some of the country’s first State Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) programs. These programs compensate farmers for selling their development rights and keeping their land in agriculture for perpetuity. While each state program looks different, Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) programs typically consider soil quality, the threat of development, and future agricultural viability when selecting farms for protection. Since starting with AFT in March, I’ve learned how PACE programs like Maine’s Working Farmland Access and Protection Fund directly address my concerns about the quickly changing landscape around me.
Across the region this session, legislatures are contemplating provisions that will increase state efforts to protect more farmland. In Maine, the state legislature is considering allocating additional funding for the Land for Maine Futures Fund (LFMF) which supports the state’s Working Farmland Protection and Farmland Access program (WFPFAP). In Rhode Island, the legislature is also considering authorizing a one-time $5 million bond to support the Farmland Preservation Program and Farmland Access Program. In Connecticut, lawmakers may approve a budget that will include additional funding for one of the state’s funding mechanisms for farmland protection, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Open Space and Watershed Acquisition Program (OSWA). Ensuring these programs have reliable, consistent funding into the future means our food system will be more resilient, rural communities will thrive, and conservation and climate-smart agricultural practices will be supported.
Our New England Policy team keeps a finger on the pulse of six state legislatures, and I’ve learned that starting a policy job in the middle of a legislative session is like trying to plant a hundred acres of squash seeds before the rain starts but realizing it’s already started to downpour. Our regional scope gives us a valuable, broad perspective and the ability to bring experiences from one state to benefit another. Before beginning with AFT, I worked extensively in Maine’s food system, from dairy and vegetable farming to selling seafood on Portland’s waterfront. Leaning into my experiences directly working in farming or with farmers, it’s easy to see how state and regional policies create systematic change and ensure that farmers have the resources they need to prosper.
Here in Maine, our population is about to swell with the seasonal onslaught of summer visitors. Our lobster shacks will open their doors, and hungry families will line up in anticipation for the first bites of the season: baskets of fried clams, strawberry shortcakes, and slices of blueberry pie. We’ll anxiously wait for our favorite local farm stands to fill their shelves with tomatoes and sweet corn. We’ll stand, bent over in fields of U-pick raspberries, until our fingers and lips are stained red, our containers and stomachs full of the sweet flavors of summer. And as we create these new memories and experiences, we must consider what it will take to keep them as part of our traditions. So as we move our policy work in New England forward, I am eager to see new life given to existing New England farmland protection programs and what creative programs emerge to address systemic injustices and evolving challenges. A threat to the land that sustains us is not just a threat to the environment around us but a threat to a way of life that I know is worth saving.