The Maine Farmland Trust Documentary Project: The Journey Begins

June 6th, 2013

Tahria Sheather: Crafting the narrative in Midcoast Maine

workinglands_Besaw_015The leaves are slowly unfurling to reach for the sun, the wintry clouds are opening up to warmer wisps of clear sky and the cool soil has been turned to herald the growing season. As Maine reawakens, Seedlight has migrated north to set up base camp and embark upon a new project with Maine Farmland Trust  this summer and fall. Bridget’s relationship with MFT extends back several years, when she took an offer to shoot an image for a month in their annual calendar and transformed it into a large-scale project to raise awareness on agricultural land preservation that included creating a traveling exhibit and publishing the book, From the Land.

Expanding upon the book, Executive Director John Piotti and the team at MFT have partnered with Seedlight to produce a multi-part short film series at a critical time for Maine’s – and in fact the whole of New England’s – agricultural industry. MFT’s focus in their work is to establish a framework where Maine farmers can make a viable living and where the state can effectively feed itself, rather than relying on importing fresh foods. A lot of their work is supported by a recent Brandeis study that found that by 2060, save a few exotics like chocolate, coffee and bananas, around 70 percent of the food New England eats could be sourced from within New England itself. From this figure, Maine would produce about half of that food. When you think about the region’s population, that’s quite an impressive figure and one MFT is taking very seriously. John poses that there is a bright future for farming in Maine and New England, but only if the right steps are taken now.

In order to take those steps, one has to look to the distinct characteristics that make up a Maine farm. While the state does boast both large-scale commodity farms and local farms focused on direct marketing to customers, on the whole – unlike sprawling Midwestern farms – Maine’s rocky soils and undulating terrain lend themselves to far smaller, diversified operations. In moving toward a sustainable system, both types of farms face challenges: commodity farms produce so much product that it is unfeasible to sell it all to a local market, while small-scale operations struggle to afford the costs and risks associated with scaling up to meet the demands of their market. Some of MFT’s primary goals are based around tackling these challenges to improve the efficacy of existing farms at meeting the needs of the state. We plan to meet the farmers and entrepreneurs that are working with MFT to rebuild agricultural infrastructure, innovate their marketing strategies and create smart relationships between one another to strengthen their operations.

Another big piece of the puzzle is how to augment Maine’s inventory of working agricultural lands, which currently sits at a humble 1 1/3 million acres compared with over six million acres at the end of the 19th century. There is huge potential to re-engage these lands, should they not be lost to development first. That’s where MFT is pushing for a bottom-up approach to agricultural policy, matching newcomer farmers to landowners looking to pass their land on and managing agricultural easements to keep land costs low for farmers. These tasks remain ongoing challenges for the organization as they move forward with a vision for a more sustainable regional food system.

Food is a beast of a topic, it always is. And we’re very excited about the breadth and weight of these issues facing Maine right now. What we’re even more excited about is zeroing in on the people that are living them out everyday. This week, we start our first trips around Maine to meet the farmers, entrepreneurs, policymakers and activists for whom these issues are their lives – and livelihoods. As we begin the process of developing our narratives, we hope you will keep an eye out for more progress from us on the blog, give our updates the thumbs up on Facebook or check out our behind the scenes Instagram feed as we shoot through the summer and fall. We are looking forward to bringing you along on this journey with us.

— Tahria

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