Supporting Maine’s thriving agricultural economy
Farmers in Maine have a very short growing season. The high cost of food, as well as the current economic crisis, has increased Maine’s susceptibility to food insecurity. High tunnels offer an opportunity for farmers and gardeners to expand their growing season by getting plants in the ground earlier because the soil warms sooner than out in the open. By protecting crops from the cold, the growing season is extended both in the spring and the fall, allowing growers to try crops that need more time to grow than during the length of a normal Maine summer.
Organic vegetable growing trials are currently underway in an innovative high tunnel that was designed for the Piscataquis County SWCD by Sunny Stutzman of Sunny Skies Design in partnership with the University of Maine’s Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center. The high tunnel at Stutzman’s Farm in Sangerville incorporates locally available renewable building materials and offers specific enhancements in soil management and climate and pest control. The frame has been tested for structural integrity and suitability for small farm use. The tunnel has wheels to make it portable. In this way the grower can move the high tunnel to a new location in order to rest and restore the soils after several seasons of use. The high tunnel uses only the heat from the sun to warm the soil, and the crops are grown in the ground. The long term goal of this project is to create a low cost high tunnel design
Helping farmers “go green”
The Androscoggin Valley SWCD has been leading in an effort to develop an agricultural “green certification” program to prioritize on-farm management practices that will increase farm sustainability while benefiting the environment. With many partners, AVSWCD offered a professional development workshop– Earth Smart –Farming for the Future—designed to train professionals working with farmers in preparation for a pilot project that promotes recommended practices which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions while protecting water quality and enhancing wildlife habitat. Somerset County SWCD provides technical assistance writing nutrient management plans, composting plans, and conservation plans. In addition to offering guidance to improve farming operations, these plans assist farmers with State regulatory compliance.
Androscoggin Valley and Knox-Lincoln SWCDs have been leaders in promoting soil conservation training for new farmers. Districts are active participants in the Beginning Farmers Resource Network, a coalition of agricultural agencies and organizations that assist new farmers “learn the ropes”. Soil health and conservation are key components of a successful farm business plan. Districts are partnering with NRCS, DACF, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, and other organizations to provide technical assistance and advice on good soil management practices which can increase production and maintain soil and water resources.
Saving public funds while promoting Maine exports
In September 2013, Southern Aroostook, Central Aroostook, and St. John Valley SWCDs were contracted by Maine DACF to assist seed potato inspectors in Aroostook County. Seed potato exports to Canada must be certified as being free of potato cyst nematode. Extensive soil sampling required state inspectors to work overtime to complete their duties during the short potato harvest season. Conservation District employees, working with training and guidance from DACF inspectors, worked throughout the harvest to complete the required sampling. The result was a seed potato harvest certified as safe for export and a reduction in overtime expenses for DACF.
Promoting local food and farms
The Southern Aroostook SWCD works in various capacities to strengthen local farm economies through education, promotion and placing value on our agricultural heritage. The District publishes a monthly newspaper column entitled “Conservation Corner” highlighting a farmer, forester or conservation supporter. Telling the stories of the people featured is an important part of connecting the public with producers. The District is a founder of the Houlton Community Market and serves on the market board. Creating a vibrant local market not only helps keep more money in farmers pockets with direct sales, but also broadens public awareness of the many small, diversified farms that exist. In 2013, the District developed a series of “Farmer Connector” workshops for gardeners and crop growers, culminating with an October 29 workshop entitled “Innovations in Building Better Soils for Healthy Crops”, featuring Ray Archuletta, agronomist with NRCS’s Technology Center in North Carolina, and Brendon Rockey, a high-altitude potato farmer in Colorado growing specialty and seed potatoes using companion crops and cover crops. Nearly 100 people attended and learned basics of soil ecology and how to successfully re-build the health of their soils, especially on potato ground. Soil health has been a focus of the Southern Aroostook SWCD for the past decade, and its continuing education and on-the-ground practices are showing results.
Somerset County SWCD employs a certified nutrient manager planner, who assists farmers with developing nutrient management plans. These plans use soil and manure test results to match manure fertilizer value to needed nutrients in each field and for each specific crop. In addition, timing of manure applications are planned to reduce the possibility of nutrient runoff and increase the fertilizer value to the crops. Sensitive environmental resources are inventoried and safe setback distances for spreading and stacking are delineated.
Franklin County SWCD reaches almost 1000 students in grades K – four along with their teachers and chaperons at the annual Agricultural/ Environmental Day at the Farmington Fair. There were opportunities to milk a cow, make butter and taste cheese and milk; press apples to make cider and taste fresh applesauce, see how paper is made; and learn how bees make honeycomb and honey. Waldo County SWCD holds an annual Conservation Fair every spring for the grade school children which we co-host and sponsor with the Tanglewood 4-H Learning Center in Lincolnville, and sponsors a display at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity.
St. John Valley SWCD conducted a consumer survey aimed at identifying interest in a local product cooperative in the St. John Valley with funding from the Pinetree Fund for Aroostook County of the Maine Community Foundation and Coastal Enterprises Inc.’s Healthy Food Finance Initiative.
Watching for invasive plants and insects
Several Districts have sponsored invasive plant workshops, displays, and brochures. Districts are working with DACF entomologists and other staff to increase public awareness of invasive plants and insects. Districts are expanding their efforts to encourage volunteer monitors for invasive species.
Washington County SWCD is known for its Blueberry Scouts project which supports integrated pest management in blueberry fields. This involves monitoring of pests and nutrients in commercial lowbush blueberry fields, helping with the placement of honey bee hives, mapping weeds, writing drift management plans, and other services.