The Maine AgrAbility Blog: Gotta Lotta Livin’ To Do 

By Ellen S. Gibson

Welcome to the first blog in a series that will deal with issues surrounding aging, farming, and quality of life.

Who am I?

Ellen Gibson holding a shovel in a classroomI am a farmer, educator, and consultant to the Maine AgrAbility Program. I raise goats and the forage they eat and tend to the fields and woods of Stearns Hill Farm in West Paris. My grandparents lived here when I was growing up. From my earliest memories, the Farm has held a special place in my heart.

Everything I know about farming—goats, pasture management, recordkeeping, barn repair, and cheesemaking—was gleaned since returning in 2003. It was a steep learning curve. Still is! Luckily, it was a time of intensifying interest in local foods and there was plenty of support for beginning farmers, including women. MOFGA was attracting young farmers to the state, who brought with them youthful optimism and entrepreneurial spirit. New farms in Maine actually began to increase. People came here to start farms as a second or third career or as retirees. New Americans came, bringing their experiences of growing food on other continents. Veterans returned state-side, finding meaningful self-employment in agriculture.

What is Maine AgrAbility?

Maine AgrAbility is a partnership between the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Alpha One and is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture. The mission is to support farmers, producers and harvesters who work on the fields, the woods, and the ocean—people who are often self-employed, who work long beyond traditional retirement age and are prone to injury because the work is hard on the body and mentally stressful.

The Cooperative Extension offers expertise in all areas of agriculture, from crop insurance education to kitchen licensing to insect identification. Alpha One is a nonprofit with the mission of helping people with disabilities remain independent, often in their own homes. Our AgrAbility team includes Occupational Therapists who specialize in the ergonomics of farming as well as assistive technology to address a variety of needs. On a practical level, most of the work we do is with farmers, and that is the population I will primarily address with this blog.

Farming, aging, and risk

Despite the influx of younger farmers, the average age of farmers in Maine is 57. Combine an aging population with a hazardous occupation and you can understand the need for a program like Maine AgrAbility.

The program exists to serve agricultural producers with information, education, and networking. The needs of our clients vary widely. Anne Devin, a retired Marine Captain and the current owner of Chase Stream Farm, is our Veteran Outreach Coordinator. She said, “As the veteran outreach coordinator, AgrAbility has given me the opportunity to connect with other veteran farmers in a meaningful way. We serve veterans who struggle with PTSD and traumatic brain injury to help manage mental fatigue and navigate the business aspects of running their farms.” Devin and AgrAbility Program Consultant Kelley Smith organized the first annual Educate to Cultivate (E2C) event in November 2019. It was organized specifically to address veteran needs and to provide networking opportunities, and drew enthusiastic participation from veterans around the state.

Lynne Holland, who provides support for the program at the Androscoggin/Sagadahoc Cooperative Extension Office, says, “AgrAbility means opportunity, not only for people who need some help doing what they love to do and make a living at it, but for the rest of us to learn what barriers can be broken, what new tools and techniques can be developed, and what strategies can be put into place quickly should they be needed.”

Farming has always been a struggle in Maine, but it is also a time-honored way of life. Farmers are the producers and there is great satisfaction in that role, not to mention great need. The economic rewards can be sketchy but not all the rewards are summed up on a spreadsheet. This is the lifestyle that they know, what they are good at, and where they are comfortable.

Everyone benefits from a healthy agricultural system. It starts with healthy farmers. These are the folks—you are the folks—who are keeping fields in production and out of development, and are supporting farm supply stores and Ag equipment dealerships. These are the folks—you are the folks—who connect families, community, the environment, and the food we eat. Let’s keep working together—we all have a lotta livin’ to do!

Turn to the Maine AgrAbility website for news, resources, client stories, and staff contacts. Our Pinterest page is full of great tools for gardening and farming. We make presentations to interested groups on a wide array of subjects. You can schedule a talk today!