Made in Maine: Thoughts on Food, Animals, and Agriculture
By Donald E. Hoenig, VMD
I’ve been on a one-man crusade lately to abolish the term “industrial” or “factory” farm from the lexicon. I have a sinking feeling that it’ll be an exercise in futility, but I will persevere. Families own the vast majority of farms in Maine (and in America) and they are not factories.
Over the past century, our country has transitioned from an agrarian economy where many people either grew up on a farm or had close association with farming, to a country in which only about 2% of the population are farm or ranch families. Consider this: In 1910, the population of the U.S. was 92 million and farmers represented 31% of the labor force. There were 6,366,000 farms and the average farm size was 138 acres. (Source: Growing a Nation: the Story of American Agriculture, agclassroom.org). Contrast this with 2012, the last year that the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted a census of agriculture, when the population of the U.S. was 314 million and there were 2,109,000 farms with an average farm size of 434 acres. (Source: 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture).
But enough with statistics. The point is that farm numbers are declining, farms are getting larger, and far fewer people produce our food than was the case 100 years ago. But does big have to mean bad? Not necessarily. Although there seems to be a perception among some consumers that much of our food is produced on large, mega farms often referred to as “factory” or “industrial” farms, according to the American Farm Bureau, families not corporate interests operate 97% of U.S. farms. And regardless of farm size, these farm families care deeply about the animals, land, and water, and strive to farm in a responsible, environmentally friendly, compassionate manner. In a nutshell, they try to be good neighbors and faithful stewards of the land.
Maine has thousands of these farmers and, bucking national trends, our farm numbers are growing. Increasingly, young folks are taking up farming in Maine, which is good news in a country where the average age of a farmer is 58 years. An article in the Portland Press Herald this winter reporting on the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture, pointed out that, while the number of working farms nationally declined by 4%, the number of Maine farms increased slightly since 2007 when the last Census was taken. In 2012, there were 8,174 farms in Maine, up from 8,136 in 2007 and 7,196 in 2002. Maine also has more working farms than any other New England state.
An example of a Maine dairy farm that started out small and grew is Flood Bros. Farm in Clinton. George Flood Sr. began the farm in 1927 at the age of 14. Almost 90 years later, Flood’s is now Maine’s largest dairy farm, milking more than 1600 cows in a state-of-the-art, 100-stall rotary parlor. Led by George’s two sons, Bill and George Jr., who purchased the farm from their parents in 1980, they are a true family farm with three generations and a dozen family members working to produce over 15,000 gallons of milk per day. Through modern technology such as individual electronic identification, the Floods can keep track of the health and well being of each cow — how much milk she’s producing and her activity level — to assure the highest level of care. This family farm is anything but a factory.
So the next time you buy food, remember this statistic: only 2% of U.S. families produce the food that 100% of us eat. You can visit many of these Maine farms and thank the families who raise our food during Maine Open Farm Day on July 27, 2014. Find a farm near you at getrealmaine.com.
Dr. Hoenig retired as the Maine State Veterinarian in 2012 and, after completing a year-long Congressional Fellowship in Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Washington DC last year, in January 2014 he started working as a part-time Extension Veterinarian for University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Dr. Hoenig invites you to submit questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Answers to selected questions will appear in future blog posts.