The Global Sustainability of Food and Water – From Wales, ME to Wales, UK

Last week I participated in a round table discussion with Patrick Wrixon, a farmer and conservationist from Wales…that’s the country in the United Kingdom, not the central Maine community!
Maine Farmland Trust and the Camden Conference co-hosted the event as an introduction to the February 2014 Camden Conference, entitled The Global Politics of Food and Water.

Patrick told us about his background – he is most definitely a farmer, raising sheep and other livestock as well as farming several hundred acres.  But he has also incorporated into his livelihood a focus on biodiversity (and sustainability) of the landscape he oversees.  He serves as the President of the European Initiative on Sustainable Development in Agriculture.

Conversation among the thirty or so participants ranged from organic farming’s potential to feed the world, to the role of conventional practices in Maine and New England.  We also discussed the feasibility of New England farmers producing enough to feed our neighbors. The response was that this can happen, but only if Maine triples our acreage in farming.

My own resume reflects the challenges – and opportunities – of earning a living in Maine.  I began my professional career as a forester, added livestock farming a few decades later and then served eight years in the Maine Legislature while keeping my feet in both farming and forestry.  While it was a demanding schedule, the diversity of work experience has given me a broad perspective and fostered connections and relationships that bring a full commitment to the mission of GrowSmart Maine (GSM).

GSM is the statewide non-profit focused on smart growth.  Smart growth requires a process that helps communities address concerns such as:

•    What happens when village centers and downtowns feel maxed out and developers look to nearby green fields for future growth?  The tension between development of new structures and conservation of productive farmland exists here in Maine as much as in Wrixon’s country.  How we balance public and private rights will determine the health of our communities, economy and environment for ourselves and future generations.

•    How do we measure the intrinsic value of open spaces and farmlands.  While development can demonstrate an immediate return, what are the long-term implications for the farmer and the broader community?  How do we value the land and balance our short term and long term needs as a community?  Often, once we develop we are making irreversible decisions.  What are some existing and potential tools to help us with that valuation, including current use taxation which keeps property taxes lower to reflect not only the value of these lands to all of us, but of the minimal public services required.

•    What is the role of private and public sector in ensuring access to safe, nutritious foods that are grown locally?  In Maine, we support farmers in many ways, from programs within state agencies to numerous efforts to encourage market demand for local foods.

We all benefit from productive and healthy farmland and profitable farmers.  GrowSmart Maine supports the work of farmers, and fishermen as well, through our advocacy, community planning projects and networking opportunities such as our biannual Summit.  Join us!