January 28, 2014
Farm Profile: Frith Farm
When Daniel Mays started his search for farmland in 2010, he knew it wouldn’t be easy. A Pennsylvania native with Quaker roots, Mays knew he wanted land in the Northeast. He went to school in New England and felt at home in the region and its seasonal climate. He confirmed his love for farming and the northeast when he and some friends started a small vegetable CSA in eastern Massachusetts in 2009. Soon thereafter he started looking for property of his own. Mays was able to obtain a loan from his family, and began looking for affordable land somewhat near a decent market.
His search was quickly narrowed down, however, as he realized the reality of land prices in most of the northeast. “Pretty quickly I was looking only in Maine,” Mays told me, “because the land is relatively cheap and there is such a support system for small farms.”
Once considered the breadbasket of New England, Maine has a long agricultural history. Even though the past century has seen Maine’s agricultural prowess dwindle somewhat, it has reemerged over the last few decades as a major nationwide presence in the organic community. Building off of the original “back-to-the-landers” of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Maine has some of the best resources available for young farmers anywhere in the country. MOFGA (The Maine Organic Farmer’s and Gardener’s Association) provides the backbone for several excellent support systems for organic farmers in Maine. After trying out several conventional realtors, Mays discovered Maine Farmland Trust, and their program Farmlink, and knew he was on the right track.
Maine Farmland Trust is a land trust, which means that they work to keep farmland from being developed through various means. Often they will get in touch with farmers or landowners who would like to see their property stay undeveloped. One way the land trust preserves farmland is by purchasing a property outright from the owners and putting an agricultural conservation easement on it before reselling it at a much-reduced price.
Maine Farmland Trust also runs a program called Farmlink, which serves as a middleman between landowners who would like to see their land farmed, and farmers looking to gain access to land. Farmlink acts as a kind of “Match.com” for these two groups, finding matches based on criteria that they select. It turned out to be the perfect program for Daniel. He decided exactly what he was looking for, and then began his search again with renewed gusto.
“Maine Farmlink was so helpful, I have nothing but good things to say.” Daniel had previously been looking on realtor websites, which, he says “have no idea what farmer’s are looking for.” On Farmlink, they have information that only farmers would be interested in, such as soil types and local market opportunities. Mays was then able to narrow down his search to a few farms that matched his criteria. Still, Mays found himself in a goldilocks-style predicament—one property would be the perfect size, but far from a market, another would be close to the city, but much too small.
Eventually, though, Mays happened upon a somewhat unique situation. Maine Farmland Trust was in talks with a landowner who was interested in a conservation easement. Their property encompassed 14 acres in Scarborough, a growing suburb of Portland. Daniel heard about the property through a connection made on Farmlink, and he was able to get in on the easement negotiation himself. This was a great advantage for Mays, as he was able to give input on the particulars of the restrictions the easement would place on the property.
The whole deal went through without a hitch; the Trust bought an easement on the property and Daniel closed on the property itself simultaneously. But without Maine Farmland Trust and Farmlink, Daniel would have had no chance competing with market prices. “The easement literally cut the price in half,” a still-amazed Mays told me over the phone.
Mays arrived on the property in the fall of 2010, and has been successfully making a living ever since, slowly converting the late 1700’s-era farmhouse on the property into a modern and livable home. Now Mays is in his fourth year running Frith Farm, a diversified organic farm on those very same 14 acres in Scarborough. He runs a successful 80-member CSA, and does two farmer’s markets a week. Every year his production has been growing, and his routine is getting more dialed in. Thanks to Maine Farmland Trust and Farmlink, the state of Maine has added a dedicated organic farmer to its ranks, and helped protect a piece of property that otherwise would have undoubtedly been developed.