Maine networks support young farmers, before they drop out

Why We Wrote This

High suicide rates signal how farming’s hardship is mental and emotional, not just physical and financial. We found a network in Maine that helps to lighten those burdens. Part 2 of 3.

Timmy Broderick/The Christian Science Monitor
Jenn Legnini, who owns Turtle Rock Farm, holds up jars of spices at her processing plant in Brunswick, Maine, on April 18, 2019. Ms. Legnini is enrolled in the inaugural Maine Farm Resilience Program, which supports beginning farmers by connecting them to resources.

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Since 2013, Jenn Legnini has been trying to capture the fruits of Maine’s short growing season. She’s been turning produce into value-added goods including pickles and fruit spreads. But six years in, the going is still tough.

Many people fall in love with the idea of farming, but few have the grit and endurance to bear the hard physical labor, the isolation, and the financial hardship when things don’t go as planned. Farmers and farmworkers, in fact, have the fourth-highest suicide rate among U.S. occupations.

“When young farmers feel unsupported ... there’s a larger chance they’re going to move somewhere else or quit farming,” says Caitlin Arnold of the National Young Farmers Coalition.

Maine, with the nation’s second-highest percentage of beginning farmers, is trying a novel approach. A new two-year program called the Maine Farm Resilience Program is working to connect still-green farmers with mentors, educational resources, and each other. Ms. Legnini is part of the inaugural class. “If I want to grow, I need people to help me carve that path,” she says.

Jenn Legnini is standing in her processing plant in Brunswick, Maine. She casts a thoughtful eye over rows of neatly packed glass jars lining the concrete walls. Each is wrapped in textured white paper bearing the simple Turtle Rock Farm logo. There are relishes and fruit spreads. Pickles are a customer favorite, and so are the organic whole-peeled tomatoes.

Since 2013, Ms. Legnini has been hard at work trying to capture the fruits of Maine’s short growing season. She sighs, wishing she were further along in establishing her brand. 

“How am I still building this? How am I still working to establish this six years in?” she asks with a wry smile. 

Ms. Legnini works with other farmers in Maine to turn their produce into value-added goods. What began with a few pints of strawberries in her own kitchen has morphed into a full-fledged operation. Her team processes 8,000 pounds of tomatoes every year, 9,000 pounds of blueberries, and 14,000 pounds of cucumbers. Those numbers should grow, as Ms. Legnini recently bought a farm.

Farming is a second career for Ms. Legnini, who has a culinary degree and spent more than a decade working in fine dining. She was still moonlighting as a cook when she started Turtle Rock. But she’s reached a critical juncture: Six years is the point at which many farmers throw in the trowel. 

Many people fall in love with the idea of farming, but few have the grit and endurance to bear the hard physical labor, the isolation of rural communities, and the financial hardship when things don’t go as planned. Ms. Legnini, for one, is feeling pulled in many directions. Not only is she still trying to grow her fledgling business, but she also recently moved in with her long-term partner and is fixing up the old farmhouse.  

And when young farmers start to think about growing their own families, things can get even more complicated, says Caitlin Arnold, who works for the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC). This harsh economic and personal reality is partly why farmers and farmworkers have the fourth-highest suicide rate among all occupations in the United States. Addressing the emotional needs of farmers is just as important as addressing their financial needs, she says. 

“When young farmers feel unsupported, they don’t feel like they have access to the resources they need, and I think there’s a larger chance they’re going to move somewhere else or quit farming,” says Ms. Arnold.

Houston Bruck, who oversees the loan-making programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says today’s farmers are more risk-averse, more willing to quit if financial prospects turn dark. But the industry needs people like Ms. Legnini, who is in her 30s, to succeed. More than a third of farmers are 65 or older, and the average age of all producers has risen to 57.5, according to the latest USDA Agriculture Census. Without a new crop of farmers, industry consolidation could take a toll. 

“Fewer farmers typically result in less competition, which can result in less choices, less quality, and higher prices,” says Mr. Bruck. “It takes all types of producers to have a robust agricultural system that can feed not only America, but the world really. That’s what’s at stake here.”

Farmers supporting farmers

Maine has the nation’s second-highest percentage of beginning farmers, with more than a third of its producers having less than 10 years of experience. As a result, the state has developed a plethora of programs designed to keep beginning farmers healthy and in business. Many of them are run by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). A two-year program called the Maine Farm Resilience Program, launched this spring, is working to connect still-green farmers with mentors, educational resources, and each other. 

Ms. Legnini is part of the inaugural class. She’s eager to find a mentor to help her identify potential partners.

“I am having some success making it work on a small scale, and if I want to grow, I need people to help me carve that path,” she says. 

Anna Mueller, who runs the Maine program, thinks that creating those opportunities for farmers to build each other up is key to the program’s success.

“It’s one thing to go to the farmers market and have people appreciate the food and buy it, but it also feels really great to just meet with the other farmers and see, you know, ‘How is your spinach doing? Mine is having this issue,’” Ms. Mueller says. “It’s talking to people who are doing the same thing and are in the fields all day working.” 

Some of Maine’s farmer networks are just a click away. For farmers in the Journeyperson Program, they belong to a group email list where members can swap tools or go in together on bulk orders to get a discount. 

The forum is also a place where farmers can share hopes and fears. Last summer a Maine farmer posted a link to a story in The Guardian about farmer suicides in the U.S., and the post generated a flood of people offering emotional support.

“You just feel so isolated sometimes, but to turn around and have these big, beautiful resources of farmers and this common link – it’s an amazing support,” says BrennaMae Thomas-Googins, who co-owns a vegetable and livestock farm an hour north of Portland, Maine. She has participated in several MOFGA programs.

“We have to be able to talk”

Having access to a network of farmers has been invaluable, she says. When her well ran dry from June to November in 2015, she was able to rely on her community for water. As a mother of two, she’s been able to find a depth of support and understanding with other mother-farmers. Whenever the intensity of parenting while farming feels particularly acute, she goes over to help a friend run her maple syrup operation.

“We have to be able to talk about how stressful it is that we don’t sleep at night,” says Ms. Thomas-Googins. “This is really crazy for me to leave my farm to do this thing, but every three days I have four hours with another mother who’s doing agriculture, and I need this emotional support.”

And she has recently started hosting apprentices. “There’s like a family vibe to what the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association creates,” she says.

Ms. Mueller says the people within MOFGA share a binding agent that is key to holding it all together. “We want a better world; we want healthy, good food for ourselves and our children. It’s such a big community of [people] that come together around this idea of overall sustainable living, caring about the future and our world, and healthy good food,” she says.

Ms. Legnini hopes Turtle Rock Farm, built on sustainable practices, will also be long-lasting. She recently won a $250,000 grant from the USDA to continue building up her business by working with more farmers and crafting a plan for the next several decades. She wants to ensure she has an endgame plan in place when she retires in 30 years.

“I don’t want this place to close when I close. We are reigniting that path of [a] sustainable local food system,” she says.

But she has a close eye on the present, too, as she and her partner fix up their house and settle in.

“I think it’s important for me to live my life, too. You need that balance,” she says.

The Farm Aid Hotline can be reached at 800-327-6243 and the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255.

This series focuses on solutions to challenges faced by beginning farmers. The other installments include Part 1: What if aspiring farmers have no money for a farm? And Part 3 (up next): Entrepreneurial approaches breathe new life into the family farm.

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