UNITY, Maine — Farming has been a vital industry to Maine's economy for generations. With the expansion of larger companies, however, smaller and more local farmers have had a lot to compete against.
Pheonix O'Brien has been running Hall Brook Farm in Unity with his wife, Megan, for three years. They grow mainly vegetables, like carrots, potatoes, and squash -- and O'Brien says they've seen their fair share of challenges.
"We certainly cannot afford the level of mechanization that the big farmers who have farms in California, Florida, and Arizona (can)," O'Brien told NEWS CENTER Maine at his farm Tuesday. "Our cost is up -- especially the mechanized crops, like carrots, potatoes. It’s hard for us, being small, to compete there."
But O'Brien admits that his farm hasn't been as hard hit as some others in the business.
"There was one year back, I think right in the immediate county and surrounding towns -- I think we lost like 15 dairy farms."
People like Jessie Dowling understand how hard the local farming industry can be. She owns Fuzzy Udder Creamery in Whitefield and has been running the business for eight years.
"There’s a lot of challenges to the local food system," Dowling explained to NEWS CENTER Maine. "It’s really expensive to produce food in a sustainable, ecological, and socially-just method."
That’s why Dowling says she is so excited to see the opening of Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union, the first member-owned financial institution in the nation, focused on small farms and food businesses specifically.
"Having a credit union that understands the needs of its members is going to be instrumental in keeping the farming economy going," Jessie explained. She is one of the first members herself.
Nearly all of Maine’s government representatives attended the ribbon-cutting for MHFCU in Unity on October 8, including Sen. Angus King, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, and Gov. Janet Mills. A member of Sen. Susan Collins' staff also attended in her place.
"Agriculture is a growing part of the Maine economy," Sen. King says. "For the first time in living memory, the average age of farmers in Maine is going down."
"The more people we can move back to rural Maine and help revitalize those communities, which are lovely and safe and warm and friendly -- you know, the better it is for Maine," Rep. Pingree adds.
The financing backing the credit union will come from people in Maine who decide to become members. Their money will be used directly to help provide loans to about 100 local farmers and food businesses.
"The people who are farming in Maine care about it," O'Brien says. "(It would) be hard-pressed to get rich farming in Maine, but we just love it."