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Ellen Sabina has a lot of Maine on her mind these days — nearly 1.5 million acres, give or take, as well as the people who farm it.
Sabina is the Director of Farmer Engagement and Organizing for the Maine Farmland Trust, a statewide nonprofit organization that protects farmland, supports farmers, and advances the future of farming. As the 2005 Mitchell Scholar from Lincoln Academy sees it, her role is to “cultivate culture and community” among Maine farmers and to “empower them to have a strong voice” when it comes to policy issues that affect land use, economic development, the environment, and climate change.
“Having lived in rural places all my life, farming is really at the nexus of so many of the issues I have cared about,” Sabina said. “Farms are key to the resilience of our rural communities, economies, and environment.”
Fundamental to the organization’s goal of keeping agricultural lands working and helping farmers and communities thrive is protecting Maine farmland. Even though Maine possesses large tracts of undeveloped land, Sabina believes farmers and farming face considerable threats. Topping the list are pandemic-fueled development and rising land prices, more frequent droughts and other effects of climate change, determining how and where to site large-scale solar arrays while preserving arable land for farming, and contamination by PFAS — the so-called “forever chemicals” used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water.
The last, said Sabina, raises two existential questions for all Mainers: “How do we not let the PFAS contamination crisis be the reason that farms have to go out of business, and how do we remediate the land” for food production and sustaining rural economies?
The answers will require an all-hands approach from all levels of government, industry, science, and farmers.
Above all, “we have to be thoughtful about how we use land that is best suited to farming,” she said.
Despite the threats, farming is on the rise in Maine and more at the fore of public awareness, especially as more and more people understand the joys of being a foodie are rooted in farms and food production.
“Maine is unique in the national landscape because we are seen as a destination for younger farmers,” she said.
The reasons, Sabina said, include strong support and advocacy for farmers from organizations like MOFGA (the Maine Organic Farmers Association) and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
The influx of newcomers is a good thing, given that the average age of farmers in Maine is nearly 57.
Sabina believes the Maine Farmland Trust is in a “unique position” to help bridge youth and experience within Maine’s farming community.
“We work with this broad spectrum of farmers, geographically and at different stages of their careers,” she said. “We can create the conditions for more intergenerational sharing of knowledge and help find common ground.”
Supporting those new to farming will be vital for the industry and food supply, she said. Among the challenges is the sense of isolation that many farmers experience as they contend with the hard work in a culture of self-reliance.
Guiding her work is a vision that “farming supports farmers and their lives, fully,” she said. “We want to make sure farmers have a business plan that is successful, economically, but also meets self-care needs and provides them with a life they want to lead.”
While Maine farmers are the focus of her professional attention, Sabina is also interested in growing the state’s human capital. As a mentor for the Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute, she works to raise the confidence and aspirations of Maine high school students by helping them develop the skills required to be leaders in their careers and communities.
The volunteer effort also gives her an opportunity to talk up the many virtues of the Mitchell Institute.
“We talk with the students a lot about how to navigate finding the resources to pay for college, and the Mitchell Scholarship is such a wonderful opportunity for Maine students,” said the 2009 graduate of Bates College. “I love the way the Mitchell Institute takes a more-than-a-scholarship approach to supporting students. It’s a lot like how I think we need to develop local economies,” she said.
Sabina sees the wraparound supports, comprising financial resources with all the advantages of a community network, as a model worth replicating at scale.
“The future of Maine depends on that kind of investment,” she said. “As a kid growing up in Maine, to have the community of the Mitchell Institute invest in me as a whole person — not just my career potential — was empowering and a vote of confidence. We have to show up as our whole selves for our communities. The Mitchell Institute is a part of that, making sure we realize our professional potential, but also as people and neighbors.”