An iconic Maine tradition is being pushed further out of reach
When Heather Barter began hunting for a Maine house with enough land to homestead on, she suspected finding anything in her price range would be a long shot.
Barter and her husband want a quarter acre within 30 minutes of Bangor and a school system that matches their daughter’s academic needs. Their working budget is between $150,000 and $160,000, which pushes their combined annual income of $65,000 to the limit.
She was right. After looking for six months, she and her husband were forced to downsize their dreams to fit into their Veazie apartment. In that space she uses containers to grow chives, herbs and carrots, and tends “a teensy and very sad raspberry plant.”
Barter is the face of the new homesteaders in Maine.
The back-to-the-land homesteading movement that swept Maine in the 1960s and 1970s drew a young wave of educated, civic-minded out-of-staters looking for a sustainable life, away from the rat race revolving around 9-to-5 jobs, schedules and deadlines. In Maine they found cheap land where they could live independently and raise, grow and barter for what they needed.
More than 60 years later, homesteading today in Maine looks very different. The COVID-19 pandemic fueled a renewed interest in simpler living but it also drove drastic changes in the economy. These days it is difficult, if not impossible, to operate a larger homestead without an outside source of income.
“I field a lot of calls from a lot of folks who have a lot of dreams,” said Charlie Baldwin, senior project manager at Maine Farmland Trust. “Most of the time their economic reality does not go with those dreams.”
Ten years after the Bangor Daily News project “The Good Life” chronicled the rise of the homesteading movement that changed the state, new interviews and a review of demographic and market data show that the culture’s tenacious spirit endures, even as Mainers grapple with global forces that have pushed the traditional dream further out of reach.
Available land is scarce and pricier. Prices of goods are higher. The days of living off the land with no other job are largely over.
But there are signs, still, that the seeds planted by homesteading pioneers have grown in ways that few could likely predict, from remote rural farms to modern rooftop apartment gardens in Portland.
An elusive dream
Unlike farmers, who grow and raise food to sell for profit and who may or may not live on that land, homesteaders live on the same land where they grow, raise and preserve their food for their own consumption, with the surplus sold on the local level.
Barter’s dream homestead is a two- or three-bedroom home on enough land for a garden, some chickens and other small farm animals. It is far from her current reality she calls “apartment homesteading” in Veazie.
“In a perfect world we would have enough money to buy a home with a few acres of land, but we have modified that dream to something with even a quarter of an acre,” Barter said.
There is nothing that fits those parameters anywhere near Bangor. The closest property that falls within their price range is an 800-square-foot house on 8.8 acres listed for $142,900 that is 50 miles north in Chester.
While land prices had been steadily creeping up in Maine since the start of this century, up until the beginning of the pandemic there were still spots around the state where acreage suitable for a farm or homestead was considered affordable.
But by 2022, real estate agents who specialize in farmland here said demand for acreage had never been stronger, making prices surge for those who found willing sellers.
During the last big homesteading boom in 1970, land was going for around $200 per acre in Maine, or $1,592 when adjusted for inflation. The last time the U.S. Department of Agriculture surveyed farmland prices in 2017, Maine was averaging $2,200 an acre.
By 2022, the average cost per acre in the state was between $5,600 and $21,500.
The median family income in Maine is $63,182, according to the Maine Department of Labor.
“Today, land is straight up not affordable,” Baldwin said. “I am really conscience about asking folks, ‘You have this idea, you have this dream, but you are also talking out a mortgage to buy this land [and] how do you pay a mortgage when your income is crop and weather dependent?’”
A new land rush
The sudden uptick of interest in Maine farmland that started during the pandemic left longtime real estate agents shaking their heads. Buyers who were looking for tillable acreage quickly overwhelmed an already tight niche market. While agents were accustomed to hearing from people looking to relocate to Maine from elsewhere in New England, suddenly they were getting inquiries from as far away as the southwest and Pacific northwest.
These were people with jobs allowing them to work remotely and who were wanting to leave states that have become less attractive over the past decade. Droughts, wildfires and a growing cost of living have people there looking east for homes and land.
That, coupled with the desire to leave crowded urban areas during the pandemic, drove the largest population growth Maine had seen in two decades. The state’s population grew by nearly 10,000 people between July 2020 and July 2021 to just more than 1,372,000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Andrew Doiron has a small homestead outside of Augusta and moderates a Facebook group devoted to homesteading in Maine with more than 10,000 members ranging from established residents to those hoping to one day move here. From the posts he reads, he said it is clear the pandemic fueled interest in Maine.
“COVID obviously changed peoples’ mindsets about living their lives,” he said. “It was food supply changes that took a drastic turn and people started to get nervous.”
The notion of living a more sustainable life in a place like Maine with fresh air, space and homegrown food became more attractive, even if it wasn’t necessarily attainable.
There is a finite amount of land suitable for farming in Maine — about 3 million acres, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. In the late 1960s, most of it was being farmed.
Since then, the amount of land supporting crops and other farming activities has steadily dropped to 1.3 million acres as of 2017, the last time the USDA released census data.
The amount of Maine acreage dedicated to growing crops has been dropping since the 1950s, according to the USDA agriculture census. Some large farms fell victim to foreclosure, while others were subdivided and sold off into house lots when the descendants of farmers were no longer interested in working the land. Over the past several years, productive farmland has been given over to solar farms across the state, with solar farm applications submitted as of 2020 requesting 15,000 acres of high-quality farmland.
Despite the rise in Maine land prices, Arianna Lavan and her husband were among those new to the state who were able to pay $60,000 cash for a house on 5 acres in Burlington, about an hour north of Bangor, after selling their Delaware house for $95,000. They had just enough money left over to fund their move.
“We know we were lucky we could buy our land outright and we thought we got an amazing deal,” said Lavan, who will mark one year of homesteading in May. “Especially with how fast the market was moving.”
Buyers moving to Maine are able to sell their homes and pay cash for land here, often well above the asking price.
Local first-time homebuyers are finding themselves shut out of the market.
“Back [in the 1970s] you could be coming from another state where you sold your house for say $90,000 to fund buying land in Maine and still have the bulk of [the money] left over,” Baldwin said. “Those days are gone.”
Funding the homesteading life
It’s not just land that’s gotten more expensive.
Prices of supplies needed to build or repair a home doubled — and in some cases quadrupled — during the pandemic. The cost of fuel spiked to a high of $5.09 for unleaded regular gasoline and $6.34 a gallon for diesel early last summer due in large part to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and that subsequently pushed prices up for animal feed, fertilizer and mechanical parts. Supply chain issues triggered during the pandemic have only recently started to recede.
All of that has made it nearly impossible for anyone to be a full-time homesteader in Maine without a second job or alternative source of income.
“There was a time when there was that intentional attempt to divorce yourself and your family from the America of Madison Avenue and consumerism and that was very defining of the old homesteading culture,” Baldwin said of the homestead movement of the 1970s. “Now, when people can’t make it outside of the money economy, those [homesteading] dreams collapse.”
Today, according to Baldwin, among the newer iteration of homesteaders in Maine, there is no attempt to deny or turn their backs on a capitalist economy. They can’t afford to.
“People are getting their farms, growing their stuff, selling their stuff,” he said. “There is no intent to not be in the [economic] paradigm of the day.”
Longtime residents have insisted the Lavans paid inflated “out-of-stater” prices, but the couple said land in Maine was affordable compared with other states. But it left them with little money left to operate their homestead.
That means by necessity or choice, they and homesteaders like them need some form of off-homestead employment to pay for their lifestyle.
Nathanial Gandy, who is retired from the U.S. Navy and the former commandant of Maine Maritime Academy, knows he is lucky that his economic reality matched his dreams. He is now happily raising and breeding pigs on the Blue Hill Peninsula.
Though he and his wife, a librarian at Blue Hill Consolidated School, do have a mortgage for their 93 acres in Brooksville, Gandy said purchasing the land during a time of rising real estate prices two years ago was due in no small part to his military pension and good timing.
“The sellers were wonderful,” Gandy said. “They had grown up here and had decided it was time to sell and they held the mortgage for the first year while we sold our place in Blue Hill.”
Brooksville is also where Helen and Scott Nearing owned a homestead for decades. The couple is best known for writing “Living the Good Life: How to live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World” in 1954, which is regarded as one of the most influential books of the back to the land movement. It’s not known how much they paid for their property in Maine back in 1952, but both Helen and Scott Nearing came from prosperous families.
Making it work
When Lavan and her husband were looking for their homestead, Maine was not among their top considerations. But once here, they discovered a pleasant bonus: a community of like-minded residents ready to share helpful knowledge to newcomers.
That’s why a lot of homesteaders are doing it step by step — starting off small and growing as they can afford the time and money.
“The things I am doing now are helping me learn the skills I will need when we have our land and homestead,” said Barter, who is doing what she can with container gardening, planting on land owned by friends and processing fresh vegetables for others in return for a share of the bounty.
There is a history of homestead neighbors helping homestead neighbors in Maine, according to Anna Libby, community education director with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
“A lot of our homesteaders are gardeners or small farmers who are homesteading on a smaller scale,” Libby said. “They want to keep that culture alive [and] a bunch of new folks are getting involved and are excited with not a lot of land, but they want to learn how to grow things.”
There are no hard data on the number of people homesteading in Maine, but there are anecdotal statistics that show an increased interest in the lifestyle over the years that reflect changing demographics.
For example, attendance at the annual MOFGA Common Ground Fair, an event that highlights all things sustainable in Maine, grew from 59,067 in 2012 to 67,858 in 2022.
Over that same 10-year period, the number of MOFGA certified organic farms in Maine grew from 320 to 525.
The USDA collects and releases census data every five years that, among other things, lists the number of acres farmed in Maine, number of farms, and the age, gender and race of farmers in the state. The 2022 census data are set to be released later this year.
If the rate at which new members are joining social media groups like Doiron’s is any indication, homesteading in Maine is not slowing down, even as it gets harder to afford.
“I wasn’t around in the ’70s and am fairly new to the homesteading game myself,” Doiron said. “But I can say that I believe many of these new homesteaders have started slow with trial and error — for some, it was a conscious choice and for others, it was an economical one.”
While not everyone who came to Maine to homestead during the pandemic stuck it out, Dorion said those who he believes will be in it for the long haul.
“Like any trend or fad, some folks who tried the new homestead lifestyle with chickens, livestock [and] gardens found it was not for them,” he said. “Others found a spark, even with some failures along the way, and they continue on their homesteading path.”