How to start homesteading in Maine
Maine has a long history of homesteading. The state was once home to famous homesteaders Scott and Helen Nearing, who moved to Maine in the 1950s and effectively started a back-to-the-land movement with their classic book, “Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World.” Now, with its growing community of young farmers, inexpensive land and rich local food scene, Maine is still a great place to start homesteading.
If you want to start homesteading in Maine, here’s what you need to know.
Buying farmland in Maine
As of 2017, Maine’s farm real estate averages $2,200 per acre, which includes the value of all land and buildings on farms. In fact, Maine’s farmland is the least expensive in the East.
According to the Maine Farm Bureau, there are 1.35 million farm acres with a total of 8,173 farms, which means the average farm size in the state is about 167 acres. The majority of farms, over 61 percent, consist of less than 100 acres.
In Maine, farmers can use the Agricultural Marketing Loan Fund to purchase land, as well as to conduct renovations and construction. The maximum amount of the project costs contributed by the fund is $250,000, the applicant must contribute at least 5 percent of the project cost. Applicants must submit a letter requesting an eligibility determination. The loan requires a commitment of at least 10 percent from the applicant or other financing sources if the loan is under $100,000, or up to 25 percent for projects over $100,000.
Coastal Enterprises, Inc., also provides business loans to farmers to cover equipment purchases, working capital, or other direct business needs.
Farmers can also apply for financial assistance that is not specific to Maine. Farm Credit East offers AgDirect® for equipment financing assistance, with options to buy, lease or refinance. Country Living with Farm Credit East finances country homes, farms and land in the northeast.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency offers a variety of opportunities to start, improve, expand, transition, market, and strengthen family farming and ranching operations. They also offer Targeted Farm Loans to minority and women farmers and ranchers and beginning farmers and ranchers, as well as Native American Tribal Loans that can be used for farming operations under very specific conditions.
Once you own farmland for a few years, you can register your land to prohibit “Incompatible Use” within 50 feet of your land, including the construction of new wells, drinking water springs or water supply intake points. Municipalities also may not issue a building or use permit allowing any prohibited development or use of land abutting registered farmland. Eligible farmland is considered 5 or more contiguous acres, which produce a gross annual income of at least $2,000 per year from the sale value of farm products in 1 of 2, or 3 of 5, calendar years preceding the date of application for registration.
Growing crops in Maine
According to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Maine contains hardiness zones 3 through 6a. The majority of the state is in zones 3 and 4, with a small portion in the southeast corner designated zone 6a.
Cold-hardy plants thrive in Maine. Lettuce, peas, beets, radishes and leafy greens like spinach can all be direct sown with great success. Crops that benefit from overwintering, like carrots and garlic, are also well-suited to Maine’s climate.
Certain varietals are also adapted to the cold temperatures and short growing season. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension recommends choosing varieties of your favorite crops that have shorter growing seasons and resistance to certain kinds of blight that are prevalent in Maine.
Maine has a fairly short growing season, with generally less than four months between frost dates. Many crops — particularly cold-sensitive crops or crops with long growing seasons — will need to be started indoors in order to thrive. Growers in Maine can also use season extenders to help cope with cold temperatures.
The soil in Maine tends to be acidic, which can affect the nutrients that are available to your plants. It is helpful to have a soil test done to determine if your soil benefits from specific amendments to neutralize pH and add nutrients.
The state of Maine does not require a license or permit to run a working farm if it is for produce only.
Using water in Maine
If you plan to source water on your land, know that Maine requires an Irrigation Pond Permit Application Process for permitting new sources of water. This five-step process is for those considering developing an irrigation pond or impoundment that includes developing a whole farm irrigation water management plan, wetland delineation and site visits from state and federal agencies.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service and the local Soil and Water Conservation District may also provide assistance with your irrigation water management, subject to local priorities and workloads.
Typically, permits are required both from the Army Corps of Engineers and from either the Maine Department of Environmental Protection or, for unorganized territories, the Land Use Regulation Commission. Applicants will also complete USDA Swampbuster requirements for a wetland exemption.
Raising animals in Maine
Most types of poultry and livestock are suitable to raise in Maine. Animals should be provided with appropriate shelter — whether it is a windbreak for wooly livestock or sheds for cold-sensitive poultry — to weather the Maine winters.
Rules and restrictions for keeping poultry and livestock on your land in Maine vary by municipality in Maine, so check with your local town office about the ordinances in your area.
When it comes to purchasing livestock, there are several state-sanctioned auctions throughout the year. The Somerset Auction in Fairfield is held every Monday year-round, except holidays. The Northeast Livestock Expo takes place on the third Saturday in May at the Windsor fairgrounds. The Maine Beef Producers Association has two feeder calf sales: a spring sale is in mid-May during the Northeast Livestock Expo and a fall sale in early November at D&S Corral in Richmond. The New England Galloway National Sale occurs the last Saturday in April at the Fryeburg fairgrounds. The Boer Goat Breeders of Maine holds an annual sheep and goat sale at Somerset Auction the second Saturday in October.
In Maine, it is unlawful for any person to sell animals that have been dyed or artificially colored, or to sell live fowl, turtles or rabbits under 8 weeks of age in lots smaller than six.
USDA-approved official identification is required for all sheep and goats in Maine. Such official identification is also required for any livestock moved across state lines.
The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (DACF) also has a number of programs in place to assist livestock and poultry producers. The DACF poultry health technician consults with bird owners and visits farms if requested. Flock owners in Maine can participate in National Poultry Improvement Plan pullorum testing and flock inspection, where the University of Maine Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory will investigate the causes of illness in flocks.
Similarly, DACF’s Maine Cattle Health Assurance Program provides livestock and dairy producers with assistance in addressing key animal health risk areas on their farm by conducting an assessment of on-farm conditions and practices, developing herd risk management plan development and administering diagnostic testing. They also provide financial support of farm visits and disease testing varies and is dependent on budget and independent grants awarded to the program.
According to Cathy Preyer, support staff for animal health at the Maine DACF, Maine is not a free-range state. Livestock must be confined to the owner’s property. There are two or three companies in the state that keep livestock on their property before slaughter. Maine also allows for processing of up to 1,000 birds per year in an on-farm facility that meets relatively minimal facility requirements, though only for the sale of only whole birds directly to consumers in Maine.
Selling food in Maine
In accordance with the Maine Food Sovereignty Act, municipalities in the state can elect to regulate their own local food systems, including production, processing, consumption and direct producer-to-consumer exchanges. The law removes many roadblocks to selling food products for small producers. Meat and poultry production sales are still regulated at the state and federal level
According to the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets, Maine boasts about 115 summer farmers markets and over 30 winter farmers’ markets throughout the state.
There is no license or insurance required for selling Maine-grown, unprocessed produce at farmers’ markets, nor is there a license or permit required to open a roadside stand to sell fruit and vegetables grown in your garden or on your farm (though there are specifications as to how the stand is set up).
Moreover, a commercial kitchen is not required to sell prepared foods at a farmers’ market. Farmers simply submit an application and fee to the Maine DACF for Home Food Manufacturing. The annual fee is $20, but the initial period may be longer than one year and would be prorated. If the food preparation area is found to be in compliance, a license will be issued within 30 days after inspection.
When products are sold to stores, sold wholesale or retailed by any manner of public marketing like at a farmers market, Maine requires that each individual item bears a label with the name of the product, the ingredients in order of prevalence, the net weight or numerical count, and the name and address of the producer, manufacturer or distributor and zip code. Maine farmers markets also require an allergen statement, declaring the use of any of the “Big 8” allergens — wheat, soy, eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish — in bold type on the label. When sold directly to a consumer from the home, however, such a label is not required.
A Mobile Vendor License is also required in order to sell prepared foods off-premises but is not required for selling Maine-grown, unprocessed produce.
For producers of eggs with less than 3,000 laying hens, no license or inspection is required. However, there are several regulations that sellers must follow.
When selling eggs in Maine, the size and grade must be labeled on the carton with the name, address and zip code of the packer with an address sticker or stamp. Eggs in the carton must match what is on the carton as labeled in grade, size, and color.
Candling eggs, holding eggs up to a light source to find cracks and other aberrations like blood spots, is not required. However, cracked eggs should not be sold because cracks increase the risk of contamination and entry of bacteria. Eggs must meet Grade B quality. To be Grade B, they must be unbroken but can be misshapen or texture and can have air cells — pockets of air present in all eggs that generally observed through candling — of any size (higher rated eggs have smaller air cells).
Cartons must also state that refrigeration is required. Eggs must be stored and transported at a temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit or less.
If you reuse cartons, the USDA Shield must be removed or fully covered. Cartons must be clean and odor-free. Generic cartons can be purchased online or from a local farm store. Keep empty egg cartons in a clean, dry odorless area.
To wash any soiled or dirty eggs, use a bleach solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of warm water (at a minimum of 90 degrees Fahrenheit) and dry with single-use, disposable paper towels. Other egg wash materials designed for this purpose are available for purchase. Do not soak the eggs: eggs have a natural wax coating, and soaking may remove it.
Before selling eggs in Maine, it is wise to have product liability insurance. Homeowner’s insurance may not be adequate. Speak to your insurance agent to make certain your product is covered.
Living off-grid in Maine
Living off-grid in Maine is technically legal. However, depending on location, zoning restrictions and city or county ordinances could prohibit or severely limit off-grid living or make it illegal.
Building construction in Maine is mostly governed by the Maine Uniform Building Code and Uniform Energy Code. However, the provisions of the Maine Uniform Building Code, the Maine Uniform Energy Code or the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code do not apply in a municipality that has 4,000 or fewer residents except to the extent the municipality has chosen to adopt the code.
In general, homesteaders deciding whether to live off-grid should consider the energy systems that they plan to use. Solar energy systems have potential in Maine, but they may suffer from the many shaded areas of Maine’s heavily-forested lands, as well as the short daylight hours in the northern reaches of the state during the winter. Forested areas provide ample opportunity for energy via biomass, though such systems can be inefficient and cause pollution. Parcels of land on the coast or near a fast-flowing mountain brook may be suited to wind or hydroelectric power generation, respectively, but such ideal locations may be difficult to come by. All off-grid homesteaders in Maine should have access to back-up sources of energy for emergencies.
Tax incentives for farmers and homesteaders in Maine
In Maine, there is no legal distinction between industrial-scale farms, small farms and homesteads.
The Maine DACF runs a Farmland Protection Program, which provides benefits to agricultural landholders in order to Farmers can register their property with the DACF if they have at least five contiguous acres in their parcel of land. The land must be used for farming, agriculture or horticulture and can include woodland and wasteland. Additionally, the parcel must contribute at least $2,000 gross income from farming activities each year.
Once they have registered, farmland owners who plan to farm for the long-term can enroll for Maine’s Farmland Property Tax Program to reduce property tax on their working farmland. Additionally, landowners with forest and woodland who plan to grow and harvest timber and wood product on their land can enroll for Maine’s Tree Growth Property Tax Program to reduce property tax on their working forestland.
The Department of Agriculture prepares a valuation guideline for municipalities, which results from studies based on suggested values using a correlation from income stream and market data attributable to agricultural enterprise.
Be warned, though: if the property no longer qualifies as farmland, then a penalty will be assessed. The penalty is equal to the taxes that would have been paid in the last five years if the property had not been in farmland, less the taxes that were paid, plus any interest on that balance.
For property tax purposes, Maine’s homestead exemption provides a reduction of up to $20,000 on the value of your home. To qualify, you must be a permanent resident of Maine, the home must be your permanent residence, you must have owned the home in Maine for the twelve months prior to applying. The exemption applies to any residential property that is assessed as real property. Once approved, the exemption remains in effect as long as ownership and residency status remains unchanged.
Any landowner with eligible land has the right to enroll in any of these programs. Applications are due to local tax assessors by April 1.
Maine organizations for new farmers
The Beginning Farmer Resource Network at the University of Maine is a coalition of Maine agriculture agencies and organizations — including the Maine Farm Bureau, Maine Farmland Trust (MFT), Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), among others — that work together to connect aspiring and beginning farmers to resources. The network also hosts events and workshops for farmers who are just getting started in Maine.
MOFGA also has a program called the Maine Farm Resilience Program, which provides individualized support to advanced-beginning farmers, defined as farmers with five to nine years of experience. They provide seminars, mentorship and financial assistance for farmers looking to scale up, access and adapt to new markets, manage risk and strategize business plans for long-term viability.
MFT provides Beginning Farmer Services for beginning farmers with limited experience looking to purchase land in Maine. The organization Land For Good also helps farmers of various skill levels throughout New England to access farmland.
The National Young Farmers Coalition has a Southern Maine chapter that serves meeting place for young and beginning farmers in the area to share knowledge and resources and advocate for policies aimed at advancing the success of young and beginning farmers across the state and country.
How difficult is it to start homesteading in Maine?
Because of the inexpensive and plentiful land, limited regulations and opportunities for financial assistance, it is relatively easy to start homesteading in Maine — just make sure you are prepared for the difficult winters.