The state of Maine’s “Farms for the Future” (FFF) is a competitive grant program providing selected farms with both business planning assistance and investment support. The grants are awarded by the state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry (DACF).

FFF was created in 2000 by the state legislature. Over the past 22 years more than 200 farms have benefited from over $2 million and tailored technical and planning assistance, enabling infrastructure, equipment, market development and business and strategic planning improvements.

“Each year, the Farms for the Future program provides valuable support to a cohort of Maine farms, from business planning to budget forecasting, putting each participating farm on more solid footing as they contemplate the future of their business,” said DACF Commissioner Amanda Beal. “I am excited for the farms selected to participate in the program in 2023 to receive tailored technical assistance to match their needs.”

The grants are awarded in two phases. A Phase 1 grant for $6,000 and allows selected farmers to research ideas for change on their farm and work with a certified business advisor, as well as other agricultural and professional service providers, to develop an investment-grade business plan. A Phase 2 grant awardee receives $25,000 and the opportunity for a subsidized 2% interest rate loan to be borrowed from DACF’s Agricultural Marketing Loan Fund.

Little Ridge Farm, in the town of Lisbon, is one of the 2023 Phase 2 grant awardees.

Keena Tracy, owner and head grower, founded Little Ridge Farm in 2007 as an organic diversified farm with a mission to provide fresh food while maintaining healthy soils, environment and self.

Tracy outlined Little Ridge’s founding core principles: “We are ever mindful of our watershed, the welfare of our livestock, our organic growing practices for our produce and the mental and physical wellbeing of ourselves and staff.”

All of the work at Little Ridge is done by Tracy and three to four part-time employees. “We have found the part-time model brings new energy, daily excitement and avoids burnout,” she said.

The majority of the farm’s sales are to families within a 10-mile radius through its summer and winter CSA programs. Little Ridge also serves about 25 families per week through an online store called FarmDrop. The farm conducts its wholesale business with the Good Shepherd Food Bank, area schools, nearby processors and a local restaurant.

The farm itself is situated on 25 acres, 15 wooded and 10 in open field. Of those 10 acres, seven are tillable, and Little Ridge is actively growing on six. Although their soils range from fine sand to clay, Tracy intimately knows her soil types and what to grow where and when she can work the soil without structural damage.

They have three drilled wells on site for irrigation, product washing and livestock. A 16-by-24-foot community barn houses two walk-in coolers, a washing station, pack supply storage and customer pick-up space for both the CSA and FarmDrop. Two 12-by-24-foot outbuildings house the tractor, fertilizer, straw and hand tools.

Additionally, two 30-by-110-foot high tunnels help extend the season and one 15-by-48-foot heated greenhouse offers seed starting and seedling space.

In her first season, Tracy raised six pigs and 10 beef cows on rented land. In 2008, they sold 30 winter CSA shares and participated at a winter farmers market. In 2009, she added the summer CSA (with 50 shares) and a rafter of 40 turkeys.

Community invited to be part of Little Ridge’s future

Keena Tracy founded Little Ridge Farm in 2007 as an organic diversified farm with a mission to provide fresh food while maintaining healthy soils, environment and self. Photo courtesy of Little Ridge Farm

Since then, the operation has grown to include 14 pigs, 17 beeves, 50 turkeys, a CSA with 65 winter shares and 85 summer shares, FarmDrop and the wholesale business.

There’s always something to do at Little Ridge. “We are busy starting seeds and working in the fields March through November. The remaining three months are less physically busy but very mentally busy – attending conferences, making business plans and marketing,” she said. “We also have winter CSA shares, FarmDrop and school and restaurant sales so we continue serving customers and harvesting from the unheated high tunnels and prepping storage crops.”

The farm’s CSA offerings are designed to offer something for everyone. Summer shares are offered weekly and bi-weekly June through October. The fall/winter share is available monthly November through April. Most customers come to the farm to pick up in person. When they do, they also have access to a free U-pick flower garden, herbs and cherry tomatoes.

The produce is laid out market-style, and folks can take whatever they want until they reach a total given weight. In 2023, the farm began offering customizable bagged shares with pick-up locations in Lisbon, Durham and Pownal.

The FarmDrop online store has been an effective resource for getting more local produce to the community. Little Ridge has partnered with up to 20 different producers to sell products like meats, dairy products, baked goods, mushrooms and soaps through FarmDrop. Customers order at their convenience, pay online and then pick up at the farm on Fridays or Saturdays, or in Durham on Saturday. Tracy is working on adding additional locations.

“It’s the perfect addition to our CSA so customers can add diversity or for folks who want more flexibility as to when they order,” she said. “It’s like an online farmers market.”

Tracy documents daily events on her “Happy Farmer Blog.” “This is like a diary entry to all of those who love Little Ridge Farm. I write a new one every time we have a CSA pick-up and include more detailed farm feelings and happenings,” she explained. “I keep it positive, but it has insights as to the why and how and sometimes hard truths to farming. I always include photos and often personal bits. It also lets CSA customers know what they may find in that week’s pick-up and some cooking ideas.”

This was not Tracy’s first time applying for a grant for her farm. “I have applied for other smaller but important grants that have helped implement new ways to get produce to our community,” she said. “For example, in 2020 we were awarded the New Ventures Maine Marketing Mini-Grant. It helped to promote FarmDrop and create a path for us to take donated monies, buy local food and deliver it to locals in need. We have partnered with the Lisbon School District and Safe Voices in Lewiston. I had been on the lookout for the Farms for the Future Grant to come back online so I could apply. I have had this ‘community barn’ vision for a while now.”

The FFF grant will help Little Ridge realize Tracy’s community farm vision. The award will be used to design and build a multi-purpose barn, creating a space for community events and greater farm efficiency. The barn will also provide an insulated space in winter for employees and customers as well as more winter crop storage.

Tracy will also capitalize on the space as a place to host educational classes and food tasting events. “The more folks know about their local food systems, the stronger it will make Maine and we are hoping to let our community see the value they can get through their local farm,” she said.

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by Enrico Villamaino