Maine farms produce a cornucopia of foods—from peaches, peppers, and kale to grapes, Asian pears, and meat. In fact, John Piotti argues that Maine has the potential to feed the entire New England region. And he is working to make that possible. Maine magazine recently named him to its list of 50 people who have made a difference for his leadership in the state’s farming renaissance.
Piotti is executive director of the Maine Farmland Trust (MFT), a nonprofit based in Belfast. Growing up on Nantucket, he saw how some rural communities can become overbuilt while others wither. He moved to Maine in 1987, determined to bring sustainable development to rural places and, in particular, to revitalize farming.
On a typical day, Piotti and his staff may be helping young farmers find land, networking with lawmakers, lobbying for changes to the federal pricing policy for milk that would make dairy farming more tenable, or meeting with farm families planning their futures. MFT’s current work is protecting 100,000 acres of farmland threatened by development, but Piotti’s long-term goal is to double the 1.3 million acres now farmed in the state.
“Maine is positioned well for agriculture,” he says. “We have a lot of land that could be farmed, abundant water, and better growing conditions than most people think. It’s not that cold; we’re only halfway to the North Pole. We have good local markets with people who care about what they eat, and we’re within striking distance of the rest of New England.”
The interplay between environmental concerns and community development has set the theme for Piotti’s career. After earning MIT degrees in political science/public policy and ocean systems management, he was hired as the first administrator of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority Advisory Board. Once he moved north, he led the Maine Science and Technology Commission and then created the farm program at Coastal Enterprises, a community development corporation. From 2002 to 2010, he also served in the Maine House of Representatives, where he chaired the agriculture committee and later served as majority leader.
“MIT taught me to have an agile mind for working with multiple subjects,” Piotti says. “And I learned there to be entrepreneurial, which is just as necessary in the nonprofit world.”
When he’s not supporting farms, Piotti and his wife, Susan, sail the Maine coast and appreciate the growing arts scene in Belfast. Piotti has converted some MFT office space into a gallery showcasing work from local artists who depict Maine farms authentically.
“It’s synergistic,” he says. “We sell a lot of art, and that helps us, but it also portrays farming as vibrant and happening. For many folks, art is a window into the work we do.”
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