Committee reviews proposals to boost value of agriculture

Posted Sept. 17, 2008, at 10:14 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine has been a leader in agriculture policy and legislation, setting the national pace on dairy legislation, environmental regulations, animal welfare and proactive farming management practices.

Members of the state’s Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry continued that work Wednesday at the first of three mandated meetings to study agriculture’s impact on the Maine economy and to determine how to keep it vital and growing.

Legislators began a review of the Agriculture’s Creative Economy Study, which revealed a vibrant but often invisible economic sector.

The ACES report also proposed 10 initiatives and dozens of actions which, if fully funded and supported, would improve farm profitability and in turn boost the state’s overall economic health.

“Nationally, we are viewed as having done some very, very creative work with small farm businesses,” said Rep. John Piotti, D-Unity, agriculture committee member. But, he added, the ACES group is all-volunteer and a coordinator could be invaluable.

“Awareness of the value of Maine’s agriculture economy is critical to the state’s future,” Piotti said. “Farming is our future in this state and, with the ACES information, we will be poised to build on that.”

Some of the ACES suggestions include creating a master database of wholesale producers and specialty food producers; providing funds to increase food storage capacity; increasing labor pay and benefits for food service personnel; working to change federal laws and rules on the procurement of locally produced foods; and amending the state constitution to allow for reduced assessments of farm buildings and agricultural storage and processing facilities.

Marge Kilkelly, former state senator, is a goat farmer and director of the Northeast States Association for Agricultural Stewardship. She proposed the five-year ACES plan in the last legislative session.

Kilkelly said that when the state had lean financial years, the Maine Department of Agriculture’s budget was the first to be cut, but those cuts were never restored in good years.

The loss of value-added products means “lost jobs, lost money and lost opportunities.” She said Maine’s animals are sent to Pennsylvania for slaughter, fleeces are sent to Michigan for processing, and grain is sent to Canada to be milled.

The ACES study was conducted over the past year. The coming Legislature would be charged with approving and funding any of the recommendations. An assessment of the approved recommendations would be conducted during the next three years.

Karen Nadeau-Drillen and Elizabeth Cooper, legislative analysts, outlined each of the ACES proposals and what action would be needed.

Priority areas include market access, education, research, technical assistance and education, access to resources and access to government regulation.

Recommended investments include:

ä $520,000 in grants to develop a consumer word-of-mouth market initiative; $160,000 from the state’s General Fund to develop a formal farm-to-school program.

ä $200,000 from the General Fund to increase support to the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension and Research Center.

ä $1 million in grant funds to create shared-use kitchens to develop in-state food processing companies and local food distribution infrastructure.

ä $70,000 from the General Fund to improve labor sourcing and training.

ä A $6 million bond to improve access to capital through the Agriculture Marketing Loan Fund.

ACES also recommended taking funds from tax incentive programs to re-evaluate existing state regulations on agriculture and create “freedom to farm” economic incentive zones and programs.

“The end product of ACES is not going to be a report,” Nadeau-Drillen said. “It will be possible legislation.”

The next meeting of the ACES group and the agriculture committee has been set for Oct. 15.

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