Dairy sector ‘guinea pig’ of agriculture study

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

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry gave their unanimous stamp of approval Wednesday to a new series of studies that for the first time involve a cooperative effort between Maine’s Departments of Agriculture and Labor.

The ACF committee agreed to write a letter of recommendation to the Maine Technology Institute’s Cluster Grant program, backing a $230,000, three-year grant request.

The studies would canvas eight agricultural sectors in the state, seeking information on everything from labor needs to financial matters and knowledge of government programs. The first study would concentrate on the dairy industry.

“This is a very reasonable investment for a very large part of Maine’s economy,” Marge Kilkelly, a former state senator and originator of the concept, said Wednesday.

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Kilkelly said there were no guarantees the group would obtain the grant, but because the project has the backing of all of the Maine commodity and farming groups, as well as the ACF, it is positioned well.

The grant would fund a coordinator for three years, technical assistance, travel allowances and the costs of publishing yearly reports. The

benefits of the studies, agriculture representatives said, would be that public policy discussions could be held based on real data.

Each farmer would be surveyed by volunteers, and if, during the survey process, farmers request information or help on a certain issue, the volunteers will be able to direct them to the appropriate program or agency.

The Maine Business Visitation Program within the Department of Labor will be the vehicle used for the survey.

Kilkelly, who also serves as executive director of the Northeast States Association for Agricultural Stewardship, addressed the ACF committee Wednesday by phone from Philadelphia.

“This project can be an important piece of how we look at agriculture across the state,” Kilkelly said. “Agriculture is a significant driver of the rural economy but we know we have knowledge gaps. This is a good way to deal with that. There are tremendous opportunities out there but we need to identify them.”

The group submitting the grant includes representatives of the Maine Farm Bureau, NSAAS, the Maine Dairy Industry Association, the Maine labor and agriculture departments, and the Maine Food Policy Council.

“The dairy sector would be the guinea pig,” said Julie Marie Bickford, executive director of MDIA, since the dairy industry has such a good track record for participating in surveys. The questions on the dairy survey will be tailored to the industry, she said.

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