Stretching dollars talk of agriculture trades show

Posted Jan. 13, 2009, at 7:17 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The 68th annual Maine Agriculture Trades Show on Tuesday provided the latest in equipment, technology and farming innovations.

In the auditorium section of the Augusta Civic Center, children climbed on tractors, farmers tested out the latest baling machines, visitors sampled Maine-made cheeses and sausages, gardeners and farmers networked to find the best, cheapest, most efficient way to bring food to Maine plates.

At every turn, however, the economy was on everyone’s mind.

Jonathan Smith of Wayne said he came to the show to learn tips that would help him be a better home gardener. “This year, money is going to be tighter than ever and I think our family needs to be as self-sufficient as possible,”’ Smith said.

Organic farmer Elise Jorganson of Washington County said she had always grown food for her family, but was looking for education and information about expanding her home garden into a retail business.

“Every dime will count this year,” Jorganson said.

Ronald Price of Ingraham Equipment of Troy said dealers also were affected by the economy and were cutting back inventory. But he was optimistic that farmers still would buy the equipment they need for planting and harvesting.

“But it is a dangerous situation,” he said. “How much infrastructure can we lose and still have a viable agriculture industry? We may still survive this recession but it sure won’t be as pleasant.”

In meeting rooms surrounding the auditorium, farmers were getting down to the really hard work as Maine’s agriculture industry fights to stay vibrant in an economic recession. At nearly every meeting Tuesday, the watchwords were economy and energy.

While dairy farmers were hearing dire predictions that milk prices would be cut in half and preparing survival strategies, farmers in other meetings were gathering to work on economies of scale, cooperative ventures, sharing of services, and energy solutions.

In a meeting of the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society, former Gov. Angus King pushed his offshore wind turbine project, which he said eventually could provide enough energy to power every household and business in Maine.

He envisions hundreds of turbines on offshore platforms in the Gulf of Maine. “We need to look at the big picture,” he said. Maine is the most oil-dependent state in the country, King said, and for every $1 a Mainers spend collectively on higher oil and gas prices, $1.2 billion is taken out of the Maine economy. “That is more than the state income tax,” he said. “When that disappears, it is money we don’t have, money that disappears, gone out of Maine.”

King said energy takes 15 percent of all income, slightly more for farmers, and if the cost of oil triples, that will go to 45 percent. “If that happens, Maine will be one large one-season national park.”

He told the farmers and producers that they needed to look at energy solutions as insurance on their farms. “Not doing anything is like not buying insurance for your farm,” he said. “It’s Russian roulette.”

King advised farmers to conserve, use renewables — such as wind, solar and geothermal systems — buy plug-in cars and farm vehicles, use more efficient space heating, and structure their farms for change.

“It is not a question of can you do it, but how soon can you do it,” he said.

At almost the same time King was touting an offshore wind farm, Gov. John Baldacci announced a pilot program that will provide incentives up to $6,000 for small wind energy projects.

Other workshops at the trade show focused on sustainable farming, food security, farmland access, value-added production and farm apprenticeships.

There were also specific workshops on cheese making, the alpaca industry, aquaculture, food cooperatives, animal diseases and prevention, farm estate planning, and weather and climate issues for farmers.

The trade show continues from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday.

Find a schedule of events at www.getrealmaine.com.

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