ORLAND, Maine — U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk got a taste of Maine — in the form of a fresh wild blueberry pie — when he visited the G.M. Allen and Son blueberry farm and processing center Thursday morning.
“It was spectacular,” he said. “It was the best blueberry pie I’ve ever had.”
Later in the day, the visiting trade ambassador went to the Bangor State Fair, where he met with local 4-H students and Maine farmers who brought livestock to one of the state’s longest-running agricultural fairs.
The Allens have harvested and sold blueberries in Maine for 98 years. Kirk was given a tour of the facility by owners and brothers Kermit and Wayne Allen, and company vice president Annie Allen, one of five fourth-generation Allens who work for the family-run operation.
“Wild blueberry [sales] are up in Maine, and we’re probably second only to potatoes in agriculture,” said Annie Allen, who is also the Maine Farm Service Agency State Committee chairwoman.
She said wild blueberries, with their high antioxidant level, are increasingly popular in Asia and Europe, which is one reason the Allens are interested in learning more about President Barack Obama’s National Export Initiative.
Kirk is in Maine to highlight the president’s initiative, which aims to double American exports and create 2 million jobs in the U.S., including agricultural jobs in Maine.
His first question to the Allens was about the company’s exports.
“We do ship out 10 percent,” said Annie Allen, adding the percentage is increasing annually. “We need exports as an industry.”
The Orland business has 1,200 acres of wild blueberries — with 600 acres harvested each year on a rotating basis — that produce on average 2 million pounds of berries annually.
In between Kirk’s blueberry farm visit and his time at the Bangor State Fair, a group of about 30 local workers demonstrated in downtown Bangor’s Pickering Square against Kirk’s visit because they say he is a supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement and other NAFTA-style trade deals.
“We’ve lost more than 31,000 Maine jobs because of unfair trade policies,” said Daphne Loring, coordinator for Maine Fair Trade Campaign, a coalition of 60 Maine labor, environmental and human rights groups.
The protesters asked Kirk, who was not in attendance, to work with 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat, on his Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment Act, dubbed the TRADE Act.
“The TRADE Act requires a review of existing trade agreements, and a renegotiation of four existing trade agreements based on that review,” Michaud’s congressional website states.
The major trade agreements that would be reviewed include NAFTA, said state Rep. Benjamin Pratt, D-Eddington.
“The TRADE Act … would ensure that the most egregious and capricious aspects of these trade agreements, including the undemocratic investor rights provision, would be excluded from all future deals,” he said.
On Friday, Kirk will join up with Michaud for a visit to the Verso paper mill in Bucksport and will host a noon roundtable discussion in Bangor with representatives of Maine’s lobster, agriculture and forestry industries.
In addition to the president’s National Export Initiative, which is online at export.gov, Kirk also plans to discuss the potential for a U.S.-South Korea trade agreement during the roundtable and will provide an update on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal involving Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Chile, Vietnam and Brunei.
“President Obama has really prompted me to look at both sides of trade in America,” Kirk said, adding later, “we want to listen to both sides of the debate.”
At the Bangor State Fair, Kirk watched the judging of the dairy cows and then took a tour of the cow barn, before heading over to Old MacDonald’s Farm, where a number of different animals were on display.
He stopped to speak to 4-H advisers Haley Emery of Albion and Marjorie Hardy of Farmington, as well as Jim Davis, owner of Silver Valley Farm in New Sharon.
He also posed for a photo with Matt Davis, son of Jim Davis, and his 3-year-old Holstein, Kite-Carrie, who earned the title Supreme Champion in her class.
Kirk said the goal of his Maine visit was to “put a face with the meaning behind what we’re trying to do in Washington. When you come here you realize there are generations of families that rely on what we make, grow and export.”
Annie Allen, who serves on the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, said, “I’m fourth-generation, and we have several fifth-generation out there working” in the Orland processing plant, where the small blue fruit is individually frozen. Also along for Kirk’s tour were brother Jeff Allen and sister Ruth Allen-Grey, and several youngsters from the fifth generation, along with Virginia Manuel, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development state director, and Donovan Todd, USDA Farm Service Agency executive director.
After a tour of the facility, Kirk, his entourage and family members were treated to wild blueberry pie before visiting a blueberry field and then the plant’s gift shop, where Kirk purchased some blueberry jam to take home.
Kermit Allen brought one of the three pies devoured during the tour and said he has a wild blueberry smoothie every day because of the health benefits from the berries’ natural antioxidants.
If the experts “believe in them, I guess I should, too,” he said, adding the frozen drinks also taste good.
Wayne Allen said wild blueberries are in the blood of the Allens, whose company — and many other small Maine enterprises — depend on each other, good trade policies and a good economy to operate successfully.
“I started working on the old cannery when I was 13 years old and I’ve been here ever since,” the octogenarian said. “This is a family business.”