BELFAST, Maine — Maine lobstermen may be really good at fishing, but writing a business plan isn’t always in their job description.
A federal program that this fall made lobstermen eligible for the first time for U.S. Department of Agriculture business training funds aims to change that, according to officials from the Maine Farm Service Agency and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
“I think it’s going to be a great program,” Patrice McCarron, executive director of the MLA, told about 30 midcoast lobstermen Monday night during an informational session at Belfast Area High School. “Worst case scenario: You learn a lot and get a good business plan under your belt.”
The voluntary Trade Adjustment Assistance Program will divide $22 million between participating lobstermen in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut; Maine blueberry harvesters; and some Gulf of Mexico shrimp harvesters.
The USDA determined in September that both lobstermen and blueberry harvesters in Maine were adversely affected last year by imports. Lobstermen are eligible if their gross nonfishing income for 2009 didn’t exceed $500,000, their average 2009 adjusted gross fishing income did not exceed $750,000 and if they can prove they harvested and sold Maine lobster in 2009 and at least one other year from 2006 to 2008.
In exchange for attending at least 12 hours of workshops on topics including marketing, product handling or business plan development, participants can receive up to $4,000 in federal assistance. If they go on to create a business plan, they can get up to $8,000 more. Officials said they expect 30 to 40 percent of the state’s 5,600 commercially licensed lobstermen to participate, but they must apply by Dec. 23.
Hundreds of people, primarily fishermen, have attended training sessions that have already taken place this month in Milbridge, Portland, Union and Ellsworth, according to Michael Marchetti, district director for the USDA Farm Service Agency.
“It’s kind of exciting. It’s a whole new group of clientele,” he said. “There’s a huge similarity between these guys and our dairy farmers.”
Aside from chowder, he said, other commonalities between lobstermen and dairy farmers include struggling with rising costs of “inputs” such as fuel and bait, and slumping prices for the end product that have been driven down by the recession.
The USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service also determined that foreign imports of blueberries and lobsters in 2009 contributed to a decline of more than 15 percent in the value of each product when compared to the average over the three previous years.
Lobsterman Cassandra Trupiano of New Harbor in Lincoln County said she thought the program sounded interesting.
“The price [of lobster] fluctuates so. You never know what it’s going to be,” she said.
Lobsterman Glenn McFadden of Searsport said he would like to develop a business plan.
“I think the training sounds pretty good,” he said.
His wife, Cheryl McFadden, added that it’s good business, too.
“You’ve got to take advantage of anything out there,” she said.
McCarron said the response of lobstermen to the program has been “really positive,” which wasn’t a guaranteed outcome. Maine lobstermen are by definition a fleet of individual small businesses and are famous for their independence.
“We just didn’t know what the industry would think about it,” she said after the informational session. “Some people think that this is a really, really poor use of taxpayer dollars. That sentiment exists. That’s valid.”
But a lot of fishermen obviously disagree.
“The whole idea for this program is to provide the training,” she said. “The cash benefit is intended to be invested to make the business more profitable and to getting your business plan off the ground.”
Although the money can be used to transition out of lobstering and into something new, McCarron thinks most Maine lobstermen wish to remain in the industry — though some have said they want to diversify.
“Even if they’re very cynical, I think the workshops will be interesting to them,” she said of participating lobstermen.
Lobsterman James Simmons of Friendship might fit into that category. When asked why he was at the informational session, he had a concise answer.
“The money,” he said. “For a few classes, that’s a quick $12,000.”
Remaining meetings will be held Tuesday, Nov. 30, in:
• Oxford, 3-5 p.m. at Oxford County Farm Service Agency office.
• Machias, 6-8 p.m. at the University of Maine at Machias Science Building, Room 102.
• Harpswell, 6-8 p.m. at Harpswell Island School.