AUGUSTA, Maine — Hundreds of people flocked Tuesday to the opening day of the 70th annual Maine Agricultural Trades Show, held at the Augusta Civic Center.
From milking machines to crop insurance to workshops on alternative energy, the show offered something for everyone attending, including a 10-year-old 4H’er and a 50-year-old retiree looking for a backyard farm.
Looking around at the packed auditorium, organizer Judy Blaisdell with the Maine Department of Agriculture said she was pleased with the turnout.
“There is a wealth of knowledge here,” Blaisdell said. “This is the hub of sustainable agriculture in Maine.”
If anyone thought farming was a dying industry in the state, Blaisdell said, Tuesday’s attendance and Department of Agriculture statistics proved them wrong.
“We have a full house of exhibitors and a packed day of seminars and education,” she said.
“Farming in Maine is growing,” said John Piotti, executive director of the Maine Farmland Trust. “The number of farms are up and the production numbers are up. When people are questioning our state’s economy, farming is a bright spot in Maine.”
Piotti said Maine has good land, good water, a diverse agricultural base and great markets. “Seventy-five million people live within a day’s driving of Maine,” he said.
Although the show did not have a theme, Blaisdell said the buzzwords of the day were farmers’ markets and buying local foods.
“People are very concerned about where their food comes from, as well as its carbon footprint,” Blaisdell said. “Maine farmers need to feed Maine people and everyone I talk to is excited about Maine agriculture.”
Outgoing Agriculture Commissioner Seth Bradstreet — whose successor is expected to be announced by Gov. Paul LePage Wednesday — agreed.
“The turnout is amazing. It shows that Maine agriculture has turned a corner. There are a lot of good things happening and a lot of optimism out there.”
Bradstreet said, “A lot of Maine people are interested in growing products we can be proud of.”
Galen Larrabee, a Knox dairy farmer, said that in 2008 and 2009, Maine’s milk production dropped from 60 million pounds a month to 52 million. “But in 2010, we were back up to 55 million pounds,” he said. “We may have less farms — we’re down to 309 dairy farms — but we are producing more milk. That is a true sign of agriculture health.”
Larrabee said the biggest challenge Maine’s farmers have facing them is mortgages. “It still comes down to how much money a farmer owes,” he said.
With the cost of equipment, taxes, feed, veterinary services and infrastructure all jumping higher and higher, Larrabee said, it isn’t right to use the word “profit” when discussing Maine farms. “Most are just holding on.”
At Larrabee’s dairy farm, where 500 cows are milked daily, the utility bill alone is $4,000 a month. A solution being used in other parts of the country that has not been used in Maine yet involves energy digesters — systems that turn manure into electricity. “But the dollars are so big,” Larrabee said, referring to the cost of such a system. “For my farm, it would cost between $1.2 million and $1.3 million.”
At Tuesday’s show, another sure sign of Maine agriculture’s growth was a Convergence Workshop sponsored by the Maine Farm Bureau and the Department of Agriculture.
This workshop brought together conventional and organic producers to work toward common solutions.
“We need to come together to discuss issues of mutual concern,” Jon Olson of the Farm Bureau said. One place both groups found common ground was dealing with Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP, which is a market certification process that will affect all producers.
Some farmers said they felt there was too much paperwork involved, but Lauchlin Titus, a Maine agronomist, said, “This is a good system, and with some tweaking, should have great benefit to all farmers.”
The trade show will be open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 12, and Thursday, Jan. 13. More than 40 major agricultural organizations, committees and agencies represented are at the show, as well as more than 100 exhibits to take in. All of the vendors are agriculturally based, with some providing free samples and op-portunities to purchase products. Throughout the event there will be lectures and workshops to participate in.