Maine’s next agriculture commissioner can work to hold the line on what seems like the inexorable decline of Maine’s small farms. That alone is a full-time job. And these small businesses, with their unique challenges, are worth saving for a host of reasons. But former Republican legislator and current dairy farmer Walter Whitcomb — who awaits likely confirmation as commissioner —also can focus his efforts on expanding niche export sectors.
The recent debate over designating the whoopie pie as Maine’s official state dessert, aside from generating a lot of letters to the editor and wisecracks, highlights the possibility. What seemed like an innocuous, uncontroversial bill touting a local treat sparked a campaign for another contender. Why not the blueberry pie, asked those who objected to the less-than-healthful qualities of the whoopie pie. And blueberries are a Maine crop worth promoting, both within the state and outside.
Another niche crop — if that is the right word — worth promoting is Maine’s maple sap. As a high value-added product, maple syrup holds great potential for Maine businesses. Rep. Matt Peterson, D-Rumford, has proposed creating a commission to study the potential for growing the maple syrup and maple sugar industry. Maine is the second-biggest producing state in the U.S., behind Vermont and ahead of New York. Yet Maine, Rep. Peterson notes, has 50 percent more of the kind of maple trees that produce the sweet stuff. Quebec province is the continent’s top producer.
Both blueberries and maple sweeteners are ripe — no pun intended — for promotion to a national population that may be ready to embrace healthful, pure foods. By virtue of Maine’s brand as an unspoiled place, our blueberries and maple syrup have a leg up on the competition. A concerted effort by the Department of Agriculture with state and private economic development and resource management staff could grow these businesses.
Mr. Whitcomb, after being confirmed, also should investigate other emerging agricultural niche commodities, especially those that are sold as value-added products.
Maine may not be able to compete with the megafarms of the Midwest for some crops, but the state must get its share of the pie — make that blueberry — of the growing market for healthful food.