Maine farmers lobby for USDA programs in Washington

Posted April 06, 2011, at 6:01 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Two Maine farmers are among three-dozen ranchers and producers from across the country in Washington, D.C., to lobby against cuts in the 2011 budget to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Robert Spear, former agriculture commissioner of Maine, said lawmakers are proposing to cut $3 billion from the USDA budget, representing a 25 percent loss of funds overall. Most of those losses would affect programs vital to Maine’s small farmers, he said.

“What is even worse is that if they make these cuts in 2011, [the reduced budget] will become the baseline as they create the 2012 budget,” Spear said in a telephone interview from the nation’s capital. “We will never get these vital programs back.”

Spear said the cuts would affect conservation stewardship programs, wetlands reserve programs, wildlife habitat, research and development, sustainable agriculture and EQUIP, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program that provides financial and technical assistance to help producers meet federal, state, tribal and local environmental regulations. All the programs are vital to Maine’s agricultural health, he said.

Spear did not know how much would be lost to the individual programs in Maine if the cuts are made.

According to the USDA’s 2010 annual report, Maine received millions of dollars last year:

$1.2 million for wildlife habitat programs; $1 million for conservation stewardship; $172,319 for agriculture management assistance; and $2.2 million for research and development, which included 93 projects and 97 new business creations or expansions.

The EQUIP program in Maine was funded at a whopping $10.2 million.

“These cuts would indirectly affect Maine’s full economy,” Spear said. “These programs foster the hiring of contractors, engineers. There is a huge ripple effect.”

Spear and Brady Hatch, a vegetable farmer from Newcastle, on Wednesday visited the offices of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. “Both of these women are on committees that deal with USDA funds,” Hatch said. Pingree is on the House Agriculture Committee and Collins is on the Senate subcommittee for Appropriations for Agriculture.

“In my experience, these programs are invaluable,” Hatch said. “As a new farmer of seven years, with no family farming background, the advice and assistance provided through these USDA programs are so important.”

Hatch said 90 percent of Maine’s farms are small family farms which create the backbone of a strong local food system.

“These are exactly the types of farms that benefit from the USDA programs,” he said. “This is technical know-how and information on food safety — critical information.”

Both farmers were representing the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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