Farmers network, debate farm and food policy at Northport conference

Posted Nov. 06, 2011, at 7:07 p.m.

NORTHPORT, Maine — In a few days, the U.S. Congress is likely to hastily pass a slimmed-down version of the 2012 Farm Bill, according to Russell Libby of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

The bill is reconsidered by Congress approximately every five years and last was passed in 2008. It will probably contain the usual trade-offs intended to both stabilize the production of the country’s agriculture economy and to help hungry people eat, Libby said Sunday at the end of the annual Farmer to Farmer Conference, held at Point Lookout Resort in Northport.

“That’s the status quo,” he said.

But Libby has other questions about the country’s long-term food and farming policies.

“How do we reshape the conversation? What are our goals for U.S. food policy?” he asked.

Libby and conference speaker Brian Snyder, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, asked the questions of a roomful of local farmers Sunday. The answers they received veered far from the status quo, with nary a mention of more soybean, corn or beef subsidies for any farmer, large or small.

Some said that having single-payer health care would make it much more possible for people to become small farmers. Others said that farms must embrace technology in order to grow in the future.

Snyder asked the farmers for their vision for food policy and agriculture.

“My vision is rural communities that are based on viable farms that protect their natural resources,” said one farmer.

Ralph Turner, who grows vegetables at Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport, said that he would like to see the industry increase its diversity of technology and techniques.

Libby, the executive director of MOFGA, said that he envisions farmers and the agriculture industry being able to be resilient through the challenges of energy changes and what he called “the new weather.”

“We have to learn to be flexible, ecologically sound, accessible and democratic,” he said. “It can’t be elite. We have to think about what produces a healthy world. If we don’t have a food policy that creates healthy people, we’ve failed. If we don’t have a food policy that creates healthy farms, we’ve failed. It is that whole ecosystem approach.”

In addition to envisioning a farm policy future that will look very different from the bill that likely will be passed this week, Libby said that the conference is also a time for farmers to network with each other and share their knowledge of Maine farming.

According to Turner, that’s why he comes.

“To share mistakes as well as what’s working,” he said.

One thing that’s working in Maine, Libby said, is that there is burgeoning interest in farming in Maine, especially organic farming. While in the past 75 people might have signed up for the conference, this year there were nearly 300 attendees.

“The exciting part are all these young farmers who are populating the landscape around Maine,” he said.

Farmer Rachel Katz of Smith Farm in Troy is one of those young farmers. She and her partner, Sam Hazlehurst, bought the horse-powered farm nearly four years ago and grow vegetables there along with their family.

“It’s a political act, a spiritual act and a physical act,” Katz, 31, said of farming. “I get to be outside all day. I get to eat as much watermelon as I want.”

The best thing about the conference is the chance to meet with other farmers, she said.

“It can be really isolating work. It’s nice to get out and see people who have the same struggles as you,” Katz said. “It’s good to know there are young farmers in the state who are excited to provide the food that people eat.”

Farmers weren’t the only attendees this weekend.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree spoke Sunday at the conference about her own recently-introduced bill that would make significant changes to the country’s food policy if passed. The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act would expand opportunities for local and regional farmers and make it easier for consumers to have access to healthy foods.

“Consumers want to be able to buy fresh, healthy food that doesn’t have to travel halfway around the world to get to them,” Pingree said in a statement issued this week. “We just need to create a farm policy in this country that makes it easier for them to do that.”

Joan Cheetham, a MOFGA certification specialist, said that it’s very unlikely Pingree’s bill will become law, but that it was still positive to have the congresswoman come talk to the farmers at the conference.

“It’s neat to hear,” Cheetham said.

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