USDA eyes opportunities in Maine

Posted Feb. 10, 2012, at 1:22 p.m.

In the 1980s the farm economy collapsed in America, and farmers were faced with huge payments and no income.

Dallas Tonsager was a dairy farmer in South Dakota and remembers how farmers set their minds on building industries that use the products they grew.

“Lots of people will argue over ethanol, but it worked, local farmers invested in it,” Tonsager said. “It created jobs, economic activity, a market for their product — everybody benefited.”

Today Tonsager is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s under secretary for rural development. He has spent a few days in Maine this week, meeting with entrepreneurs in the wood pellet sector, business and academic leaders leading the way in offshore wind power development and, on Friday, taking part in a round-table discussion with business leaders and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.

Members of the round-table include Lawrence M. Barrett, president of Eastern Maine Community College, Claudia Raessler, owner of SuriPaco LLC, an alpaca farm in North Yarmouth that recently received $30,000 from the agency, and Durward Humphrey, CEO of the Katahdin Valley Health Center.

Tonsager spoke on Friday with the Bangor Daily News about the challenges and opportunities facing Maine’s economy.

“It’s kind of a regional thing — what is the strength in a region, when it comes to agriculture, commodities, forestry?” Tonsager said. “It seems to me the synergy pretty well exists here for the creation of a wood pellet industry. You’ve got relatively high oil prices, lots of people using oil in their homes for fuels, so if you can provide an alternative energy source relatively economically and do it from a sustainable, local product that seems to make a pretty good opportunity for a business plan.”

Tonsager said he also met with the University of Maine’s Prof. Habib Dagher and Cianbro Chairman and CEO Peter Vigue, and learned about Maine’s efforts to launch a deep-water wind turbine project.

His agency is very interested in green projects, Tonsager noted, funding wind, solar, geothermal and even methane digester proposals around the country. He said he saw opportunities to help with both wood pellet and offshore wind in Maine, Tonsager said.

“We couldn’t do billions on a major wind project, but there are pieces we maybe could do,” he said. “We’re pretty opportunistic; we look for what people are trying to do and see if we can be helpful. We count on states and local people to be strategic.”

The USDA Rural Development has already invested $19.5 million in energy-related projects in Maine since fiscal year 2004 in wind, solar, energy-efficiency, biomass and an anaerobic digester. It has assisted all four of Maine’s wood pellet producers, investing $1.4 million.

In the last fiscal year, the USDA’s Rural Development division invested a total of $376.6 million Maine’s rural communities, including $320.3 million in housing loans and guarantees, $18.4 to businesses and $27.4 million to communities, funding projects including water and-or wastewater upgrades in Wilton, Milford and Berwick.

The agency has done extensive work in rural electrical projects as well as broadband projects. Tonsager noted that President Barack Obama in his state of the union speech had talked about building an “economy that lasts.” That is reflected in the work the USDA is doing, Tonsager said.

Tonsager added he was a believer in “making stuff, manufacturing.”

“Real wealth comes from the earth,” said Tonsager.

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