ELLSWORTH, Maine — Maine’s agriculture industry continues to grow and diversify even as farmers grapple with one-size-fits-all regulations, competition from “agribusinesses” elsewhere and the challenges of marketing for small-scale producers.
Those were the themes Monday night as about 70 people — many of them small-scale farmers or their customers — crammed into a conference room in Ellsworth City Hall to discuss the future of farming in Maine.
It was no mistake that the forum sponsored by the group OneMAINE was held in Hancock County, a region dotted with small farms and a robust appetite for organic, locally grown food. And many of the topics focused on ways to help small, organic farmers amid a regulatory atmosphere that many in the room perceived to be heavily weighted toward “industrial” farming.
Paul Volckhausen, whose family produces organic vegetables, meats and flowers at Happy Town Farm in Orland, said that many of the food-borne problems that require recalls and trigger tougher regulations originate at large agribusiness operations.
“The rules that apply to industrial-scale farming are not the same rules that should apply to a small-scale farm like mine,” said Volckhausen, who was part of a seven-member panel.
While not specifically disagreeing with Volckhausen, Maine Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb said food-borne sicknesses have been traced to small-scale farms in Maine. But because those incidents only typically involve a handful of cases, they are more easily addressed and do not attract as much attention.
Whitcomb, a farmer himself and former legislator, defended the need for licensing and inspection, adding that small-scale farmers must be as cautious about food safety as large operations.
“It’s food and it is good for us, but it can also be dangerous” when not handled properly, Whitcomb said.
That comment was, in part, a response to the debate in Maine over the safety of unpasteurized or “raw” milk. Whitcomb’s agency is suing a Blue Hill farmer, Dan Brown, because he sold raw milk without first obtaining a state license.
Although the case was never specifically discussed during Monday’s forum, the issue of unpasteurized milk, cider and other products came up repeatedly among some who saw the issue as over-regulation in response to federal pressure.
For his part, Whitcomb pointed out that the sale of raw milk is illegal in most states — consistent with federal policies — but that it is allowed in Maine because of the state Agriculture Department’s licensing process.
Nancy Smith, a farmer and lawmaker who is director of the nonprofit GrowSmart Maine, added her voice to the call for more “scale-appropriate regulation.” But despite the diversity of farm size in Maine, Smith added “we are all small” compared with farms you see at national farming conferences.
Not all of the forum was about regulation, however. Speakers also discussed the diversity of Maine’s agriculture industry, which creates opportunities but also challenges because different sectors of farming or even regions have different interests.
David Bell, executive director of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission, pointed out that his industry includes everything from 1-acre farms to the massive operations Down East that encompass tens of thousands of acres. Yet all of those farms — regardless of size — are family-owned operations, Bell said.
On the issue of marketing, several speakers said that Maine’s small-scale farmers are succeeding because they broke away from the national model of handing over all marketing and sales to middle men or companies.
“And that is what you’re seeing in Hancock County,” said Stewart Smith, a retired professor and former agriculture commissioner. “Farmers are going to farmers’ markets and are going directly to stores … and getting a much higher margin.”
William Thayer, who runs Darthia Farm in Gouldsboro, pointed out that 40 percent of his sales come from a mail-order catalog that he publishes.
OneMAINE is a nonprofit organization that promotes nonpartisan solutions to key issues and has a political action committee that will financially support legislative candidates of any party that shares the organization’s views.