Every morning, thousands of farmers wake up across Maine and start their daily rituals. Some may have a few cows to milk for personal use, some may tend to hundreds of acres of potatoes and wild blueberries, while others are picking produce for one of Maine’s many farm stands or farmers markets.
Regardless of what type of agriculture one is involved in, it’s tough work. Weather, disease, the toll physical labor can take on a body, fluctuations in global and national markets and state and federal regulations are just some of the challenges our farmers must regularly deal with.
Even with these challenges, Maine farmers are delivering. Maine agriculture has a $1.2 billion effect on the state economy. In fact, the state counted more than 8,100 farms harvesting crops and tending livestock last year, the highest in New England and up more than 12 percent from 2002. This has also helped the number of farmers markets in Maine to double over the past eight years.
But while we are enjoying fresh produce and the beautiful summer farm landscapes Maine has to offer, our leaders in Washington are in the midst of debating and potentially passing a new Farm Bill. This every-five-year occurrence usually pits fiscal concerns against powerful commodity groups and Electoral College and re-election forces. Corn and soybean subsidies in Iowa, sugar subsidies for Florida and peanut subsidies in Georgia are just some of highly watched and protected pieces.
What about Maine agriculture? Where are the specialized programs for potatoes? Wild blueberries? Actually, while we do not receive the kind of attention within the Farm Bill that our midwestern brethren do, there are some very important programs in the Farm Bill that will affect Maine agriculture. The Farm Bill is huge and, in some areas, very complex. Commodity programs, trade, rural development, farm credit, conservation, agricultural research, organic certification, food and nutrition programs and marketing are all covered. Milk pricing could also be affected. In Maine, where we have a rich dairy history, federal milk pricing has a huge impact on the success of our dairy industry.
Our next U.S. senator will need to be up to speed on these critical issues quickly. Times are changing, world markets are shifting and droughts, floods and other natural disasters all require constant vigilance on agricultural issues.
Recently, former Gov. Angus King and his campaign staff held a meeting in Aroostook County with agricultural producers and producer groups with a focus on potatoes and wild blueberries. This was the first of three meetings all over the state with Maine’s agricultural sectors, to hear from them directly in order to develop a clear policy outline — from the ground up. Much of the discussion at the first meeting was around U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that assist and support Maine producers as well as ways to improve the delivery of federal resources to our farmers.
There are certainly areas that need improvement. Because of the midwest bias that agriculture receives, many of the programs are designed with large commodity crops in mind. This “one size fits all” attitude makes it more difficult for Maine farmers to participate and benefit. Just because a program works for a 3,000-acre corn grower in Iowa doesn’t mean it works well for a potato farmer in Fort Fairfield or a dairy farmer in Clinton.
What is most refreshing about King’s meeting was the fact that he took the time to hear directly from farmers. His agricultural policy goals will not come for one or two advisors or by searching the Internet for ideas. It will come from those who are waking up every day, working with their hands, employing countless Mainers and helping to feed this great state.
The key to formulating good public policy is listening to those who know and live the subject matter. That information can then be used to push past special interest groups and partisan positions.
Just as a farmer plants a seed and it grows from the ground up, our elected officials must use the same process. In this case, Angus King is sowing all the right seeds.
Jay Nutting, of Vassalboro, grew up on his family’s dairy farm in Leeds and was awarded the 2009 Eisenhower Fellowship for Agriculture. He has volunteered with the King campaign.