Legislation aimed at providing lawmakers with a broader understanding of economic challenges facing farmers and producers in far-flung corners of the state has been approved by committee and will next head to the Senate floor.
Introduced as emergency legislation, LD1747, To Establish a Task Force to Examine Agricultural Issues, is sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who says the issues facing the state’s farmers need attention year-round.
“There were a lot of people in my area talking about logging and farming and this past fall I took a tour of Washington County and talked to the blueberry workers,” Jackson said. “I decided then and there we should have something to deal with agriculture issues not just when [the legislature] is in session.”
Jackson’s proposed legislation would create a 13-member task force made up of Senate and House members, representatives of the blueberry and forest products industries and appointees from the commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and from the director of the Maine Bureau of General Services.
Once created, the task force would travel around to the most rural parts of the state hearing directly from those affected by barriers to economic growth.
Jackson said these barriers include investment, workforce training, labor shortage, marketing and infrastructure.
“In my opinion we don’t get into these issues enough,” he said. “I’d like to see this task force go out and hold public hearings to take testimony from people who don’t get a chance to come to Augusta.”
Such a task force, Jackson said, would act as a resource for the existing legislative agriculture committee.
“We need to do something more for our agriculture industry,” he said. “We can’t just talk about the issues for three months out of the year and then go away.”
Among the specifics Jackson hopes the task force will address is what he considers a serious problem with Canadian laborers working in the Maine forest and in the fields.
“The big elephant in the room is the cross border issue,” he said. “It’s striking to me when we did those tours of the Washington County blueberry fields that there were a lot of New Brunswick license plates [on cars] parked in the fields.”
Jackson also wants attention given to raw products — like lumber and produce — which he says are shipped to Canada for processing and then brought back into this country.
The bottom line, according to Jackson, is the state must seriously examine how innovation, infrastructure and technology in agriculture can provide long term, sustainable economic success in the rural parts of the state.
“I’m not saying the people in the [Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry] or the commissioner are not doing everything they can,” Jackson said. “I just think people like myself need to understand these issues better [because] who the hell am I to know what is going on in Washington County?”
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