AUGUSTA ― Since Launa Varney’s father died last year, she and her husband, Chuck, of Windham have been doing their best to learn about how to carry on some of his crops and take care of his antique tractors.
Not being farmers by trade, the couple said they enjoy learning about techniques for growing and even tractor repair from others who specialize in those fields, which is what brought them to the 76th State of Maine Agricultural Trades Show on Tuesday.
“[The trades show] is great because you get to pick everyone’s brain,” Chuck Varney said.
From farm equipment to cheese products, specialized farm financing meetings to workshops for beginning farmers, there is something for everyone at the annual three-day event. The trades show is put on by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and is aimed at highlighting the work being done within the state’s agricultural sectors and provide an opportunity for the agriculture community to gather.
“It’s a good networking opportunity, there’s a lot of different suppliers here, agricultural supplies and equipment, different organizations,” Mark Guzzi, owner of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, said. “Where [farmers] are all spread out on the landscape during the growing season and the busy time of the year, I think the [trades show] is a good time to get everyone together.”
Typically, the trades show draws about 3,000 to 5,000 attendees every year. This year, about 5,000 folks are slated to make their way to the event by the time it wraps up on Thursday, according to Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Agriculture Promotions Coordinator Samantha Howard, who said the show is growing every year.
With the show creating such a big draw for members of the agriculture community, about 40 organizations are hosting meetings and workshops during the event. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s annual meeting, USDA Farm Service Agency meetings, Beginning Farmer Resource Network meetings, and talks on farm financing and meat production are few items included in the packed schedule.
“[The trades show] is a great way to connect with farmers,” Sherie Blumenthal of the Maine Federation of Farmers Market said. “Farmers across the spectrum end up coming to the show, so it’s a great way to do outreach and to connect with folks you haven’t to let folks know about the work you do.”
While the meetings and workshops are going on in their delegated rooms, the main floor of the Augusta Civic Center is filled with 120 vendors offering an array of products ranging from tractors to fine wool.
“That’s the beauty of agriculture, it’s so diverse, so you have to make sure everything is represented,” Howard said.
Gov. Paul LePage, who was at the event Tuesday, said he looks forward to attending the trades show every year to talk to the Mainers who bolster the state’s agriculture. He commended Maine farmers for the recent focus on small family farms, and their dedication to sustainability and quality local products.
“I really enjoy the comradery that you have within your industry,” LePage said. “It’s just a great industry.
Between major crops such as potatoes and blueberries and specialty products such as Maine-made cheese and wine, LePage said, Maine “agriculture can become a major industry, not just a boutique industry, a major industry.”
In addition to his remarks on agriculture at the commissioner’s luncheon, LePage asked those in attendance for their help in urging their legislators to pass his $6.8 billion two-year budget, which was released Friday.
At the luncheon, LePage also addressed a complaint filed by the Humane Society of the United States against a Turner egg facility last year, which alleged animal cruelty. He said a state investigation into the complaint found that there was no wrongdoing at the egg production facility owned by Jack DeCoster and operated by Hillandale Farms, which is based in Pennsylvania.
Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry spokesman John Bott confirmed Tuesday that the department had completed its investigation of the Turner facility at the end of last year and found no wrongdoing.
The Humane Society of the United States group filed the complaint after an employee of the Turner facility ― a Humane Society of the United States supporter ― conducted an undercover filming operation at the facility.
LePage said Tuesday that he plans to ask the Legislature to draft legislation that would remove whistleblower protections from instances where political lobbyist groups use false pretenses to gain access. He said he also has sent a letter about this concerns with whistleblower protection of political groups to U.S. president-elect Donald Trump.
Before his remarks, LePage joined Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Walt Whitcomb in honoring Lyle and Jo-Ann Merrifield of Gorham with the Distinguished Services Award for their contributions to Maine Agriculture.
Lyle and Jo-Anna Merrifield own Merrifield Farm and Sugar Shack in Gorham and have worked toward promoting the state’s maple syrup industry through numerous avenues, including helping to organize Maine Maple Sunday through their work with the Maine Maple Producers Association.
The Merrifields were both past presidents of the Southern Maine Maple Producers Association, and Lyle Merrifield has been president of the Maine Maple Producers Association for the past eight years.
“They are an outstanding team, who lead by setting an example for the hundreds of enthusiasts who produce and sell maple syrups products. Their Maine Maple Sunday exhibit promotes education and creates a destination experience,” Whitcomb said.