November 25, 2017
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Public support for Maine agriculture is growing under the LePage administration

By Walt Whitcomb, Special to the BDN
Don Eno | SJVT/FhF | BDN
Don Eno | SJVT/FhF | BDN
Stems of barley wave in the afternoon breeze in this field along U.S. Route 1 in Van Buren on Aug. 2. In Maine, the grain is grown both for livestock feed and malt production, which is used in the brewing of beer. For large potato growers, grains have traditionally been used mainly as a rotation crop. However, with an increasing demand for various grains in the livestock and food and beverage sectors, more farmers are tailoring grain production for those markets.

The rapid growth of Maine’s $157-million craft beer industry has received a lot of attention lately as it is projected to grow by 41 percent by 2020, according to a University of Maine study.

This paper’s Aug. 22 editorial on the topic highlighted the importance of this industry to our economy and its potential for farmers and entrepreneurs “to add value to grains, turning plain grains into malt (the main ingredient in beer after water) and beer.” It also contained some steps that Maine government “could take to help the local grain industry overcome some of the challenges it faces and grow.”

But the editorial failed to mention many significant recent achievements that support agriculture, while making the erroneous claim that “over the past decade, the state has cut funding” for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Division of Agricultural Resource Development “by about one third.” But funding levels from before the creation of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry are not comparable. In reality, state government support for Maine agriculture, especially agricultural marketing, has greatly increased during the LePage administration.

The recently enacted biennial budget contains several additional marketing initiatives under the resource development division that will benefit Maine agriculture. They include $300,000 to send Maine producers to national trade shows; $185,627 for a new verifiable sustainability program to make Maine produce identifiable in the marketplace; and $1 million for the state’s Agriculture Promotion Fund, with a continued focus on market exposure for Maine wild blueberries. These new initiatives will complement existing resources already actively working to market, promote and support the continued growth of Maine agriculture.

Existing efforts that will be strengthened by this infusion of financial support include marketing and outreach efforts to promote food exports; partnerships with local producers and value-added food processors; assistance to agricultural producers in market research and development; and the promotion of Maine agricultural products through media advertising, trade shows, nutritional information and international market participation. In recent years, the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry has awarded more than 50 grants for agricultural development and specialty crops. Grants have helped put Maine blueberries in schools nationwide and helped Maine hard cider access new markets.

The BDN, and other Maine and national news outlets, has reported on the recent growth and success of Maine agriculture at a time when the number of farms is declining nationally. Clearly, it is our local farmers and producers who deserve the credit for the agricultural renewal taking place across the state. But it is important to recognize government efforts to strengthen and enhance their efforts, while assisting them in opening markets beyond Maine’s borders.

Increased assistance has been achieved by repurposing and reprioritizing resources through the creation of Maine’s largest natural resource agency, the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. More efficient, targeted use of limited taxpayer resources has supported and enhanced the efforts of farmers and entrepreneurs to produce quality, locally-sourced foods.

To support its position that Maine needs to do more to support value-added local grains, this paper printed a picture of Joshua Buck, one of the owners and operators of Maine Malt House, holding germinated barley at his family’s malting business in Mapleton. At the beginning, Maine Malt House received one of the largest of several Agricultural Development Grants to help start its malting facility. Other grants have been awarded for hops research and development.

We believe, as others do, that Maine’s craft beer and burgeoning grains industries have great potential, and they are worthy of public support.

Walt Whitcomb is the commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

 


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