July 17, 2018
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Controversial head of Maine farmer veterans group resigns

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Jerry Ireland (left) and Mark Baker talk about the mangalitsa pigs that Baker brought to Ireland Hill Farm in this 2016 file photo. Also pictured from right Jill Baker, Frank Baker and Aana Ireland.
By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Updated:

Jerry Ireland, the embattled head of the United Farmer Veterans of Maine, resigned Thursday night from his position as president of the nonprofit group that aims to support veterans who want to farm.

The Swanville farmer and veteran, who is on the ballot as the Republican candidate for Maine House District 98, has been charged with animal cruelty in connection with the death of his heritage Mangalitsa pigs in March, and has been served with a land use lawsuit that alleges a bunkhouse he and his wife built for homeless veterans did not conform to Swanville town ordinances.

At the UFV board meeting at the organization’s headquarters on Columbia Street in Bangor on Thursday, Ireland told organization leaders that he would step down until his name has been cleared. Army veteran Chris Phillips of Troy, the current chief financial officer, was chosen to serve as interim president.

“[Ireland] felt that he had to take the heat off the organization as a result of all the negative reporting that has been going on,” Mark Wellman, chief marketing officer for the Bangor-based group, said Friday morning.

On Friday, Ireland declined the opportunity to answer questions or to comment on his resignation.

“It’s not a secret that I’m not happy with any of the stories that the Bangor Daily’s run or the Portland Press Herald,” he said, adding that the newspapers had the chance to run “his side” of the story. “Short of that, we’re not having a conversation.”

Before state agents exhumed the pigs on his property in March, uniformly positive stories about Ireland and his organization had run in newspapers and on television news channels across the state. But in recent months, the news stories about Ireland have focused on the animal cruelty allegations and other alleged problems.

Members speak up

To some members of the United Farmer Veterans of Maine, the best thing happening now is the fact that Ireland has stepped down.

“Jerry Ireland is not United Farmer Veterans,” said Tammy Braun, a Steep Falls farmer, said. “He is undermining the entire purpose of us … This was supposed to help veterans. Individual farms are now doing what the United Farmer Veterans are supposed to do.”

She described a climate of harassment for members who have spoken out against Ireland, a climate she believes runs counter to the group’s stated mission of helping veterans find success through agriculture. Braun said that she has sent Ireland a “cease and desist” letter telling him he’s no longer allowed onto her property, or to discuss her farm or her.

“We’re all terrified of what he’s doing behind our backs,” she said.

Another farmer veteran, Anne Devin of Chase Stream Farm in Monroe, resigned from the group’s board of directors last summer and canceled her membership in the organization completely in May. She said Friday that she hopes the group will be able to make a fresh start.

“While no longer a member of the United Farmer Veterans of Maine, I remain hopeful that an organization that is anchored in integrity and transparency will take this opportunity to build a community of military veterans in agriculture that fosters cooperation, education and team-building,” she wrote in an email to the BDN. “There are so many willing and able veteran farmers in Maine who want an opportunity to continue serving their communities through providing good food to their neighbors.”

Day in court

This week, Waldo County Court clerks confirmed a hearing on the animal cruelty charges has been scheduled for Oct. 29, and that Ireland’s attorney, Hunter Tzovarras of Bangor, has filed a motion to suppress evidence in connection with that case. As for the land use complaint filed against Ireland by the town of Swanville, clerks said that it is likely to be decided after a bench trial scheduled for Friday, July 27.

That case has to do with Jerry and Emily Ireland’s construction of an “unpermitted bunkhouse” for veterans on their Nickerson Road property. According to the lawsuit, the bunkhouse construction did not comply with town ordinances. Some of the problems listed in the suit include the fact that the bunkhouse did not have running water or a sewage system and was located more than a quarter-mile away from the main residence on the property. Swanville Code Enforcement Officer David Schofield told the Irelands on multiple occasions that they needed a construction permit and to provide adequate wastewater treatment for the structure. He also told them that building without a valid permit is in violation of the town’s ordinances and could incur a daily fine.

Additionally, Ireland’s political situation is up in the air. Michael Cunningham, the GOP chairman for Waldo County, said he initially asked Ireland to be a placeholder for another candidate, which he described as a fairly routine act. But at some point, Ireland told the GOP chairman he wanted to run all the way through. After the uncontested primary, Ireland told Cunningham he would withdraw his name from the ballot, but by the end of the day Thursday, July 5, had not yet done so. He has until 5 p.m. Monday, July 9, to withdraw, according to the Maine Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions.

This week, Cunningham said that Ireland is dealing with a lot right now.

“There’s really a lot going on in this that doesn’t seem fair to one man or one family at all,” the party chair said. “All this stuff is a mess, there’s no doubt about that. But I think that to the people that know him, I think he’s an incredibly loyal and good friend.”

Cunningham said that due process is important, and that he does not believe it is OK for people to be found guilty in the eyes of the public before a decision has been made by the court.

“I just would really like to see the court do its job. Not just for the sake of the Jerry Ireland family. Let it have its day in court,” he said. “The [United Farmer Veterans of Maine] is important. This work is important. I’m going to be really mad if people push this work to the side, especially if Jerry Ireland comes out right in this situation. If he is right, that’s not going to be pretty.”

But Tammy Braun said the people she’s most concerned about are the veterans who need help to become farmers, the reason the nonprofit was started in the first place.

“A lot of veterans can’t work for other people because of post-traumatic stress disorder issues, but in a farming situation, they thrive,” she said, adding that she believes the sooner Ireland is not involved, the better. “We’re not trying to sling mud at this man. He’s undermining the mission to help veterans — and they need the help.”

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