On Friday, Gov. Janet Mills announced her last nominee for a Cabinet position — Amanda Beal to head the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The announcement came weeks after Mills’ first Cabinet picks.
Behind the scenes, the administration juggled the diverse interests that come with a department that has so many diverse missions, and constituencies. A nominee with a strong background in conservation may not be palatable to agriculture and forestry interests, for example. On the other hand, someone with experience in the commodities sector may be concerning to conservationists.
The Mills administration threaded the needle with Beal’s nomination. Beal is the president of the Maine Farmland Trust, a group that protects farmers and farmland. She grew up on a dairy farm in Litchfield.
Deputy commissioners are likely to bring backgrounds and skills from all three areas — farming, forestry, and land use and conservation.
However, the department’s broad mission has prompted some to restart a conversation about breaking the department into smaller pieces. Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, who is a farmer, has introduced a bill to reorganize the department. But, he told the Portland Press Herald, he has yet to decide what a reconfiguration should look like.
The current configuration is a creation of the LePage administration, but a similar merger had been talked about for years. Prior to that, the conservation and agriculture departments were separate.
The merger was touted as a way to grow the agriculture and forestry industries. Conservation took a back seat during the LePage administration, prompting many in the conservation community to argue that the merged department diminished their interests.
This is a reasonable conclusion, however, the merged department has only existed under the anti-conservation LePage administration so it is hard to judge how it will function under the Mills administration, which has a much different focus.
Mills addressed concerns about the merged department last week. “I know there are different opinions just among the farming community alone about land preservation, conservation easements, pesticides, milk price supports and many other things,” Mills said last Tuesday at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show.
“But I believe that a department that is led by a team of intelligent people, who are also good listeners — people with common sense, intelligence and a bit of dirt under their nails — that that department can bring together those diverse interests and views and ensure everyone gets a fair shake and a fair share from state government,” she added.
Mills has pledged to make Maine less dependent on imported fossil fuels, which drain money from the state and are major contributors to climate change. The Departmentment of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry can be a leading agency in this work.
Despite a resurgence in farming, Maine imports most of its food. Producing more food in state will boost the state’s economy while also reducing transportation, which is costly and is a major source of greenhouse gas pollutants. Farms and forests also store carbon, one way to reduce the impacts of climate change.
Discussions about the effectiveness of any government department are healthy. But giving up on a merged department may be premature.