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Teach-in participants, left to right: Heather Spalding, Ellen Stern Griswold, Penny Jordan, Ben Whalen and Jim Gerritsen. English photo

Teach-in participants, left to right: Heather Spalding, Ellen Stern Griswold, Penny Jordan, Ben Whalen and Jim Gerritsen. English photo

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Public Policy Teach-in, co-hosted in 2018 by MOFGA’s Public Policy Committee and Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) at the Common Ground Country Fair, focused on creating an agricultural platform for Maine’ next governor. The teach-in is posted on YouTube.

Panelists were Ellen Stern Griswold, MFT policy and research director; Penny Jordan of Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth and president of Maine Farm Bureau; Ben Whalen, co-owner of Bumbleroot Organic Farm in Windham, MOFGA Journeyperson (JP) Program graduate, member of the Southern Maine Young Farmers Coalition and former board officer of farmers’ markets in Kittery and Saco; and Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Family Farm in Bridgewater, president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), past MOFGA board member and one of the earliest MOFGA-certified organic farmers.

An Agricultural Policy Platform

Griswold described how MOFGA, MFT, Maine Farm Bureau, Coastal Enterprises Inc. (CEI), the Maine Food Strategy, Cultivating Community, the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society and Good Shepherd Food Bank created a state-based agricultural policy platform. They listed ideas for supporting and growing Maine agriculture and then gathered feedback from agricultural stakeholders. That feedback led to a broader, more consensus-based list of policy areas – e.g., enhancing profitability of farmers and supporting the next generation of farmers – that the next administration could use to advance agriculture. More outreach efforts added to farmers’ input. All primary candidates for governor received the draft platform. Meetings, webinars and another survey this winter will elicit input from more farmers.

The Need for Strong Policy

Penny Jordan described the need for strong policy that helps Maine farmers with profitability. Jordan’s Farm is a fifth-generation vegetable operation selling its own crops, mostly retail and some wholesale, and crops from about 20 other farms to maintain its year-round market.

Jordan listed these issues:

  • the need for broadband and cellular capacity in rural Maine
  • the importance of programs such as Farms for the Future and programs that help build a business plan
  • the importance of Maine’s Agricultural Marketing Loan Fund for expanding or diversifying a business
  • the need to create markets beyond Maine and to move products efficiently
  • improved funding of the University of Maine and UMaine Cooperative Extension. Jordan noted that farming in Cape Elizabeth now feels like farming in New Jersey because it’s so dry. Farmers need research to address such changes.
  • the need for help in implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act
  • ensuring that farmers’ tax exemptions are not impacted by tax reform
  • the need for more incentives for shifting to alternative energy on farms
  • constant funding of Land for Maine’s Future
  • ensuring that local ordinances do not interfere with farming
  • ensuring that NRCS programs remain in the farm bill and that USDA’s Local Food Promotions Program continues
  • addressing the labor shortage through training programs and being able to bring in skilled workers

The Next Generation

Ben Whalen, one of four owners of Bumbleroot Organic Farm, addressed challenges and opportunities facing Maine’s next generation of farmers.

The Bumbleroot farmers, now in their fourth year as a farm, met in Colorado and came to Maine largely because of MOFGA. “The community that existed in Maine was outstanding,” said Whalen. “After farming in four different states across the country and after moving here, it’s apparent that there is nothing else in the country like this.”

Securing affordable land in southern Maine was their first challenge. They started on leased land and were accepted into MOFGA’s JP Program, which paired them with a mentor, immediately plugged them into the community and provided stipends for books and conferences. Most important, said Whelan, was a Listserv for every current or former JP and mentor. “It’s one of the most used, unbelievably valuable resources” for learning what farmers are doing, where to get supplies, etc.

When their rental space came up for sale, they found through MFT a beautiful former dairy farm in Windham, “but it was way outside of our price range.”

That winter they took MOFGA’s 10-week farm beginnings course to hone their business skills. Then MFT purchased the Windham farm in order to sell it back to a farmer. “We won the application process for the land, largely because we had the business plan [from] farm beginnings,” said Whelan. Coastal Enterprises, Inc., and the Small Business Development Center in Portland also helped them obtain the farm through MFT.

As their operation grows, the farmers are realizing additional needs, such as the NRCS high tunnel program, capital to grow their business (from lenders who will take risks on young farmers with little collateral) and additional training in running a farm.

Ag Policy for People, Ecosystems, Communities and Local Economies

Jim Gerritsen talked about a 1984 visit to Aroostook County by Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry, whose book “The Unsettling of America” explained U.S. societal and policy shifts resulting in the liquidation of family farmers. In Aroostook, Berry said that the bad farmers had already left agriculture. Yet, said Gerritsen, industrial agriculture still says we need to liquidate family farmers and develop a more efficient (concentrated) agriculture – so “the family farmers being forced out of agriculture now are the best family farmers around.”

Gerritsen added, “Federal policy going back to the farm bill of 1952, in which the federal cheap food policy was initiated,” has unjustly advantaged industrial agriculture over family farmers.

For example, in the mid-1970s, 1,200 to 1,500 Maine potato farmers grew 147,000 acres of potatoes. Now 100 potato farmers grow 50,000 acres. In the Midwest, where 10 family farmers may have grown a total of 2,500 acres of corn and 2,500 of soy, now one operation raises 5,000 acres, all GMO and sprayed with Roundup.

This is the beginning of a major crisis, said Gerritsen. Grain farmers in the Midwest are below the cost of production for the fourth year in a row. The average median income for U.S. farmers this year is about -$1,500.

This crisis results from consolidation within farm production by industrial ag thanks largely to federal policy; concentration within food processing and food retailing, resulting in fewer markets for producers; and declining market share and declining prices because of consolidation, at the same time that costs are increasing.

Gerritsen said most farmers he knows are not making minimum wage, and finding workers is increasingly difficult. Increased mechanization is part of the solution, but robotics will not be affordable for family farms.

Gerritsen criticized the politicized USDA National Organic Program, which regulates the organic industry, for refusing to enforce requirements under the Organic Foods Production Act that would practically prevent CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). Hence the so-called organic milk glut created by CAFO dairies primarily in the West that are milking 10,000 cows or more and supplying stores like Walmart and Hannaford with house-brand milk – putting honest Maine dairies out of business.

Likewise, the U.S. Department of Justice should enforce antitrust legislation. The merger of Dow and DuPont and of Bayer and Monsanto means less competition, higher input costs, higher food prices, and more farms going out of business and being bought by larger and larger farms. Also, that concentrated control buys the decision making of Congress and the executive branch and enables industrial agriculture to line its pockets, said Gerritsen. For example the largest 10 percent of farms gain 70 percent of grain subsidies.

Gerritsen noted an amendment to the farm bill introduced by Rep. Steven King of Iowa and fashioned by the Koch brothers and ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) that would preempt any state from having a law tougher than any other state.

Policy Ideas

Heather Spalding, MOFGA’s deputy director and teach-in moderator, asked panelists to name a single policy-related idea to support farmers.

Gerritsen said that organic farmers are still only 5 percent of the farming population. “We’ve got to crack through that barrier, and we need to get retail dollar.” He suggested that churches – major U.S. landowners – could help young farmers seeking land and could come up with CSA shares. And when addressing health care, leaders should include diet.

Whelan said that towns’ comprehensive plans should set aside land for agriculture and put farms at the center of decision making when land is being developed.

Jordan would like to see an understanding that skilled agricultural workers exist who deserve to come to this country and do the jobs that others won’t do. “Stop seeing them as a threat but as creating jobs for people who can then improve their lives and the lives of children.”

Griswold said that the farm bill must include programs that incentivize an agriculture that will sustain us and sustain the family farming community.

 

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