Read the full article by AnnMarie Hilton (Maine Morning Star)
“With an estimated 7,600 farms across the state, Maine’s agricultural scene is a rich blend of crops and industries. But like many other industries in recent years, farming has been rattled by rising production costs and a labor shortage.
With the recent expiration of the federal farm bill, lawmakers have the opportunity to address the challenges presented to the people who keep food on our tables and milk in our fridges.
The farm bill — which is rewritten every five years to set policy and funding levels for farm, food and conservation programs — expired on Sept. 30. Just days before, staff members of the U.S. House and Senate Agriculture committees said they were months from passing a new one.
But the Maine farming community has specific needs for the new iteration of the bill.
At the end of July, the Agricultural Council of Maine, or AGCOM, sent a letter to the House Committee on Agriculture listing eight priorities for a new bill. With representatives from the major agricultural organizations in Maine, AGCOM’s requests could have broad benefits for everyone from blueberry farmers to maple syrup producers.
The requests include improved crop insurance, dairy margin coverage and increased access to federal programs that can reduce costs by streamlining paperwork and making requirements more flexible.
Some of AGCOM’s priorities align with the four put forward by Maine Farmland Trust (which is also a member of AGCOM). Both sets of priorities include federal support for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) contamination, improved technical assistance and calls to invest in climate-friendly agriculture.
Maine set up a $60 million fund in 2022 to help farmers affected by PFAS contamination in their land or water. But there isn’t that same support on a federal level, said Shelley Megquier, policy and research director at Maine Farmland Trust.
Establishing support at a national level would create a ‘safety net’ not just for Maine, but other states coping with the ubiquitous problem, Megquier explained.
Maine Farmland Trust also wants the new farm bill to invest in farmland protection and prioritize land affordability. Farmers can struggle to find the land they need to do their work, and if they can find it, often it comes with a high price, Megquier said.
More funding could safeguard farmland from development, preserving the available acres.
‘Especially as farmers reach retirement age, they don’t want their farmland to be the next big-box store,’ she said.
From what Megquier has seen, there are two concerns keeping Maine farmers up at night: shrinking profit margins and a labor shortage.
Challenges finding staff are more ‘pronounced in Maine as our population ages,’ Megquier said.
Megquier isn’t sure the farm bill could tackle the macroeconomic issue of a labor shortage, but AGCOM is asking for funding to research labor-saving automation.
Helping farmers’ bottom lines at market
Certain grants housed in the farm bill can benefit farmers’ markets, and ultimately, farmers’ bottom line, said Jimmy DeBiasi, executive director of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets.
There are two competitive grants that fund Maine Harvest Bucks and Bumper Crop to drive more traffic to markets in Maine. DeBiasi said he’d like both grant opportunities expanded in the new farm bill.
Maine Harvest Bucks not only benefits farmers, but also SNAP recipients. It allows people to shop at farmers markets with SNAP benefits and get ‘bonus bucks’ to buy fruits and vegetables.
‘It can essentially double the value of people’s dollars,’ he said.
Maine Harvest Bucks can comprise 10% to 30% of sales for an entire day at some markets, DeBiasi said.
In 2021, the Harvest Bucks program alone generated half a million dollars in additional sales across 44 markets in Maine. There were 94 markets in the state this summer.
‘It’s supporting farmers. It’s supporting market cultivation. It allows markets to expand and welcome new vendors,’ DeBiasi said, explaining that markets can be a ‘gateway’ for new farmers and small producers.
Another grant through the farm bill offers three years of funding for programs that boost market sales and bring new customers to markets.
DeBiasi’s organization received that grant to fuel Bumper Crop. It provides gift certificates to employers who can then give it to employees either as a wellness incentive or appreciation initiative.
More than 60 employers participate in the program, DeBiasi said. One in nine people who receive the certificates spend some of their own money at the market and one in four say they go to markets more frequently because of it.
When speaking with Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree or Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ offices, DeBiasi said his organization has requested more funding for marketing grants — like the one that funds Bumper Crop — because of how effective they are.
‘It’s worked terrifically well,’ he said.”