AUGUSTA — Maine’s agricultural leaders have joined with New England leaders to form a regional task force to promote and market agriculture as a sustainable, viable industry and way of life.
The movement, which began when 19 Maine farmers expressed their concern over the sale of local produce, will focus on the importance of small family farms to New England’s future.
The idea for the task force, which will be called the Northeast States’ Agricultural Forum, was broached in mid-August at a Delaware gathering addressed by Maine’s agricultural leaders.
Edward McLaughlin, Maine’s commissioner of agriculture, and Sens. Marge Kilkelly, D-Wiscasset, and George Bunker Jr., D-Kossuth Township, who co-chair the state Agriculture Committee, attended the annual Council of State Governments Eastern Regional Conference in Wilmington, Del., in August to press their case that agriculture needs priority attention from legislative leaders throughout New England.
Kilkelly said agriculture was one of only three budget areas in the federal budget to have a reduction in funding proposed in both the U.S. House and Senate.
“Add to that the fact that the federal government seems to prioritize agri-business, and we realize just how much of a disadvantage our region’s farms face,” Kilkelly said Tuesday.
At the Delaware conference, Kilkelly, Bunker and McLaughlin all spoke at separate gatherings, promoting agriculture in Maine and New England. In his speech at the conference, McLaughlin said the agricultural-food industry in Maine generates more than $2 billion in economic activity annually, and is directly responsible for almost 70,000 jobs on more than 7,000 farms.
In an effort to retain these jobs and farms, the forum will begin meeting this fall, said Kilkelly. Regional challenges will be discussed, as well as federal and private sector involvement, she said.
Kilkelly and Bunker began seeking regional changes following complaints from a number of midcoast farmers earlier this year. The farmers were concerned with a Shaw’s Supermarkets advertising campaign that touted “locally grown produce,” which actually was produce from as far away as New York or Connecticut.
The immediate issue was resolved, said Kilkelly, but during discussions she realized that promoting Maine produce to New England buyers should become a priority.
The NESAF’s membership, she said, will consist of a small planning group of New England agricultural commissioners and legislative agricultural chairmen.
Kilkelly also announced this week that two other follow-up actions were decided at the conference, including participation by the legislative chairs at the June 1999 meeting of the Northeast Association of State Agriculture Directors in Bar Harbor, and the planning of a commissioners’ program at the Council of State Governments 1999 annual meeting in Burlington, Vt., in early August.
“As we go forward,” Kilkelly pledged, “I remain committed to those initial 19 farmers who contacted us. They represent all of the folks this idea will affect, large and small, and that’s what this is all about.”