BAR HARBOR – Top agriculture officials from New England spent Sunday evening experiencing a sunset cruise in Frenchman Bay on a four-masted schooner. But by the next morning they were down to business, discussing shared concerns, strategies and common ground at the annual meeting of the New England Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
Topics ranged from marketing and promotion to foot-and-mouth disease prevention.
“These types of regional gatherings are very, very important,” former U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Gus Schumacher said, “because New England is very diverse. We have an opportunity to share ideas and solutions, and as a group form policies that will benefit the entire region.”
Schumacher, who now works in Massachusetts promoting value-added agriculture, said other states look to Maine for its unique approaches to agriculture issues.
The Farmshare Program, which links farmers and senior citizens to ensure a supply of fresh vegetables and products for that segment of the population, is one success story that other states are watching closely, he said. Some other states are considering adapting similar programs to more closely parallel Maine’s solution.
As the individual agriculture commissioners brought their concerns to the conference, it was clear that diversity is the lifeblood of New England agriculture: New York is dealing with immigrant farmer issues, Connecticut has a blossoming forestry industry, and Maine and Massachusetts are trying to hold on to their dairy farms.
Leon Graves, Vermont’s agriculture commissioner, said the conference provides valuable networking opportunities.
“In New England, although we have a significant farming community, our farms are diverse and tend to be smaller,” he said.
By hearing of solutions and programs that are working well elsewhere, said Graves, “we can piggyback on what is successful in other states. By actually getting out to see the farms and agriculture activities in Maine, we can begin to put things in context.”
Maine Agriculture Commissioner Robert Spear is president of the New England Association of State Departments of Agriculture, and in that role he is hosting the group’s annual meeting in Bar Harbor. Spear is taking the opportunity to mix sightseeing along the Maine coast with serious discussions of such issues as farm sustainability, agricultural diversity and renewal of the national Farm Bill.
“This is a perfect chance to showcase Maine and its diversity,” Spear said Monday, the second day of the three-day conference. He said the conference discussions and the beauty of the locale were getting high marks from the other commissioners.
“We not only get to showcase our state,” he said, “but we’re sharing some unique aspects of our agriculture industry.”
Agriculture commissioners, their deputies and other top-ranking agriculture officials on Monday afternoon visited a 200-head beef operation on Bartlett Island and toured commercial salmon pens at Bar Harbor. They were planning a trip today to blueberry barrens in Machias.
During breaks in Monday’s meetings, the most discussed topic was the renewal of the Farm Bill. Several commissioners said it was vital for New England to have a strong voice in the creation of the national farm policy.
“The new Farm Bill will have to work for all 50 states,” said Schumacher. “There are 200,000 farms in New England. We need to be active in policy creation regarding farm stewardship and farmland protection in particular.”
“We need to have a shared approach to make sure we get an appropriate share of federal funds,” he said. “Now that money is all going into commodity programs. We want to get some flowing into local programs such as farmland preservation and stewardship.”
Also on Monday, the commissioners heard from U.S. Rep. John Baldacci, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, regarding federal support for Northeast agriculture; heard an overview of New England farm statistics from Aubrey Davis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and held a discussion with Maine’s state veterinarian, Don Hoenig, about foot-and-mouth disease.