In Wiscasset, Pingree, fellow farmers look to next farm bill

Posted:  Friday, November 18, 2016 - 4:45pm
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Rewriting the federal farm bill always brings political fights, but the next bill could be better for Maine farmers thanks to America’s increasing appetite for organic and locally grown goods, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D - Maine, told fellow farmers Friday.

That trend moves the farming economy further in the right direction for Maine’s farmers, who are creative and are getting younger, Pingree said. Many of them are now women, she added.

In a workshop at The Morris Farm in Wiscasset, the cheese and chicken farmer took notes as a roomful of attendees shared some of the things they’d like in the next bill, and some things they want gone. Congress drafts the bill in a lengthy process, held up by about a year last time due to a fight over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Pingree said.

In an interview and remarks to attendees, she said it’s not clear yet how the change in administration will impact the bill. It’s the first farm bill since 1954 that will be drafted by a Republican-controlled House and Senate with a GOP president, Pingree observed. “I’m as disappointed and uncertain about what the future looks like as many of my constituents have expressed to me.” But the Democrat described farm bills as uniquely non-partisan. “It has much more to do with the region of the country that you’re in, your agricultural philosophy, and it’s often commodities pitted against each other. It’s cotton against peanuts and wheat against corn and all those kind of diversified interests that ... want to make sure they’re represented.”

“Of course (in) New England, our interest is moving some of the money away from commodity subsidies into this wonderful, blossoming world of young farmers, new farmers (and) new farming opportunities.” That was her interest in the other farm bill she worked on,  and it will certainly be her interest going forward, Pingree said.

Farmers aired concerns about a lack of the pensions other industries have for workers; trouble they have transporting their goods out of state to Boston and elsewhere; and some of the federal rules Maine’s slaughterhouses have to meet. Not all the ones that apply to large ones out of state should apply to the small operations here, Jerry Ireland of Ireland Hill Farms in Swanville and United Farmer Veterans of Maine said.

Ireland also spoke on veterans’ increasing presence in Maine farming, with more than 200 veteran–owned farms and growing by the week. For veterans who face post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse, he said, “It’s not just about the money and the things they’re growing. It gives them something meaningful to do ... There’s not one thing I’ve seen that can turn a person’s life around like agriculture.” Yet Veterans Administration home loans only figure in 10 acres of land, not another 190 a farm might have, Ireland said.

Some participants spoke on the challenge of making a living, and said they didn’t go into farming for the money, but because they believed in the work and preserving the land and culture.

Nanne Kennedy of Meadowcroft Farm in Washington and president of the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society, suggested a “pension for preservation.” There’s no such thing as a farm without a farmer, Kennedy said. “A good farmer.”

Pingree said college loans are forgiven in exchange for work in some industries, so that could also be looked at for young people wanting to go into farming.

Merry Fossel, co-president of The Morris Farm, wondered if funding could go into research about human resources for farming. Farming differs from other careers in that it involves whole families, she said.

Afterward, Pingree said the workshop was very helpful in her work to find out what people want in the next bill, from language changes to big-picture changes regarding funding. “And it was such a diverse group, from people who were hauling turkeys to slaughter this morning to people working with agencies, so it was very good.”

Pingree is also taking comments at rep.chellie.pingree@mail.house.gov.

Fossel said The Morris Farm was excited and honored to host Pingree’s workshop. The farm bill affects everyone the organization works with to support sustainable agriculture, she said.