With upcoming Farm Bill, Mainers want help securing local food systems
Maine farmers had a rare opportunity Monday to get the attention of a congressional committee, which has begun work on a new five-year Farm Bill. Once completed, it will authorize hundreds of billions of dollars for nutrition, crop insurance and agricultural research.
Big commodity farms usually reap much of the bill's rewards. But Maine farmers say they need more support to keep local food systems strong in the face of some major challenges.
The sun is beating down on the wild blueberry field at Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick on a day in late July.
It's one of the hottest days of the year, and the crickets and bees are out in full force.
"Some of them don't look bad," said organic farmer Seth Kroeck, as he stopped to look at a patch of plants, where a few, small berries dot the lush green leaves. "They're not as dense as they would be in a regular year, but there are some blueberries there. But as we move out into the open fields away from the tree lines, there's no blueberries."
In this heat, it's tough to imagine that just about two months ago, Kroeck was worrying about a different extreme — a late-season frost that swept through Maine just as his wild blueberries had started to flower. Kroeck remembers visiting the field the morning after the temperatures dipped below freezing in mid May.
"All the blossoms were brown," he said. "The temperature logger had said that it was 26 degrees as the low. We really had a deep understanding at that point OK, this is a major loss for us."
These 35 acres would typically yield nearly 40,000 pounds of wild blueberries. But this season, Kroeck said he'll be lucky if he can harvest 4,000. And three years ago, Kroeck said another late-season frost knocked out his entire wild blueberry crop.
"Talking to the older blueberry growers in the area, they would see that kind of a frost maybe once in a generation," he said. "And here we are seeing that frost within a three year period."
These late-season frosts, along with recent summer droughts, have made life unpredictable for small and midsize Maine farmers like Kroeck. That was the message that he and other farmers shared Monday with Rep. Chellie Pingree and others on the House Agriculture Committee, which stopped stopped by Freeport to solicit feedback from Mainers on the next Farm Bill.
Organic farmer Dave Colson told the panel that Maine's weather challenges have become more and more extreme. With so much rain this summer, he said, hay farmers are 4-6 weeks behind.
"We're picking and choosing the high ground as we go around," Colson said. "We can't finish full fields. We do a little bit of it, hoping that soon, hopefully some time this summer, we'll be able to get back to those other pieces and cut some hay there."
Farmers also said they're also looking for more consistent crop insurance and more conservation funds to help small and midsize farms invest in infrastructure or improve organic soil practices. Maine farmers typically use smaller fields to grow more specialty crops than many other farmers around the country.
"Maine is a state of small-to-medium sized farmers for the most part," Pingree said in an interview. "[We should be} promoting Maine products, supporting our farmers markets, getting support to all those small-to-medium sized farmers that often need access to capital or some of the conservation programs that might help to put up fencing or put solar panels on the barn roof, a whole variety of things that really help make it easier for farmers to stay in business."
Julie Ann Smith, executive director for the Maine Farm Bureau, said it's important for Congress to bring these smaller operations into the conversation.
"We need food locally in case there is ever another pandemic," Smith said. "Our local farms are really what helped us. With the transportation issues, we saw a lot of empty grocery store shelves."
The next bill, advocates said, should prioritize anything that will help Maine farms stay afloat amid challenges with PFAS contamination, climate change, labor shortages and transportation costs.
"But if they can't stay in business, if it's not profitable and not manageable and they can't have access to labor, then there isn't anything for our state," Smith said.
There are already signs that Maine farms are trouble, she added. A quarter of Maine's dairy farms have gone out of business within the last year, she said. USDA's last agriculture survey counted some 7,600 farms in Maine back in 2017. Smith said today, she expects Maine may have just 4,000 farms remaining.
Back at Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick, Kroeck points to a field of buckwheat, which is buzzing with bees and other pollinators.
"I love watching these, especially the bees," he said. "It's like they're kids in a candy store. They're just so frantically working, flower to flower to flower."
He acknowledges the Farm Bill has many competing interests and said multi-national agriculture corporations and big commodities often get most of the attention.
The vast majority of the funds authorized in the bill go toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and similar benefits. The Farm Bill also covers everything from rural housing and broadband to forestry practices and aquaculture.
"If we're able to chisel off a small portion of the monies that would have gone to larger, more traditional agriculture and have that focus be shifted to what we're doing, that'll be a victory," Kroeck said.
It will take some time before Kroeck and other Maine farmers will know whether they've been successful.
After the hearings, both the House and Senate agriculture committees must each draft their own versions of the Farm Bill, and then negotiate a final package that can pass both chambers of Congress. Negotiations in a divided Congress have been known to drag on, and so agriculture advocates say they don't expect a new Farm Bill until sometime next year.