By Russell Libby, MOFGA Executive Director
Right now, the Maine Department of Agriculture is updating the state’s 20-year-old food policy. I’ve been pushing for the policy to include some relatively bold statements. Maine should have the capacity to provide 80% of the calories needed by its citizens. We should have healthy food available to all. We need to build alliances between fishermen and farmers. So far, these statements are not too controversial, and the department agrees in direction if not specific language.
But when I push the “O” word, caution sets in. I’ve suggested that Maine could carve out a strategic place in the market by setting a goal of being the first state with at least 50% organic farms, in 10 years. That is, I know, a reach from the current 4% certified. But if Maine is to distinguish itself from the rest of the country, from the world of large commodity farms and imported food, we need to stand for something different.
We could analyze commodity by commodity, crop by crop, but the easiest example of what’s happening is dairy. One farm outside Bakersfield, California, is designed for 90,000 cows. Another, in North Dakota, is trying to build to 48,000 cows. All of Maine has about 32,000 milking cows, 20% of the California operation, two-thirds of the North Dakota one. Even the largest Maine farms barely register in the national picture.
What kind of dairy economy do we want to support? Do we want many small, family-run farms, or farms where the cows see grass only in the feed bunks? Do we want lots of people producing specialty cheeses, each with unique taste, or more generic processed cheese spread?
Maine is ahead of the rest of the country on all these issues, with a strong organic presence and an understanding of the possibilities that come from being different. But the public sector is still reluctant to take a stand for a particular direction, wanting the market or national forces to make the decisions, leaving Maine in a reactive mode.
For me, that reluctance spells a death sentence for most of Maine’s agriculture. We need to articulate the principles and values that distinguish our farmers (and fishermen) from the international food system, then find ways to support all of the people producing food for our tables and helping them to have decent household incomes. Without that, we’ll look like the rest of the country – a few big farms supplying most of the food, and a lot of other people trying to find ways to keep their small operations economically viable.
Maine has a chance to be different. Will we take the lead, or just wait to see what happens?