Keynote Address First Lady Karen Baldacci

Winter 2006-2007
Our Future Is In Sustainable Agriculture

First Lady Karen Baldacci has worked hard to promote Maine foods and healthful eating. She gardens and saves seeds at the Blaine House. English photo.

Maine’s First Lady, Karen Baldacci, was Common Ground’s keynote speaker on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2006.  Russell Libby, executive director of MOFGA, introduced her, explaining her deep interest in local food issues and in bringing local foods – from as close as her own garden – into the Blaine House.

Welcome to the Common Ground Fair.  I am honored to be here with you today.  For those of you who don’t know me, I’m an educator and I’m also a dietician, so being at Common Ground Fair is the destination point for me as I’m sure it is for you.  It’s an opportunity to learn, to educate ourselves, an opportunity to work on what we all know is true in our heart of hearts – sustainable agriculture and how to make it work in Maine.

By virtue of you being here at the Common Ground Fair, you obviously are interested in, if not converted to, the value of Maine agriculture.  The Common Ground Fair has been here for 30 years, and your presence will help keep it here for another thirty.  It has been presenting a wonderful opportunity to learn more about high quality Maine organic goods and Maine-made crafts.  My common theme is: Our goal is to grow it here, process it here and sell it to the world.  Today you can meet some of our innovative farmers, visit our vendors, exhibits and attend demonstrations.

Agriculture in Maine, even though we’re on the small side, includes 7,200 farms in the state, and we have a diverse industry.  Maine is the largest producer in the world of brown eggs and wild blueberries; we are eighth in the country in production of potatoes and second for maple syrup.  But more specifically it’s our small, diverse farms, that are represented here today, that across Maine supply niche markets with organic produce and meat, value-added products as well as fiber products.  As Maine farmers we are stewards of 1.25 million acres.

Maine has a long, proud history of farming – of living off the land and taking care of it while we do so.  Our state motto is “Dirigo,” which is Latin for “I lead.”  It’s written on our state seal along with a fisherman and a farmer. Our history has been tied to the farming of our land and sea.  I believe our future is in sustainable agriculture, being stewards of this beautiful place we call home.  Sustainable agriculture in Maine is about all farms, big and small; we all need each other.  But notable in Maine, most of our farms are family farms.  As the First Lady of Maine, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to visit and travel to many farms in our state.  I have enjoyed learning about and promoting Maine agriculture.

The governor strives to expand the demand and capacity for local foods, working to help Maine farmers produce more of what Maine people eat and convincing consumers to buy more of what Maine farmers produce locally.

In September of 2004, I was asked to co-chair a task force that made recommendations for policies and programs needed to support sustainable agriculture in Maine.  Myself along with co-chair Charlie Spies and about 20 Maine farmers identified eight important issues and recommendations made to the commissioner and the Legislature and the governor about the viability of local agriculture.  They’ve identified eight areas:

1.  valuing agriculture as an industry that contributes to our economy;

2.  we need to develop adequate infrastructure, including processing;

3.  educate consumers about locally grown food (There are some wonderful things here today.);

4.  adding value to local products;

5.  saving viable local farms for the future;

6.  improving financing options for local ag businesses;

7.  managing costs of production;

8.  managing labor costs.

Maine farmers receive less than 4% of the 3 billion dollars of food products and services that Maine families spend annually.  Our goal is to increase the percent of the food dollar spent on Maine-grown or –produced food.  This is the basis for our “Get Real Get Maine” campaign by the Department of Agriculture.  It encourages consumption of Maine foods at every level, including farmers’ markets, farm stands and restaurants.

We’ve developed a Maine Food Policy Council in Statute to develop coordinated policies and programs to make Maine people healthier and Maine agriculture stronger and sustainable.

On television I have the Focus on the Farm series, which features Maine fresh foods, producers and manufacturers, and highlights typical stories of Maine’s agricultural landscape.  I’ve filmed over 17 segments with our local farmers and producers from all over Maine.  We focus on how and where people in Maine can access quality, locally grown, raised and harvested foods and other agricultural products (including seafood).  We incorporate a “hands-on how-to” (and you’ll get a lot of that here at the Common Ground Fair), like cooking demonstrations, the making of a balsam fir Christmas wreath, how to sheer a spring sheep and how to spin the wool into homespun yarn.  Maine has a vibrant, growing agricultural scene, and most of that is showcased here at MOFGA and the Common Ground Fair.

MOFGA member Terry Allan, recently returned from a three-year volunteer job of starting a medicinal herb garden in Bhopal, India, talks to Mrs. Baldacci about promoting Maine food. English photo.

I do also want to share the importance of Community Supported Agriculture in Maine.   This program links farms to people in their communities, and we’re now discovering we’re actually linking farms to schools also.  It helps to cover a farm’s yearly production expenses by purchasing a share (or shares) of the expected harvest.  This beneficial relationship helps farms sustain economic viability and provides members with high quality, local produce.  I was actually visiting Ron Adams in Gorham, where they have a Harvest Lunch.  What was key to the minds of the children, when they served Maine-grown produce for one lunch that day – they were talking about spinach.  They were concerned about spinach.  And these were sixth graders in Gorham, very much aware of the problem of contamination; so that brought us to a discussion about locally grown agriculture.  They grow at the school; they’re concerned about where the food comes from, the safety of the food; but most importantly, they had a relationship with the farmer in the cafeteria that day.  And I do want to credit Ron Adams with participating in the Gorham schools with Community Supported Agriculture.  He actually buys from several farms in his area to match the harvest schedule with the school lunch schedule to get locally grown produce to our students in the cafeteria.

At the Blaine House, we did participate with Goranson Farms our first year we were there, until I started to grow, myself, at the Blaine House.  We do have 4 acres there. I do have a vegetable garden.  We grow and can and harvest seed and dry.  We also have an herb garden.  But Community Supported Agriculture is one way that you can participate personally to ensure that farmers are staying in farming, and a great way for you to get a weekly basket of fresh produce in season.  They do year-round farm shares.  In the winter you get root crops, you may get organic beets or whatever they may be working with.  If you aren’t a member of a Community Supported Agriculture farm, look at your local farmer and find out how you can participate yourself.

We also have a Maine Senior Farm Share, which is a program, federally funded, that the governor and I care deeply about also.  In fact, Maine has been cited as a model for this program.  What it provides is $100 worth of local produce for seniors.  We have 7,500 of them right now participating in that.  We have a long waiting list of those who desire to also contribute.  The governor was a champion of the Senior Farm Share program; he actually was a cosponsor of the bill when it passed nationally.

Schools around the state are working together with local farms to bring fresh, local produce to the lunchroom tables.  This is a growing trend, along with the increased number of farmers’ markets around the state.  We see this as a signal that Maine people care deeply about where their food comes from and how accessible it is to all of us.

We also, in Maine, have a School-Garden Network.  We’re actually growing as part of the curriculum, but it takes it a little step further.  Mary Bird from the University of Maine at Orono chairs the School-Garden Network.  Schools are growing with the curriculum, and the network allows them to share successful projects, and provide continuing education credits to those teachers who participate.  I did visit the Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, where they grow greens to serve in the cafeteria menu.  They grow, harvest and sell heirloom seeds in their greenhouses, do mail order catalogs and also at their farmer market.  When I visited Waldoboro they gave me something called the ‘Blaine House’ dry bean, which actually was grown when the Blaines lived in residence, which would have been about 1918 at the Blaine House.  We’ve gone full circle.  I did grow, my second season, the ‘Blaine House’ dry bean.  They call it the ‘James Blaine’ dry bean.  It’s not on the market yet out of my garden; I’m actually trying to increase the allotment of seed I have there.  It was important for me to learn more about and bring back and complete the cycle of growing by bringing this ‘James Blaine’ dry bean seed back to the Blaine House.

This administration has worked hard to support Maine’s agricultural businesses.  Many of you are familiar with the organic certification process, and the grants the Department of Agriculture administers for first-time applicants.  These grants continue beyond the first year.  The Agricultural Development Grants have provided $250,000 to 15 farm businesses and organizations to assess market potential of new ideas, increasing market promotion of existing businesses, and improve the adoption of new technologies on the farm.

Our poultry producers and organic dairy producers are getting funds to develop cooperatives to reduce the costs of producing and processing.  Our farmers are being funded to develop corn pellets for energy production and alternative fuels.  And our Cooperative Extension is being funded to test new water-based storage for solar energy production in greenhouses.

We also need to highlight the Agricultural Loan Fund, which is a keystone to our grant program.  The loan fund provides low, 5% fixed-interest loans to help farmers start or expand businesses.  In the past year the loan program helped an organic dairy farmer in Clinton purchase the land next to his existing farm in order to stop development pressure, gain more pasture, and allow his son to enter his business.  Last year we also helped the two dairy farms in Down East Maine get a loan to start an organic dairy, the first of two in Down East Maine since 1980.  Recent legislation increased state participation in the loans from 55% up to 90%, depending on the size of the loan, thereby allowing the state to help small, part-time farmers who couldn’t get funding elsewhere.

Maine farmers have suffered in the past from severe drought, and relief did come in 2004 and 2005 with passage of the Sustainable Agriculture Water Source Development bonds.  These bonds fund department’s cost of the grant program to build new ponds and wells.  A number of organic farms in Maine, in Alfred, Freedom, Wells and in the Blue Hill areas, have benefited from developing wells or ponds with the technical help and grants from the Department of Agriculture.  To date the fund has distributed just over 1.9 million dollars to 89 projects throughout our state.

During the past four years, nearly $2 million in bond funds have helped over 100 farms to write business plans and over 50 farms to receive grants to implement those plans.  This has been a popular program within the farming community.  Many small, organic producers have benefited from this program, and we hope they will continue to be interested in it.

The governor has promoted increasing funding for the bond for the Land for Maine’s Future program, and as you may well know, the priority of this program is to protect farmland.  This is accomplished through fee acquisition or purchase of development rights.  Eighteen farmlands in Maine have been conserved – from farms in Whiting, to Scarborough. And you may have heard of the Working Waterfront tax treatment that was passed by this Legislature with the governor’s support.  But hopefully you all know that this tax treatment, just passed for coastal communities, has existed for years for farmers.  The valuation of farmland is taxed at current use, and how the commissioner explained it to me is that the mil rate is the same, but the value of the property is lower.  It also is important for you to know that you have to apply through the Maine Revenue Service for this tax treatment as a farmer.  I actually met one [farmer] at Gorham who didn’t know he had to apply.  He just assumed the tax assessor and the town were giving him a lower rate.

So as you can see, this administration has done a lot to strengthen Maine’s farming community and promote local products.  Maine producers are certainly doing their part in keeping agriculture local and working with their communities – not only in marketing their products, but to promote sustainable agriculture in Maine.

The quality of Maine products and the commitment of Maine people to high quality Maine agricultural goods attract a lot of people to the state – from five-star chefs to visitors.  I often call them the culinary pioneers in Maine.  With such a short growing season that we have, they are raising vegetables, they are using cold frames, using greenhouses, extending that growing season, harvesting and using what they do use in our menus; and we are so lucky to have so many celebrated chefs in our state.

Agriculture is and hopes to remain a big part of our local economy.  There are many reasons to be excited about sustainable agriculture in Maine, and those of you who are here are truly an organic niche, what we consider organic farming, and we look forward to continue to innovate and grow this important sector.

One of the most exciting aspects of the Common Ground Fair is the ability we all have to learn from the experts in the field on growing high quality organic products.  I had one person explain it to me very simply – when I talk about organics, what are we exactly talking about.  In one word, he told me:  “Soil.”  So if you take anything home today, remember, organic farming is all about that soil.

In closing, just let me thank Russ Libby and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association for all they do for sustainability and for sustainable agriculture in Maine.  It is truly a calling, a way of life, but my goal is to bring it into the mainstream, so when we talk about organic farming, all Mainers know what we talk about when we talk about sustainable agriculture.  So again, thank you, and hopefully you’ll get out and learn something from this wonderful organic fair!

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