|Robert Spear, Maine’s Commissioner of Agriculture, stressed the importance of cooperation among the state’s agricultural groups in preserving, protecting and promoting farming. English photo.
By Jean English
Agriculture Commissioner Bob Spear knows agriculture and he knows politics. Now he just has to combine the two.
Spear owns a dairy and vegetable farm with his brother and sons, and he’s a former state legislator. When he was appointed Agriculture Commissioner in 1999, he found a department “limited in financial resources” but with a “great group of knowledgeable employees.” His immediate job was to increase morale and support those employees.
“I believe the administration cares about agriculture,” Spear said, addressing MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference in November, “but it needs to be educated about the importance of agriculture to the state.”
Spear got a chance to teach a “class” when the governor and his staff and cabinet held a retreat at Camp Kieve to set goals for the next three years. Spear brought them to his farm in Nobleboro. “Many cabinet members had not been on a farm, ever,” said Spear. “They said it was the highlight of the retreat.
“Legislators are beginning to realize the importance of agriculture in Maine,” he continued. “The time is right. We just have to get the word out there.”
One of his goals is to reverse the direction agriculture has taken (declining) in the last decade. Spear said that Maine’s agricultural diversity is a real advantage in this regard. Whereas 85% of Vermont’s agricultural receipts depend on milk, and Massachusetts depends heavily on cranberries, Maine’s receipts are spread over more commodities. Potatoes, for example, account for 21.5% of our receipts; milk a little less; followed by eggs, aquaculture, livestock and poultry, fruits and vegetables, wild blueberries, greenhouse and nursery crops, and miscellaneous other crops.
The gross income from these enterprises hasn’t changed in the last several years, but expenses have increased, so net farm income has shown a steady decline. We need profitability if we want to keep farming going, said Spear.
“Things aren’t the way they used to be,” he continued. Farmers “have to be ready to adopt to change. Consumers’ demands must be met.” He used the example of sweet corn. “Consumers want sweeter, sugar enhanced, supersweet corn.”
Adopting to change will have to happen quickly. Spear attended a national meeting of agriculture commissioners in Utah last summer, where one speaker said that in the next 18 to 36 months, we would see more change than in the last 40 years in agriculture. These changes are “coming like a freight train” and are consumer driven.
One such change is the growth in trade. In the United States, we consume so much less food than we eat that “we have to be ready for trade growth.” Transportation methods are changing also, as are regulations, food safety concerns, and environmental aspects of farming. Technology is changing rapidly, and businesses are consolidating – including food markets. Spear related that there are only 12 major retailers in the world now, and that the number one food retailer in the world is … Wal-Mart! Wal-Mart has about 2500 stores worldwide and continues to grow. “It’s going to affect our markets,” said Spear.
Spear used Israel as an example of doing the most with the least. He led a group of farmers to Israel in September, where they attended an agricultural high-tech exposition. They saw drip irrigation and many other technologies “all conceived in Israel” that enabled that country to export food products. “They had to take the ball in their hands and be out front,” said Spear.
Maine has done the same with its nutrient management laws, he said, which were passed a couple of years ago. “If we didn’t, Maine farmers would be regulated by the DEP. We think it’s better to be regulated by the Department of Agriculture.”
Spear discussed six major issues that Maine farmers will be facing soon, and said that the only way to address these issues will be through partnerships – with Cooperative Extension, Farm Bureau, the Grange, MOFGA, commodity groups, and others.
The first issue relates to marketing. The legislature gave the department $250,000 to work on marketing, and the main project in that area will be branding Maine products so that people can walk into a market and know that something was grown in Maine. Department members also are going to a lot of food shows promoting Maine-grown products.
Climate change is another issue. “This summer brought the irrigation issue to light,” he said. Irrigated blueberries produced over 8,000 pounds per acre, while non-irrigated produced 1,000 to 2,000 pounds. Governor King had asked the department for a report by the first of the year about irrigation possibilities for Maine farms.
Nutrient management is the third issue Spear addressed. “We think we’re facing that challenge,” he reported. He is concerned because some farmers cannot afford to build containment structures, yet they are not to spread manure between Dec. 1 and March 15. “We’re looking for money to help farmers build these.”
Regarding the Maine Meat Act, Spear said that the department is trying to get a Maine State Inspection program set up. It is studying resources, numbers of animals, markets, funding, and so on, so that the state Meat Inspection Act can be utilized “so you can get some value added products.”
Regarding sprawl, Spear said that the spread of urban people into farming areas hurts not just farmland but urban areas too. They have to extend water and sewer lines, school bus routes, and so on. It’s expensive, he said. One solution is to have farm land taxed at farm value so that farmers aren’t pushed to sell. His first recommendation to the state is to remove the 20% penalty that goes with the Farm and Open Space tax law.
The sixth issue Spear addressed was labor. The low unemployment rate in Maine has farmers looking for help.
Partnerships that can address these issues depend on communication. “How do I communicate with you people?” Spear asked. The department had lost its newsletter but was planning to reinstate one early this year. Also, the department had planned to increase its visibility at the Agricultural Trades Show.
“We need cooperation, we need a lot of people sitting around the table. We need to get out the message [that] agriculture plays an important part in the Maine economy. The Maine tourism industry is starting to see the importance of agriculture. People come here to see open space, cattle, blueberry fields …”
Spear concluded by congratulating Russ Libby on the work he has done with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.