Ben Gotschall, center, dairy and livestock manager at Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment, talks about the Freeport center’s dairy program during a tour on Monday. Members of the House Agriculture Committee, including Rep. Chellie Pingree, Rep. Glenn ÒGTÓ Thompson, R-PA, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-MA, Rep. Jim Baird, R-IN and Rep. Jim Costa, D-CA. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Lawmakers about to rewrite the nation’s agricultural policy got an earful Monday from Maine farmers, who say the next U.S. farm bill needs to be flexible enough to assist small, specialty farmers, fishermen and foresters who produce food, clothing and shelter.

Abby Farnham, assistant director of policy and research at the Maine Farmland Trust, was one of about 60 Maine farmers, food suppliers and rural development officials who spoke up to try to shape that policy at a field hearing of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee in Freeport.

“Our vision for the next farm bill includes well-funded and efficiently managed federal programs that are accessible and beneficial to small and medium-sized farms and specialty producers, like many in Maine,” Farnham said. “We often hear from farmers about the need for different forms of assistance.”

That includes targeted federal financial and technical assistance for small, specialty producers trying to grow and diversify their markets and businesses, adapt to climate change and the extreme weather that comes with it, and manage world trade and supply chain fluctuations.

The lawmakers also heard compelling stories about Maine’s front-line struggle with so-called forever chemicals, how they have ravaged the state’s farming community, and repeated calls to incorporate The Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act into the next farm bill.

Adam Nordell told the committee about how municipal sludge spread on his farm years ago by the last owner had left his water, his soil and his family’s blood with unsafe levels of PFAS. He has had to close Songbird farm and now works as a campaign manager for farm contamination for Defend Our Health.

Doctors have told them it will take about 30 years to get the PFAS out of their bodies, Nordell said. But in some ways, Nordell said they were lucky. Six months after they discovered their farm contamination, Maine adopted a $60 million relief fund that has helped many Maine farms manage this crisis, he said.

Without that financial and technical support from Maine, many of these farms likely would have gone out of business, he said. PFAS is not just a Maine problem, Nordell said – 20 million acres of farmland are estimated to be contaminated by PFAS across the country.

“These farms are currently receiving little to no assistance and are forced to choose between quietly living and working on toxic land or losing their livelihood,” he said. “That is an irresponsible way to manage our food system. We all have an interest in getting toxic chemicals out of our food.”

David Herring, executive director of Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment in Freeport, talks to House Agriculture Committee members Rep. Jim Costa, D-CA, center, and Rep. Glenn ÒGTÓ Thompson, R-PA during a tour of the center in Freeport on Monday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The farm bill is a legislative package passed every five years that sets national policy and funding levels for more than just agriculture and food supply, but also for rural development, broadband connections, water quality and even land conservation. The current farm bill will expire in two months.

The Freeport field hearing, organized by the U.S. House Agriculture Committee and hosted by Rep. Chellie Pingree, Maine’s 2nd District congresswoman, followed similar hearings held this year in California, Florida, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Before Monday’s hearing, Pingree took the committee’s new chairman, Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and the three other visiting committee members (the House committee has 52 members) on a tour of six Maine farms, including her own organic farm in North Haven, and a mussel and oyster farm.

Concerns raised by Mainers at the field hearing ranged from the need to help farmers adapt to climate change to increase federal efforts to reduce food waste to robustly fund a trio of major emergency food assistance programs, the weakening of which have left local food pantry shelves bare.

PLEA FOR SNAP BENEFITS

Amy Regan Gallant, vice president of public policy and research at Good Shepherd Food Bank, begged for the restoration of the monthly Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits to what they had been during the pandemic. Those expanded benefits have since lapsed.

Rep. Glenn ÒGTÓ Thompson, R-PA, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, and Rep. Chellie Pingree listen as staff talk about the dairy program at Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment during a tour of the Freeport center on Monday. Behind Pingree is Amanda Beal, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Gallant told them about a Maine woman who had lost $800 a month in pandemic SNAP benefits. She raises animals, tends a garden and drives from one food pantry to the next to try to fill her household’s food gaps. On Saturday, her local food pantry was empty, not a can or box of food on the shelf.

“She called me and was equal parts panicked and exhausted,” Gallant said. “She feels like she is failing. The pantry volunteers feel like they are failing. Our drivers who deliver the food feel like they’re failing. We are not the ones who are failing. The system has failed us.”

Gallant said Maine’s emergency and charitable food network is seeing higher demand now than before the pandemic. She said her last day of field visits in the spring was the hardest she’d experienced in 20 years of feeding the hungry. She said that network can’t replace adequate federal funding.

Blueberry, kelp and flower farmers called for improvements to national marketing and crop insurance programs to help them survive droughts, frosts, and market volatility. Smaller, specialty farmers often get overlooked in the farm bill, which has traditionally favored large farms and grain or textile growers.

State Sen. Stacy Brenner, of Scarborough, said cut-flower farmers like her have been left out of the value-added grants included in past farm bills even though designer wedding and hotel bouquets are some of the most profitable products they could sell.

Sebastian Belle of the Maine Aquaculture Association made a pitch for aquaculture to be prioritized in the next Farm Bill, saying it is a fast-growing segment of the U.S. food production industry with even more room to grow. More than 90 percent of U.S. seafood is imported, he said.

Members of the House Agriculture Committee and others tour Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment in Freeport on Monday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

PITCH FOR AQUACULTURE

He asked the committee to adopt national organic standards for aquaculture. Right now, much of that imported seafood – even that which is marketed as organic – is farmed in countries with weaker environmental and labor regulations than what U.S. aquaculture producers follow, he said.

Other countries can export seafood to the U.S. that is certified organic under another system, he said.

Belle said he helped write proposed organic aquaculture standards that would have been the strictest in the world, he said. American farmers would have been able to meet that standard, but most foreign competitors would not have been able to. Those rules never passed.

Thompson, who became committee chairman in January, plans to hold more field hearings in his home state of Pennsylvania this month. He said he plans to adopt the new version of the farm bill on schedule, which would mean adoption by the end of September.

Thompson said Monday that the listening session was important to bring farmers to the table where the farm bill negotiations take place. In politics, he said, if you don’t have a seat at the table, he said, you will often wind up on the menu.

“I will take the many stories and suggestions we heard today back to Washington as we ramp up farm bill negotiations,” Pingree said at the end of the hearing. “I hope my fellow committee members here today do as well.”


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