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Mike has been a strong supporter of Maine farmers in Congress. Maine farmers are the stewards of more than one million acres and have developed a diverse agricultural industry with over a billion dollar impact on Maine’s economy. Potatoes are the top agricultural commodity in Maine, our state is the largest producer of wild blueberries in the world, and we rank second for maple syrup.
IMPROVING SUPPORT FOR MAINE FARMERS IN THE FARM BILL
Mike successfully pushed for changes in the 2008 Farm Bill to help Maine farmers. Among the provisions he advocated for was the enhancement of the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, which provides technical assistance, research, promotion, and education initiatives for specialty crops, such as potatoes, blueberries, apples, and cranberries.
The Farm Bill also moved toward a new direction of improved regional equity and focused on the conservation and diversification of our crops. The bill reauthorizes and improves conservation programs of importance to Maine like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). According to the USDA, EQIP is a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers through contracts up to a maximum term of ten years in length. These contracts provide financial assistance to help plan and implement conservation practices that address natural resource concerns and for opportunities to improve soil, water, plant, animal, air and related resources on agricultural land and non-industrial private forestland. In addition, a purpose of EQIP is to help producers meet federal, state, tribal, and local environmental regulations.
House leaders have indicated that they’d like to complete the next Farm Bill by the end of 2012. Mike would like to see the commodity subsidies, which currently cater to major agribusinesses and provide little benefit to Maine farmers, changed to meet the original intent of the Farm Bill: to help family farms succeed. As this bill is drafted, Mike will continue to advocate for specialty crop marketing and assistance programs that help Maine producers.
LEADER ON THE CONGRESSIONAL DAIRY CAUCUS
Mike is also a leading member of the reconstituted Congressional Dairy Caucus that pushed for the inclusion of $350 million in the Fiscal Year 2010 Agricultural Appropriations bill to aid dairy farmers struggling with historically low milk prices.
According to the USDA, milk prices declined substantially through early-to-mid-2009, with the national price for milk averaging $16.80 per hundredweight (cwt.) in the fourth quarter of 2008 and averaging $12.23 per cwt. in the first quarter of 2009, a 27-percent decline. On average, the price U.S. dairy producers received for milk marketed in the summer of 2009 was about half of what it cost them to produce milk. Mike and other members of the Dairy Caucus have met with USDA Secretary Vilsack to discuss long-term solutions to the ongoing dairy price crisis.
SECURING RESEARCH FUNDING FOR MAINE CROPS
Mike has also consistently fought and secured research funding for wild blueberries and potatoes to support sustainable crop management, processing innovations, and integrated pest management. He has also been a strong supporter of the Center for Invasive Plants, which focuses on innovative strategies to manage problems caused by invasive plants that are economically and environmentally damaging to Maine.
WORKING TO EXPAND CATTLE EXPORTS FROM MAINE
Mike worked with Senators Snowe and Collins in getting the USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to designate the Port of Eastport as a special port of embarkation for livestock. Opening the Port of Eastport for the exportation of cattle is economically very beneficial to Washington County and a tremendous opportunity for Eastport. At a time when the dairy industry has been in crisis, the exportation of dairy heifers provides them with important economic support. Maine and other states can now take advantage of this new export opportunity. Mike continues to work for long-term certification of the Port of Eastport as a livestock exportation facility.
FIGHTING TO SUPPORT MAINE’S POTATO INDUSTRY
Mainers understand the value of our potato industry to many of our communities and our state’s economy. But we also get that it can be a nutritional food to eat. Unfortunately, some in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) don’t get it. In 2010, USDA excluded the white potato from a program designed to help pregnant, low-income mothers and soon to be mothers buy food to feed their children. Mike recognized that this needed to be fixed not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it would promote an industry and crop that is very important to Maine’s economy.
The program at issue is called the Women, Infants and Children Program, or WIC for short. And it was updated through the arcane rulemaking process that all federal agencies go through. More specifically, in 2007, the USDA revised the Supplemental Nutrition Program for WIC to make fruits and vegetables eligible for WIC vouchers. Surprisingly to many in 2010, white potatoes were singularly excluded from WIC despite providing a significant amount of key nutrients at a cost significantly less than many other fruits and vegetables.
White potatoes were excluded largely because the USDA determined that most people already eat enough of the vegetable. Neither nutritional science, commonsense or good public policy supports this decision. The exclusion of white potatoes from WIC is particularly unacceptable when you consider that some vegetables with nutrition profiles inferior to white potatoes made the cut.
To respond, Mike helped organize 22 of his colleagues from around the country to send a bipartisan letter of concern to USDA Secretary Vilsack. A bipartisan group of Senators, including Senators Snowe and Collins, followed suit soon after. Both letters urged Secretary Vilsack to carefully consider both the quality and quantity of comments received by USDA that support including white potatoes in the WIC voucher program. As a result of this advocacy, the rule was delayed a year, and Mike continues to follow developments in this area closely.
Most recently, on May 5, 2011, Mike joined with other members of Congress to question recent USDA rules on limiting potatoes and other vegetables in school meal plans. For many children, school meals are their prime source of nutrition for the day. Limiting the amount of vegetables, such as potatoes, in school meals can have a direct impact on the intake of two of the four nutrients of public health concern. Changes that discourage participation in the school meal program will reduce the overall health and wellness of children. It will also have a negative impact on Maine’s potato producers. Click HERE to view the text of the letter Mike and his colleagues sent.
HELPING FARMERS WHEN DISASTERS STRIKE
When severe weather or drought strikes, there is often little that state and local governments can to do help farmers make ends meet if their crops are ruined as a result. Mike has consistently supported Maine requests for disaster assistance, which has been a critical lifeline for many Maine farmers over the years. For example, in January 2010, Mike announced that farmers in Maine were eligible for disaster assistance through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Mike supported Governor Baldacci’s request for a USDA disaster designation due to a number of severe weather events last year, including heavy rains, flash flooding, high winds, and drought. Aroostook, Hancock, Penobscot, Piscataquis, and Somerset counties were designated as primary natural disaster areas. The contiguous counties of Waldo, Washington, Knox, Franklin, and Kennebec are also eligible for USDA assistance.
Agricultural producers in both the primary and contiguous counties may be eligible for Farm Service Agency (FSA) emergency loans and the new Supplemental Revenue Assistance (SURE) Program. SURE, which is one of several new disaster programs created under the 2008 Farm Bill, provides financial assistance for crop production and/or quality losses due to natural disasters.