Committee divided on measure to restore farmland to working agricultural land
AUGUSTA – A measure to strengthen and grow Maine’s farming industry by bringing back idle farmlands received a divided report from the state’s Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee (ACF). Six members voted for the bill ought not to pass, five members voted in favor of the bill passing and two members have yet to vote.
The measure, LD 1041, “An Act To Restore Farmlands and Improve Watersheds,” would create a Farmland Restoration Fund to provide grants to farmers for restoration projects.
According to the Maine Farm Bureau Association, Maine leads New England with 8,174 farms and contribute more than $2 billion annually to the state’s economy.
“Maine has a great opportunity to help farming grow, and help farmers earn a reasonable return for their work,” said Democratic State Senator Chris Johnson of Somerville, the sponsor of the measure. “This is an investment we can make with a triple bottom line: benefiting our economy, protecting our resources, and providing healthy food for our people.”
The Farmland Restoration Fund, to be managed by Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, would provide grants to farmers of 50% of an approved project cost, or $20,000, whichever is less for restoration projects, such as: the reclamation of grown-over pastures; clearing and removal of trees, stumps, stones and brush; installation of fencing to keep livestock in reclaimed pasture areas; restoration of water runoff and drainage of crop fields; renovation of farm ponds; replanting of vegetation on erosion-prone land; enhancement of farm roads; and/or, the restoration of shellfish beds.
During the public hearing last week, a representative from Maine Farmland Trust said Maine has “a good climate for agricultural production…We are in a unique position and point in time, as a state, where we can plan for the type of agricultural growth that achieves the goal of protecting soil health and water quality.”
Another aspect of LD 1041, includes protecting and improving Maine’s watersheds. The bill includes a requirement that any farm restoration project must implement Maine’s best management practices for soil conservation and watershed protection.
Sen. Johnson added, “Saving soil and reducing watershed nutrient loading is a critical step in protecting our fisheries, reducing future costs of water clean up, and ensuring a successful agricultural expansion.”
Currently, New England only produces 10% of the food consumed in the region; however, according to New England Food Vision report, New England has capacity to produce more than 50% of the food consumed.
“Maine can have a huge role in addressing our high food insecurity problem and becoming less dependent on food production,” said Sen. Johnson.
According to a consumer survey conducted by USM’s Muskie School, when given the choice of buying Maine-grown/raised/caught food from Maine or from “somewhere else,” almost 80% of the respondents said they would chose to purchase local or Maine food.
MOFGA, the Maine Farm Bureau, and Maine Farmland Trust all support the measure.
The measure will now go before the Senate for consideration.