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December 9, 1999 - Rural Development Forum

MPBN Radio Report by Naomi Schalit

A mix of farmers, policy makers, economic development specialists and academics attended a forum on rural development at the University of Maine today. As Naomi Schalit reports, the subject was making agriculture the focus of rural development efforts in the state:

Naomi Schalit: "There is no culture without agriculture," says the writer Wendell Berry, who was quoted this morning by Maine Agriculture Commissioner Bob Spear. And if there was one message at today's conference, it was that Maine's rural communities need farms to remain vital. But speaker after speaker went through the litany of challenges facing any attempt to keep Maine's farming sector and it's rural areas alive. The average age of the state's farmers is in the mid-fifties. Land is expensive, and selling out to development is often the retirement dream of a farmer. Fluctuating commodity prices can ruin a million-dollar operation in one bad year. But Governor Angus King, who addressed the crowd at lunchtime, was resolutely upbeat:

Governor King: I think agriculture has a bigger part to play in the future of Maine than it has in the recent past.

Naomi Schalit: Agriculture is the thread that binds the fabric of Maine together, said King. He outlined a series of goals that he'd like to see reached by 2010 -- such as a 30% increase in the amount of Aroostook county potato acreage, an irrigation system that meets the need for consistent water delivery, Maine organic grains being sold all over the country, and a farmer's market in every community...and in cyberspace. And besides the lofty goals, the Governor outlined some concrete proposals: to overhaul the farm and open space law, to increase the state's marketing assistance to farmers, and to give tax breaks to farmers who protect habitat. Those kinds of things will have to be done soon, said King:

Governor King: My greatest fear is that the loss of agriculture will happen in small increments and we won't be aware of it.

Mark Lapping, former provost at the University of Southern Maine and a farm policy expert, said the state needs to make a commitment to revitalizing agriculture in Maine... the kind of commitment Maine has shown already to other businesses and to industrial development:

Mark Lapping: Much of economic development policy has been an attraction policy; let's move a firm from out of state into state and we really try to seduce businesses from one jurisdiction to another, and it's not really about the creation of wealth it's more about the movement of wealth from one place to another place; we'll do this with locational incentives, we'll do worker training so forth and so on to bring a new factory into town; but here we have farms that are already there, the bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and we don't go far enough in extending the kinds of supports that we would to a chino pants factory if it came in as we would to five or six farms.

Naomi Schalit: Any business that can be lured here, said Lapping, can also be lured away from here. Not so with farms, he said -- it's really hard to buy out a farm in Maine and move it to Indiana. A farm represents wealth that's sunk in the land. And Bob Ho, director of the Maine Rural Development Council, acknowledged that after decades of agricultural decline across the country, promoting farms as a viable form of rural economic development sounded strange. But it was possible, he said, and policymakers who ignore the economic potential of farms do so at the entire state's peril.

Bob Ho: It has to be viable, because our survival is at stake. The future of our community is at stake. The future of our downtown is at stake, the future of our downtown, our town centers is at stake -- so it has to be.

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HOME: The Story of Maine on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network was made in partnership with the Maine State Museum. Major funding was provided by the  Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency committed to fostering innovation, leadership and a lifetime of learning. Additional funding provided by Elsie Viles.
Major funding for previous seasons of  HOME: The Story of Maine was made possible by a grant from Rural Development, a part of the USDA. Special support is provided by The Maine State Museum and Northeast Historic Films.