FARMINGTON – U. S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, got a rain-soaked look, eye-to-eye, with a herd of purebred Black Angus bulls Thursday, saw greenhouses lush with young tomato plants and walked through Franklin County’s only milk processing operation to meet the farmers and hear their concerns.
Access to affordable health care, budget cuts to critical county agricultural programs and local food projects that will be able to promote regional sustainability were the issues on farmers’ minds.
Michaud listened, chatted and offered to help where he could. He was invited to Franklin County by Alison Hagerstrom, director of Greater Franklin Development Corporation, and Tanya Swain, executive director of Western Mountains Alliance.
“I really felt he was interested. He picked up on things that we are doing to expand the self-sufficiency of the area and our philosophy of working toward self-sustainability and being a part of the community,” said L. Herbert “Bussie” York, owner of the 600-acre, diversified Sandy River Farm in Farmington.
“And he appreciated what we are trying to do,” said York, whose cows produce organic milk that his family recently started to process in their new dairy.
They sell their milk in eight area stores and plan to open a farm store in early June where they will sell produce, meats, baked goods and their own ice cream.
“We need to be working toward being as self-sufficient as possible in our local areas. Maine is not a big agricultural state but we do have local capability,” York said after Michaud left.
Michaud also visited the Marble Family Farm on Holley Road in Farmington. It specializes in organic vegetables, baked goods made with Maine wheat, and eggs. And he toured the commercial kitchen and barns at King & I Angus, the only U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified 100 percent Black Angus farm in the Northeast, according to owners Dennis and Sara Wilk.
The congressman also met with Deborah Chadbourne, the administrator of the online Western Maine Market where shoppers can order locally grown products and pick up their order at locations throughout Franklin County.
York told Michaud he was concerned about the cuts in the federal budget signed into law in April, saying they affect key agricultural and conservation programs that work with farmers in rural areas.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Resource Conservation & Development program was eliminated, ending the councils that helped communities with projects in land conservation, land management, community development and water management.
The budget also reduced funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency.
“These programs have taken a big hit. The NRCS has been very active in our community and have been a very big help to farmers. That money is drying up and I am sorry to see that,” he told Michaud. “It is the only organization on the local level that really works with agriculture.”
“What it will mean on the local level is that there will be a lot less outreach to farmers,” he said.
Michaud was particularly concerned with a problem York is having with the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the color of the agency’s organic seal that is found on all products that are certified organic.
When the Yorks bought the used milk processing equipment from a Connecticut dairy last year to set up their operation in Farmington, they spent $10,000 on the used glass milk bottles.
The problem is the bottles all have the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic seal imprinted on the glass — in red. A year ago, the federal agency changed the official color of the organic label to black.
“If we use these bottles, there will be an $11,000 fine each time,” York said. “They told me I would just have to trash them and we can’t afford to do that.”
At the Marble Farm, Michaud toured the greenhouses and commercial kitchen operated by Andy Marble and his wife, Sarah, his father, Richard, and mother, Wes.
Andy Marble told Michaud that the family sells their products through farmer’s markets, through the online Western Maine Market, health food stores and to several school districts.
The family also offers CSAs, or a Community Supported Agriculture program, where people invest $300 and during the growing season can buy $330 worth of anything the farm sells.
With the local food movement, he said, “People want to know where the farms are, where their food is grown and the face behind the product.”
Richard Marble said the Farmington Grange is undertaking a significant project to develop a local food distribution center and a loading dock at the Grange Hall in West Farmington. The plan is moving ahead to build a commercial kitchen that would be available to the community and two, walk-in coolers where growers can store perishables prior to shipping.
“We are trying to revive agriculture in Franklin County and we are halfway done,” he told the congressman. “We want to be an outlet for food processors and an outlet to retailers.”
King & I Angus, which has 125 head of cattle and specializes in its genetically-pure breeding stock, has bulls in numerous herds in 13 states, owner Dennis Wilk said. They sell their 100 percent Black Angus beef and baked goods at farmer’s markets in Farmington and Brunswick, and through the online Western Maine Market.
Wilk said the big problem farmers face is finding affordable health care.
“This is huge. Last year, we spent $19,000 out of pocket on health care. All we are working for now is insurance and taxes,” he said.