FARMINGTON – Commissioner of Agriculture Robert Spear congratulated award winners at the Maine Association of Conservation Districts summer meeting recently.

The two-day event included meetings of district directors, district advisory council, employee’s committee and the educational committee. The day ended with a pig roast on Voter Hill provided by Bussie and Brenda York.

On the following day, Franklin County Soil and Water Conservation District, which hosted the event, treated guests to bus tours of the county. The meeting culminated in a banquet at Sugarloaf, where annual award winners were announced and the commissioner was guest speaker.

Spear said Conservation Education District winner, Piscataquis County Conservation District, had come a long way and deserved a lot of credit. Spear also congratulated Dexter native Paulette Gilbert, who received the 2003 Elementary Conservation Education Teacher of the Year award. Gilbert has spent nearly 30 years teaching at the Bristol Consolidated School. High School Conservation Education Teacher of the Year, Pamela Ramsey, was unable to attend the banquet due to a prior commitment. Ramsey, an educator for 21 years, has been teaching at Medomak Valley High School since 1985.

The commissioner said exciting things are ahead for agriculture in Maine. A conference is in the works to study a possible biofuels plant in Aroostook County. The University of Maine plans to open the Jacob Shur Research and Plant Propagation Facility in Island Falls to research seed, not just for farmers, but perhaps for Maine’s forestry industry, as well.

Spear also touched on many of the challenges facing agriculture, Stronger marketing efforts are under way by the state on behalf of Maine farmers, and more attention is being given to the plight of dairy farmers.

“We came out of the budget deficit very well as a department,” he said. The Maine Department of Agriculture lost only two positions, one that had never been filled and one recently vacated, to the cuts. Other departments lost 15 or 20 positions, he said. There was good news for Maine maple syrup producers. While nationwide, production dropped 11 percent, dropping seven percent in New England, 14 percent in Vermont and 19 percent in New York, only Maine experienced a 15 percent rise in production.

Potato acreage went down three percent in Canada last year, but rose two percent in Maine. Spear cited a recent economic impact study which revealed that Maine’s potato industry has a $540 million impact on the state’s economy, creating 6,100 jobs and resulting in $230 million in payroll.

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