NORWAY — Passage of the Farm Bill will be critical to ensure the continuation of small farms across Maine and the country, USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Edward Avalos told a group of local farmers Friday morning.

“It’s not fair for Congress to keep farmers and ranchers hostage,” he said. “If Congress doesn’t pass the Farm Bill, it’s a defeat for rural America, a defeat for rural America. That’s all there is to it.”

About 50 farmers, legislative leaders and others gathered at the Progress Center’s community kitchen Friday morning, for what was billed as an agribusiness and community breakfast with the Under Secretary to discuss issues ranging from the effect of burdensome regulations on small farmers to immigration and more.

“When I hear the word ‘agribusiness,’ I’m not in there,” said Mary Ann Haxton, co-owner of a Wrinkle in Thyme Farm in Sumner. “We have to become more of the picture. When there’s so much big, the little gets lost.”

Avalos stressed the immediate need for Congress to pass a balanced, comprehensive Farm Bill and for small farmers like Haxton to express their support for the bill’s passage.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a farmer in Maine, a farmer in New Mexico — you’re still a farmer,” said Avalos, who grew up on a farm in New Mexico about 45 minutes from Mexican border.

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Congress is currently is considering a massive, five-year farm bill that would set policy for farm subsidies and food stamps. It also sets dollar levels for the Agriculture Department and subsidizes farmers and rural communities for a number of issues — from protecting environmentally sensitive land to international food aid to rural communications services.

The money goes toward food stamps — now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — and for farm and crop insurance subsidies and other issues, according to information from the USDA.

Avalos, who came to the breakfast, fielded a number of questions from local farmers during the hour-long discussion. Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Commissioner Walter Whitcomb and USDA Rural Development State Director Virginia Manuel also answered questions. 

“A lot of things don’t make sense,” Avalos said of regulations and factors that impede the success of the small farmer. “Opinions come from city folk. You need to submit comments to support farmers. Your comments are critical.”

He agreed with Naomi King of Pietree Orchard in Sweden who said immigration is an important factor to Maine farms and said it needs to be discussed in this state, too.

“We cannot deny the need for immigrant farm workers,” Avalos agreed. Avalos said he recently visited a farm in Connecticut whose owners would be out of business if they did not utilize immigrant workers.

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Others questioned Avalos about the SNAP program, nutritional programs, educational opportunities and the need to focus on renewable resources, as well as other issues.

Avalos said most people take food for granted when they go to the supermarket.

“We never think we won’t have food to buy in the store,” he said.

“We want to make sure rural American doesn’t die. Small farms are the foundation of rural America,” he said of the less than 1 percent of people in the country who are farmers, who provide 85 percent of the food available to Americans in the supermarket, farm markets and other sources, like the Fare Share Co-op in Norway.

Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Walter Whitcomb, who owns a farm in Belfast, also spoke of the importance of the small farmer. He also noted that USDA block grants are important to a wide range of programs. They have, for example, paid an Oxford Hill School District student farm program at the Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway.

The discussion came after a breakfast prepared by the Progress Center using produce from local area farms, including A Wrinkle in Time in Sumner, Pietree Orchard in Sweden, LolliePapa Farm in West Paris, Verrill’s Vegetable Stand in Poland, RoseBeck Farm in Paris, Dunham Farm in Greenwood, C & C Farm in Norway and Angry Mountain Farm in Albany Township. Edmunds Farm in Fryeburg donated hay bales for the decorations.

The breakfast was held in the Community Kitchen of the Progress Center, which was constructed in part with USDA funds several years ago. The Progress Center is a 501(c)3 social service agency, supporting 231 individuals and families with developmental and intellectual disabilities in 49 communities within four Maine counties.

Avalos, who got lost driving to the Progress Center in Norway, said this was his first trip to Maine. He called the scenery during his long drive down Route 26  and a few other roads “gorgeous.”

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