AUGUSTA, Maine — The three major candidates for governor spent Tuesday with members of Maine’s agricultural community, discussing their visions for farming and how it could be part of the answer to future economic prosperity.

It’s well-known that Maine’s agricultural past dwarfs the agricultural present. There is far less farmland and far fewer farmers than Maine claimed a century ago, due in part to the development of large agribusinesses elsewhere and transportation infrastructure that knocks Maine off national and even regional supply-to-market routes. However, recent data have shown that more young farmers are moving to Maine as part of the local foods movement.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler all told the Agriculture Council of Maine on Tuesday that the trend is promising but that far more work is needed if agriculture in Maine is to be truly revived.

LePage, who backed out of an afternoon forum with the Agriculture Council of Maine — saying he had state business to conduct in the afternoon, according to his spokeswoman — spoke earlier in the day at the council’s monthly board meeting. LePage used the opportunity to advance his thoughts on the issue he argues is the central roadblock to economic development in Maine: the state’s high energy prices.

“If people in the Legislature would listen to and address the issue of the high cost of energy in Maine, we’d have more food processors,” said LePage. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people who just don’t want to come to Maine because of the high cost of energy. … Every single decision that comes out of the Legislature has been directed toward renewable energy. I’ll buy all the renewable energy I can find at 5 cents [per kilowatt-hour]. When you’re paying 21 cents up to 31 cents, it hurts our farms and the rest of our natural resources industries.”

LePage’s energy agenda hinges on bringing more natural gas to Maine either via pipeline from shale fields in Pennsylvania or a shoreline liquefied natural gas facility where tankers could deliver large volumes of natural gas. LePage is also a proponent of buying dam-generated hydropower from Canada.

Michaud, who addressed the council later in the day, unveiled an 11-point plan that emphasizes bringing together the foremost agriculture experts to review state farming and fishing regulations, making available more funding for low-interest business infrastructure investments, developing new ways for public schools and other institutions to purchase Maine food products and bolstering technical assistance programs for farmers. He also said he would prod state government to support programs such as Land for Maine’s Future to protect farmland, and find ways to expand training opportunities for farmers and fishermen, and improve marketing of Maine products.

But the biggest difference in a Michaud administration, he said, would be his willingness to work with anyone who had good ideas.

“Maine is perfectly situated to become the food basket for New England. We have the youngest farmers in the country per capita and a national reputation for quality food production here in Maine,” said Michaud. “My plan is a creative plan and a plan that actually builds on what we already have here in the state of Maine, but I will need each and every one of you to help improve upon it. I realize I don’t have all the answers.”

Cutler, among other things, emphasized training more young farmers and his Maine “branding” plan, which he has been touting for months. A stronger Maine brand could lead to more opportunities for Maine farmers in what is an increasingly global food market, he said.

“We have to have a strategy and a plan and we haven’t had one in the state of Maine in for so long I can’t remember,” said Cutler, who asked the 50 or so Mainers in the room if anyone knew Maine’s tourism slogan, which is “It’s the Maine Thing.” No one in the room could recite that slogan.

“If we don’t know what our slogan is here in this room, let me tell you, nobody in the world knows what it is,” said Cutler. “Building a brand, and I’ve done it, requires years and years of consistent investment in a consistent brand and we’ve not done that.”

The Agricultural Council of Maine is composed of 33 agricultural associations, commodity groups and businesses, which together represent about 10,000 people. Members of the council said the group is not planning an endorsement in the governor’s race.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.