The 2018 farm bill has plenty in it that will help support Maine’s farms and food producers. Credit: Julia Bayly

The final version of the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill passed the U.S. Senate and House this week and is on its way to the desk of President Donald Trump to be signed into law.

The Farm Bill was passed in the U.S. Senate by a vote of 87-13 on Tuesday and by a vote of 389-47 in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday. Both of Maine’s senators, independent Angus King and Republican Susan Collins voted for the bill. Democrat Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin also voted for the bill.

Reviewed and renewed every five years, the 641-page, $867 billion 2018 Farm Bill includes funding and policy language on federal trade, commodity programs, rural development, conservation, agriculture research, food and nutrition programs, and marketing.

“There are a number of things [in the Farm Bill] that will be helpful to Maine agriculture and farm production,” said Maine Commissioner of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Walter Whitcomb. “It reinforced some of the farmer incentives [and] created more emphasis on trade.”

A win for organic farmers

Advocates for organic and locally sourced foods received some good news in the bill that includes funding for programs that support and fund organic food production, marketing and research which they say will help promote and safeguard organic farming across the country.

The bill establishes mandatory funding for the national Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, which provides partial reimbursement for organic certification costs. More than 90 percent of Maine’s certified organic growers and producers participate in this program, according to a statement released Wednesday by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

The farm bill also increased funding to $50 million annually for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, a program that has funded projects in the University of Maine System.

National organic market research efforts gets $5 million to help Maine farmers by tracking production trends, creating stable markets and fighting fraud in the organic food sector.

“The boost in funding for organic research and the provisions enhancing organic import enforcement are cause for celebration in the organic community,” said Sarah Alexander, MOFGA executive director. “This farm bill represents a significant step forward for organic agriculture in multiple arenas and is a good first step.”

Alexander said MOFGA is disappointed, however, that language in the Farm Bill appears to have weakened the integrity of the National Organic Standards Board which advises and makes recommendations to the USDA on organic food and product issues.

Specifically, a provision in the new Farm Bill allows nonfarming employees of farm companies to occupy board seats once reserved for working farmers and made changes to the board’s voting procedures that could make it acceptable to use harmful, synthetic materials in growing organic crops.

MOFGA fears these moves will favor the interest of large organic production companies while also diluting the voice of the independent organic farmers.

“MOFGA is deeply disturbed [by the] provisions that undercut the work of the National Organic Standards Board,” Alexander said. “We will continue to fight to reverse policies that undermine the transparency, high integrity and full participation in the organic standards setting process.”

Meanwhile, organic farmers and any farmer who cares about their land will benefit from increased funding to the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, according to Whitcomb.

“More funding for soil health is critical for both organic and conventional farming,” Whitcomb said. “It is imperative we understand what we need to do with the land to make sure it is productive for ourselves and future generations.”

Programs for new, diverse and small farms

The 2018 Farm Bill consolidated the existing Value Added Producers Grants Program and the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotions programs into the new Local Agriculture Market Program and established a permanent $50 million budget for the new program.

Also combined were programs that support and assist new, socially disadvantaged or military veteran farmers. This new Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program will receive $50 million in funding.

“This is very positive for Maine farmers of all different practices and operations,” said Ellen Griswold, policy and research director with Maine Farmland Trust. “Funding is now secured in [the Farm Bill] for farmland protection and local food production.”

Programs that help Maine’s new and existing farmers are crucial for the state, she said.

“Making sure there is a landbase here so we can grow our agriculture sector and increasing training programs are the necessary components to make sure we have the tools available to support Maine farmers,” Griswold said. “For states across the country including Maine, where we have an aging population it’s important to make sure we have that funding for new farmers.”

Protection of ‘specialty crops’

The bulk of programs and funding in the farm bill is always written with the larger midwest growers in mind, according to Jeff O’Donal, president of the Agricultural Council of Maine.

“A lot of money is thrown at the large agricultural businesses in the midwest like the corn and wheat growers,” O’Donal said. “But there is an understanding in [Washington, D.C.,] that funding is also needed for specialty crops, [and] basically every crop in Maine is a specialty crop because we don’t grow in the same large quantities as those big growers in the midwest.”

These Maine crops include potatoes, blueberries, apples, hemp, maple syrup and honey, O’Donal said.

“There is a lot of language in the farm bill helpful to [specialty crop] growers and producers,” he said.

The farm bill now permanently protects maple and honey producers from falling victim to requirements like the one handed down by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last spring which would have forced the producers to include “added sugar” on their labels, O’Donal said.

That’s good news, according to Lyle Merrifield, maple syrup producer and president of the Maine Maple Producers Association.

“There were certainly a lot of people working on that language,” Merrifield said. “I call this a success and we can be happy about that, but there is still work to be done.”

Merrifield said the Maine producers are working with their counterparts throughout the Northeast to create a task force which will be able to rapidly respond to any future threats to the industry.

“We can’t see what might be coming down the road,” Merrifield said. “But we want to be ready to jump on anything that comes along.”

Protected for the first time in a Farm Bill is industrial hemp, which could become an important crop as Maine farmers look to diversify, O’Donal said. Thanks to language in the 2018 farm bill, industrial hemp is no longer considered a controlled substance, despite its similarities to marijuana.

A fibrous plant, hemp can be grown and used for making paper, clothing, soaps, lotions, tinctures and construction materials.

“There were laws in Maine under which growers could get a license to grow industrial hemp in the state but could not sell it out of state,” O’Donal said. “With the new farm bill, they can now market hemp over state lines, [and] that helps create new markets.”

Better broadband for rural Maine

Connections over the internet are crucial for today’s farmers, according to O’Donal.

“Broadband connectivity got a real shot in the arm in the farm bill,” O’Donal said, noting the bill includes $350 million to improve internet service in rural parts of the country.

Those funds, coupled with a commitment form the USDA and results from a task force formed by Sen. Angus King to identify areas of internet need in Maine, will benefit Maine’s rural growers, O’Donal said.

“This is going to help our farmers be ‘less rural’ in how they conduct business,” O’Donal said. “And by ‘less rural,’ I don’t mean population, I mean connecting with other parts of the country.”

More good than bad

“Permanent funding of programs for farmers in Maine means we are not going to have to fight for funding at every turn,” Griswold said. “It sort of signals the direction we see agriculture heading as we go into the future.”

Overall, Whitcomb said the bill is good for Maine and its farmers.

“I am sure there are people who wanted more,” he said. “But I would say farmers in Maine all have some things they can say they got out of it.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.