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Maine Farmers Press For A New Farm Bill
By Annette Higby, Policy Director for New England Farmers Union (NEFU)

Added November 24, 2012

Congress skipped town in September without passing a five-year farm bill. Important safety net programs like the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program and others that support local and regional food systems, renewable energy and beginning farmers were all allowed to expire on September 30.

Before they headed home to campaign, however, House members in particular got an earful from several hundred farmers who had come to Washington to press for the passage of a new farm bill before the old one expired. New England Farmers Union members joined with more than 200 fellow farmers, ranchers and fishermen from across the country in Washington, D.C., Sept. 10-12, 2012, for the National Farmers Union annual Fall Legislative Fly-In. Farmers attended USDA, Senate and House Agriculture Committee, and White House briefings before visiting their congressional delegation offices. The fly-in concluded with a massive Farm Bill Now rally at the Capitol Reflecting Pool.

Father and son team Doug and Olin Hartkopf, from Albion, Maine participated in the fly-in with the support of Organic Valley. Doug and his wife, Linda, operate the Hart-to-Hart dairy farm and educational center. Their son, Olin, graduated this year from the University of Maine, Orono with a double degree in political science and history. He spent the summer working for the Angus King (I-ME) Senate campaign. For Olin, the trip was a culmination of his summer’s political work. “Over the summer I had been following the progress of the farm bill as it made its way through Washington. It was amazing to see the bill passed by the Senate with bi-partisan support and disheartening to see it become a political football in the House. The gridlock was one of the main reasons I felt the need to go to D.C.,” Olin said, “There needs to be more bi-partisanship and the Senate farm bill was a great example of that.”

NEFU fly-in participants met with 30 New England congressional offices to press the case for passing a five-year farm bill. New England farmers, like farmers all across the country, need the certainty of a five-year farm bill. A short-term extension of the 2008 Farm Bill will be a costly and ineffective response to our nation’s drought and the long-term needs of our producers. Any extension is likely to be paid for by taking money from the conservation programs and “that will trickle down and hurt the organic initiative,” Doug said. “I really appreciated the talk from Secretary Vilsack. He really laid it on the line and explained that delaying the farm bill was all about reducing support for agriculture.”

As among the many programs and issues involved in the 1,000 plus page farm bill, the most important to Olin was the need for adequate mandatory funding for renewable energy programs, and to tie conservation compliance to the receipt of federally subsidized crop insurance – as the Senate bill does, but the House Agriculture Committee bill does not. The Energy Title of the farm bill can provide research and funding for on-farm energy conservation and on-farm energy production, such as the anaerobic methane digester installed in Exeter, ME that used Rural Development funds under the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP).
The meeting with Chellie Pingree was by far one of the most memorable. “Chellie Pingree not only represents the congressional district that I am a part of,” Olin says, “but she also has an extensive background of support and involvement in agriculture. She has been a farmer and has strongly supported a local food initiative from her position in Washington, and is someone who I believe has represented farmers and Mainers as a whole rather well.”

“I was struck by how often we met with the member of Congress rather than just staff,” said Doug. “In spite of busy schedules, they will take the time to meet with farmers. I especially enjoyed the meeting with Rosa DeLauro.” (Ranking member of the Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee.) Members of Congress also attended the Farmers Union reception on Tuesday evening. “I was impressed that so many came and I had the chance to speak with Peter Welch (D-VT), Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI),” said Doug.

Taking the time away from the farm to go to Washington was a “tough call,” said Doug. “I decided that the issues were important enough, and I wanted to see how the process worked. I enjoyed meeting other farmers and was amazed that whether you’re farming in Iowa, or Wisconsin or Maine, the issues are the same.”

Both Hartkopfs say that the trip made them more likely to reach out to Congresswoman Pingree and their State’s Senators in the future. “Having a face to put to the name will make it easier to reach out and make them aware of my concerns,” Olin said, “It was a great experience and I look forward to another fly-in.”

To learn more about New England Farmers Union, please go to: www.newenglandfarmersunion.org or call: 413.625.3051.