MFT’s 2023 State Legislative Session Report

MFT’s 2023 State Legislative Session Report

August 17, 2023


Kristina Buckley

The state legislative session has ended and we are grateful for all that was accomplished in support of Maine farms!

We provided testimony to legislative committees on 26 different bills related to our mission and worked directly with legislators to ensure that important bills received the support needed to be signed into law. With support from farmers, community members, and partners, we’re glad to report back on some important progress towards ensuring that:

1. Maine’s essential farmland is protected

2. Farmers have the tools and resources they need to grow and sustain robust, resilient businesses

3. Infrastructure needed for a vibrant local and regional food system is strengthened

Please read on for more detail about each of these policy priorities as well as a few others that emerged and took shape during the session.

If you helped us advocate for Maine farms – thank you, your voice and participation make a difference!

1. Protecting and Stewarding Maine’s Farmland

Protecting and stewarding farmland ensures that Maine has the land base to grow our agricultural economy, particularly as more farmers reach retirement age and development pressures continue to increase across the state.

We supported balanced solar siting legislation that established needed parameters to ensure that solar energy projects are built in locations that avoid or minimize agricultural and natural resources impacts.

An Act to Promote Economic Reuse of Contaminated Land Through Clean Energy Development (LD 1591) was signed into law in June 2023 and introduced new measures to promote redevelopment of land with significant PFAS contamination for renewable energy, such as solar. This bill provides additional options to landowners of contaminated land and allows them to realize value from land that may need to be restricted from farming for years to come. By opening a competitive solicitation that gives preference to projects proposed on contaminated land, this new policy also helps Maine progress towards its renewable energy goals without compromising valuable agricultural land or other natural resources.

An Act Regarding Compensation Fees and Related Conservation Efforts to Protect Soils and Wildlife and Fisheries Habitat from Solar and Wind Energy Development and High-impact Electric Transmission Lines Under the Site Location of Development Laws (LD 1881) was signed into law in July 2023. We strongly supported this bill based on our understanding that Maine’s best farmland is a limited resource and should be reserved for current and future agricultural production.

The implications of LD 1881 for solar development on agricultural land are significant:

  • Proposed solar development projects of more than 5 acres located wholly or partially on high-value farmland will need to be permitted by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry (DACF) before being allowed to proceed. Until now, DACF did not have a role in permitting renewable energy projects and agricultural land was not included in the list of natural resources protected under site law. The term “high-value agricultural land” is going to be defined by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry (DACF) in the coming months.
  • Developers of permitted solar energy projects over 20 acres on high-value agricultural land will be required to pay conservation compensation or mitigation fees for impacts to affected lands. Revenue generated will be used to support farmland protection efforts.

An Act to Balance Renewable Energy Development with Natural and Working Lands Conservation (LD 1227) was introduced and received strong support this session but, ultimately, was not funded so will carry forward to the next session in hopes of being funded. LD 1227 would have established a dual-use energy pilot program in Maine as well as the creation of a public database of permitted and constructed energy facilities. Both proposed actions were derived from recommendations within the Ag Solar Stakeholder Group’s final report.

2. Equipping Farmers with the Tools and Support They Need

Maine needs to ensure its farmers have the tools they need to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change. We supported funding for the Maine Healthy Soils Program, a program of which MFT helped to champion the creation, as well as for the Farmers Drought Relief Grant Program. Funding for both programs were included in the Governor’s proposed biennial budget and funded through the Appropriations process. Unfortunately, neither program was funded at the levels needed to allow for robust implementation:

  • the Maine Healthy Soils Program received $1.5 million.
  • the Farmers Drought Relief Grant Program received $1 million.

Though this funding is less than desired, it will help to lay some groundwork for additional future investment. Funds for both programs must be transferred to the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry accounts on or before June 30, 2024.

3. Strengthening Food Systems Infrastructure

An Act to Strengthen Maine’s Agriculture, Food, and Forest Economy (LD 1670) was signed into law with a $500,000 funding allocation that will allow for expanded infrastructure investments in the state’s agriculture, food and forest products sectors. This boost to in-state agricultural processing and infrastructure capacity is critical to helping farmers grow and diversify their businesses and to supporting local and regional supply chain development.

An Act to Implement the Recommendations of the Working Group on Custom Slaughterhouses (LD 1767) passed and was signed into law. It will allow universities to provide education and training on meat processing and provides one-time funds for Cooperative Extension education regarding meat and poultry processing.

Other important efforts:

An Act to Provide Emergency Aid to Dairy Farmers Affected by the Crisis in Production Costs (LD 384) was signed into law and provides $500,000 to dairy farmers who sell milk for shipment. This funding is in addition to $1,500,000 allocated by the Governor earlier in the legislative session and in the final budget approved by the legislature. MFT enthusiastically supported these efforts due the economic challenges being faced by Maine’s dairies in the face of dramatic increases in grain and energy costs, a decreased labor pool, and supply chain disruptions. We argued that it is critical that financial relief for Maine dairies reaches farmers as soon as possible to rectify income losses they have already incurred and for financial losses that are ongoing. Relief is needed to keep Maine dairy farmers in business until Tier program payments can be adjusted for inflation.

MFT spoke out in support of An Act to Make Agricultural Workers and Other Related Workers Employees Under the Wage and Hour Law (LD 398) and encouraged lawmakers to support the amended version of the bill and for the Governor to sign the bill into law. MFT shared some reservations about the original version of the bill due to its inclusion of overtime pay provisions for farmworkers and the viability challenges that would create for some farm businesses, particularly those in industries with short harvest windows. However, we viewed the amended version guaranteeing many agricultural workers the right to receive state minimum wage for their work as a good faith compromise. The Governor vetoed this bill in July 2023 based on concerns from the agricultural community about unintended consequences and issued an Executive Order to establish a formal stakeholder group. The stakeholder group is tasked with meeting regularly over the next several months to develop legislation to implement a minimum wage for agricultural workers and to identify and understand the full range of secondary impacts of such a change. We are invested in an outcome that benefits the longevity of farms and farmworkers alike, and look forward to opportunities to collaborate on solutions as the work on this issue continues.

What next?

MFT is gearing up for the next state legislative session which will begin in early January 2024 and run through April 2024. Want to get involved? Sign up to receive policy updates and action alerts.

Are you a farmer interested in joining MFT to create policy change? Share your priorities and get involved.

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