2024 Legislative Wrap Up: Where we made progress, and where we must persevere

2024 Legislative Wrap Up: Where we made progress, and where we must persevere

May 30, 2024


Shelley Megquier

Maine is home to over 7,000 farms and tens of thousands of farmers and farm workers who feed our communities, contribute $3.6 billion in annual economic impact to our state’s economy, and steward the landscapes and natural resources our state is known for.

Maine farmers work hard every day to sustain our communities – but when they’re up against high production costs and land prices, pricing constraints, labor challenges, development pressure, and increasingly severe and unpredictable weather – hard work isn’t always enough.

The Second Regular Session of Maine’s 131st Legislature has concluded and we want to share an update on progress made towards our policy priorities – and where we must continue working together to reduce the pressures on Maine’s farmers and farmland.

What were Maine Farmland Trust’s state policy priorities?

Going into the session, Maine Farmland Trust’s top priorities were to:

- Protect Maine’s working farmland and critical agricultural resources

- Promote equitable access to farmland

- Expand agricultural infrastructure investments

We provided testimony on 11 bills and worked hard to get funding for several of MFT’s priority bills, including a few that were carried over from the last legislative session. Our efforts included:

• Building legislative support to strengthen the capacity of publicly-funded farmland protection in Maine

• Pushing for an updated payment structure for Maine’s Dairy Stabilization “Tier” Program that adequately reflects rising costs of production and better supports dairy farmers

• Supporting public investment to grow in-state processing and manufacturing of locally-farmed products

In addition to these priorities, we tracked and supported legislation with the aim to:

• Ensure that agricultural workers in Maine receive the State minimum wage

• Increase affordable workforce housing to alleviate labor challenges for workers and farmers

• Secure more flexible building regulations for agricultural structures like high tunnels

• Restore the rights of the Wabanaki Tribes to self-govern as the first stewards of the land, including farmland

What were the results of this legislative session?

Progress for Maine dairy farmers and greater flexibility for on-farm infrastructure

One of the biggest wins for agriculture this session was securing support for Maine’s dairy farmers as they face rising costs of production that go far above the market prices for milk. In recognition of the Maine Milk Commission’s 2023 Cost of Production Study, the Legislature approved a 25% increase to payments for dairy farmers who participate in the Maine Dairy Stabilization Program, plus $7 million in one-time relief funding. MFT prioritized supporting this bill (LD 2188) and the associated budgetary ask through the appropriations process. The economic viability of our dairy farms allows for vast acres of farmland across the state to stay in agriculture, contributes to the strength of our entire agricultural sector, and supports the vitality of rural communities across the state.

Another success of the session was LD 2053, An Act to Exempt Buildings Used to Cultivate Crops from the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code, which recognizes the increased use of agricultural structures to grow food. This bill allows for larger municipalities to develop flexible and responsive permitting processes for structures like greenhouses and high tunnels, rather than requiring them to adhere to the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code (MUBEC). Agricultural buildings used to house livestock and harvested crops were already exempt from MUBEC. This new law reduces the chance that farmers will run into problems getting temporary structures permitted. Farmers of all sizes and types across Maine are increasingly turning to the construction of greenhouses, high tunnels, and similar plastic-covered structures to protect their crops, extend growing seasons, dramatically increase yields, and expand crop options throughout the year. These structures can boost farm viability and support farms to withstand the increasingly unpredictable conditions that are accompanying climate change in Maine.

Not giving up on farmland protection, processing infrastructure, farm labor, and other priority issues

Unfortunately there were significant challenges to the session and, in the end, hundreds of bills were left unfunded on the Special Appropriations table. Some other bills shifted to cover a more narrow scope or were dropped completely.

Despite strong support, we were disappointed that two of our high-priority bills were unable to progress due to lack of available funding:

LD 579, An Act to Support Farmland Conservation which sought to increase capacity and streamline implementation of the state’s Working Farmland Access and Protection Program to protect Maine’s farmland for current farmers and future generations.  

LD 2212, An Act to Strengthen Maine’s Agriculture, Food System and Forest Products Infrastructure Investment, which would have dedicated funding to grow processing, packaging, distribution, and other infrastructure so that Maine farms and producers can reach more consumers and markets.

We were also disappointed with Governor Mills’ decision to veto LD 2273, An Act to Establish a State Minimum Hourly Wage for Agricultural Workers, a bill that her office introduced and MFT supported – taking efforts to secure a state minimum wage for Maine’s farm workers back to the drawing board. You can learn more here about the concerns that led to the bill being vetoed.

What can you do to grow power for Maine farms?

The bills left on the table will need to be revisited in the next Legislature, along with a great many new bills to be introduced – and you can help.  

Learn how you can get involved throughout the year, and sign up to receive policy updates and action alerts. We’ll keep you in the loop on opportunities to contact your legislators and other actions you can take.

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

We’re stronger when we act together – and we’re not giving up!

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