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To support local farmers, Legislature should stick with food hubs

Posted April 29, 2014, at 12:13 p.m.
Last modified April 29, 2014, at 2:08 p.m.

Last week, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed LD 1431, a bill that could help small farms gain new markets and move more local farm products into Maine schools. The bill passed the Legislature with overwhelming support — and for good reason. It responds directly to both great need and great opportunity. Lawmakers will have a chance to override LePage’s veto on Thursday.

After decades of decline, farming in Maine is growing and poised to blossom. From 2002 to 2012, the number of farms in Maine grew by 13.5 percent; from just 2007 to 2012, the value of Maine’s agricultural production increased by 24 percent.

Maine could grow far more food, feeding itself and helping to feed New England. The state boasts abundant land, plentiful water, handy access to good markets and great farmers — including many beginning farmers who want to farm here. But those fundamentals alone are not enough for agriculture here to thrive. Despite great promise, farming in Maine also faces many challenges.

One of those challenges is addressed by LD 1431, which would provide modest, yet critically needed, grants to help entrepreneurs explore the feasibility of so-called “food hubs.” A food hub pools products from multiple farms. This is often the only practical way that small farms can sell their products wholesale.

To understand the importance of food hubs, it’s necessary to understand what’s happened in Maine agriculture in the last 15 years. During this period, Maine has seen rapid growth in smaller, diversified farms that sell directly through farmers markets, farm stands and community-supported agriculture programs. Some of these farms now want to expand modestly, to increase efficiency and be able to sell at least some products wholesale.

That’s good news if we are serious about getting more Mainers to eat locally — because the majority of consumers are going to get most of their food from supermarkets and institutions (entities that principally buy wholesale), not from direct retail venues like farmers markets.

One reason small farms cannot easily enter wholesale markets on their own is that the federal rules governing farm products that flow to supermarkets or institutions are becoming increasingly complex and burdensome. Another reason is that many wholesale buyers will simply not work with small farms.

Food hubs create opportunities for farms that would not otherwise exist. Food hubs also create new opportunities for consumers because they can move more local farm products to where people actually get their food. LD 1431 focuses in particular on helping get more local food into Maine’s public schools.

All food hubs are not created equal. In a sense, every distributor or processor operating within the global food system could be viewed as a food hub, in that it pools products from multiple farms. But as the term is generally used, it refers to operations that are specifically designed in service to local farms. In fact, LD 1431 only provides support to food hubs where the principal benefits will flow back to participating farmers, where no existing farm will be hurt and where there is a demonstrated benefit to Maine’s economy that surpasses the state’s investment.

It’s a well-structured bill. I applaud its sponsor, Sen. Chris Johnson, and all 13 members of the Agriculture Committee, who worked together to create a solid initiative that fully deserved the overwhelming bipartisan support the Legislature gave it.

In his veto, LePage said that this bill is not needed, suggesting that if food hubs make sense, the marketplace will create them on their own. But anyone who knows the history of farming in Maine knows that the marketplace, more often than not, does not create value for the farmers. Just ask the dairy farmers, who are often paid less than their cost of production, or the Aroostook potato farmers, whose margins today are a fraction of what they were a generation ago.

A few pioneering entrepreneurs have created new food hubs that serve local farms without any state support. But that is simply a sign that opportunity exists; it shouldn’t be seen as an indication that the state has no role to play. To date, the development of new food hubs has been modest and uneven — exactly what one would expect, given the unknown terrain and the fact that no business that is designed primarily to serve farms is going to make anyone rich. By supporting feasibility work and business planning, as LD 1431 would do, Maine can make a smart investment in the future.

Simply put, food hubs are needed if we want to see farming in Maine continue to grow. With LD 1431, Maine has a chance to take an important step to support local farms and get better food to consumers — notably schoolchildren. It’s the right thing to do.

John Piotti is president and CEO of Maine Farmland Trust.

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