You can check out my thoughts on the agricultural policies of Mr. LePage and Mr. Cutler in the posts I’m putting up simultaneously with this one about Mr. Michaud. Here I hope to shed light on candidate Michaud’s stances on these issues, from the standpoint of a local food nut, particularly regarding how his food and agriculture policies would affect other areas were he empowered to enact them by the voters of our fine state.
Unlike Mr. LePage, Mr. Michaud’s campaign website does have a heading, and a subsequent webpage dedicated to food and farming/fishing. This was an encouraging discovery after finding no such heading on the current governor’s page. But I don’t invite people to the table to break bread just because they have a local food t-shirt on. After all, anyone can jump on a trendy bandwagon. The question is, where does the bandwagon take them?
In Mr. Michaud’s case you get a very clear idea about the direction of his bandwagon from the very first words on his farms and fisheries webpage. “Making Maine The Food Basket Of New England”. Like ‘vote with your fork’ this food basket of New England nonsense is one of the catch phrases you’ll hear if you spend even a few moments around us farming types. Indeed, I’ve used the phrase myself in many a discussion about farming and food production, but that was before it became nonsense. As a point of interest the phrase began as ‘Maine was once the bread basket of New England”. And this is actually true. We used to derive a lot more state income from agriculture you know, back in the day. Indeed, certain Maine crops were once in very high demand and fetched good money. Maine farmers used to ship apples all the way to England to be traded there and throughout Europe. More importantly, we used to feed ourselves.
The idea behind this food basket thing, at least as I use the phrase, is to encourage people to understand that Maine used to not only feed itself but also produce enough to export throughout the northeast and abroad. The point of this conversation, when I have it, is that we can feed ourselves again.
If this is what Mr. Michaud means when he says Maine can be the food basket of New England, great. But I worry he means it more literally. What this proves, if nothing else, is that he doesn’t believe in global warming. How did I arrive at that conclusion? Well, New England is a pretty big place. In order for farms in Maine to feed people in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, we need a way to get all that food from here to there. That means interstate transportation. That means fossil fuels. Lots and lots of fossil fuels. There is no way around this if you want farms in Maine providing food to people outside of Maine. The planet’s climate is changing in such a way that putting effort and money into expanding markets far from the point of production is literally insane. Not to mention that it will exacerbate climate change, which is making it harder and harder to farm in the first place. Vicious cycle anyone?
Another problem with Maine feeding people in other states is that it guarantees higher levels of involvement by the federal government. This is one of the biggest concerns plaguing the local food movement across the country but particularly here in Maine which is the birthplace of the Local Food and Community Self Governance Ordinance. This is why it is so confusing when Mr. Michaud’s website says he wants “improved state control of food safety regulations”. This is the type of sentence that will appeal to those of us who hate federal interference in intrastate commerce…but only if we aren’t thinking. If farmers want to sell across state lines (which it appears Mr. Michaud wants to encourage) then they should expect to deal with the federal government. However, the federal, and by proxy our state, government regulate everything as though it were crossing state lines. If we want to base our agriculture policy on markets across New England then we will see this cozy fed/state relationship increase. Unless Mr. Michaud wants to change that and wrestle control of intrastate commerce from the feds. Please raise your hand if you actually believe that will happen. Seeing none…
Finally, I’m a huge, huge fan of helping people who need it. To that end I try to donate as much of my produce as possible. But I also firmly believe in the old proverb, ‘charity begins at home’. For instance, I only donate food because I have ensured that my family will never be without it. It’s one of the many benefits of being a micro-scale diversified farmer. Neither I, nor anyone in my family will ever be hungry. But if we were you can bet I wouldn’t be sending my produce off the farm and down the road, even to make money. My kids eat first and you can’t eat money. That’s the policy Maine should take as a state.
According to data from the USDA and other agencies (available at the Good Shepherd Food Bank website) Maine is in no position to be looking for markets outside its borders, particularly in New England. Maine has 200,000 people who can’t get enough to eat. We rank first in New England in food insecurity, child food insecurity and senior citizen food insecurity.
Granted, donating our produce doesn’t do a lot to help farmers’ bottom lines. So what of the people who can get plenty to eat but are getting it from California, Argentina, China and elsewhere? Charity begins at home but so should buying.
If we’re going to use tax dollars to increase market share for Maine farmers (which is a wonderful idea by the way based solely on the principle of return on investment, already a number with a ‘b’ in it) then lets kill two birds with one stone and increase local purchases by Maine eaters. Maine’s population is over 1.3 million. That’s a HUGE market! But only a tiny fraction of a fraction of that number is shopping at farmer’s markets, local co-ops and farm stands and nearly zero supermarkets make local food a priority. There are significant reasons (nearly all false) these problems exist, as I’ve addressed in other posts. Most importantly for this discussion many of those false reasons could be easily addressed through the substantial power afforded to the governor and state government.
On the positive side Mr. Michaud has several people I very much respect advising him on these matters, John Bunker, John Piotti, Jim Gerritsen and David Gulak just to name a few. These are the type of people who are looking out for Maine farmers and Maine eaters.
These are the types of people who have contributed to many of the good ideas I see on candidate Michaud’s website including the expansion of food hubs (though how he plans to expand privately funded food hubs is beyond me, expanding the market for local food in schools and other institutions and ensuring the protection of Maine farmland and working waterfront. Personally, however I am unsure if there are enough of these sensible people on his advisory committee to balance those who oppose them and the outside interests tugging at Mr. Michaud’s ear. Local food. Eat well – be well.