AUGUSTA — Where Walt Whitcomb comes from, people know what it means when the cows are out.
Although the area has lost some of its farming character over the years, there’s still a neighborly spirit when it comes to spying stray livestock, he said.
“Interestingly, as MBNA and now Bank of America developed in the Belfast area, they’ll have a late shift that will get out at midnight or 1 a.m. because they’ve been talking to folks on the West Coast,” Whitcomb said. “And more than one night, they’ve come knocking on doors saying, ‘You’ve got a cow out on the road.’ So we hurry out and try to get it in.”
Whitcomb, Maine’s new commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, grew up on, and still owns, a dairy farm in Waldo, between Newport and Belfast.
Whitcomb, 58, said he always knew he would take up the family business.
“It was perhaps a factor of growing up around it, but it’s always been sort of a passion as well as a comfortable activity,” said Whitcomb, who graduated from Mount View High School in 1970 and earned a degree in animal science from the University of Maine.
Whitcomb’s family farm milks 150 to 180 Jersey and Guernsey cows and sells breeding stock, calves and veal to in-state buyers. Its evolution mirrors that of many Maine farming success stories. Beginning with his grandparents, each generation found a way to grow and adapt to the changing landscape, using resourcefulness to maintain the agricultural livelihood.
His grandparents milked at most a dozen cows, Whitcomb said, but his grandfather also sold potatoes and his grandmother made butter.
“It was just the typical do-everything farm,” he said. “In the old days, they were diversified. When the railroad came through that area, they and the other farms there began to sell cream, and it went on to Boston.”
Whitcomb’s parents later purchased the land next to his grandparents and began their own farm with five cows. At times, the sheep outnumbered the cows; and at others, they had a lot of laying hens. His mother helped take over his grandparents’ produce route, though eventually it fell by the wayside.
“You take eggs and vegetables to town, you deliver them house to house, and that was where we got a lot of our grocery money and egg money growing up, was the Friday egg route,” he said. “I think with the advent of supermarkets and sort of this fresh produce and those things, it was easier for people to just go get it somewhere and it was relatively inexpensive; and so as we grew up, why, we gave that up and went on to doing other things.”
After Whitcomb spent a few post-college years in Illinois working as a traveling representative for the national Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity, he came home in 1979 and bought his grandparents’ land.
Now, with Whitcomb occupied by the agriculture commissioner’s job, his two daughters, Carrie and Holly, who both studied dairy science at Cornell University, have taken over running the farm, as has his 87-year-old mother, Lois.
“She’s very much involved. She does some of the chores and takes care of the little baby animals morning and night,” he said. Whitcomb and his wife, Nancy, also have a son, Joel, who lives in Boston.
Those who know Whitcomb, a Republican, say his mix of experience in government and in the agricultural industry make him the perfect choice as agriculture commissioner. He spent 12 years in the Legislature, from 1984 to 1996, serving as House minority leader for the last half of his tenure. He also helped oversee U.S. Department of Agriculture programs in Maine from 2000 to 2008 as chairman of the Maine Farm Service Agency.
“From the farm end, from the legislative end and promoting agriculture in the state of Maine in his current post, he deserves to be where he’s at,” said Bill Bennett, president of Oakhurst Dairy. “He’s a guy with great standing in the industry.”
Whitcomb also spent from 2007 to 2010 lobbying Congress to push for a national milk pricing system aimed at reducing industry volatility.
Amos Orcutt, president and CEO of the University of Maine Development Foundation, who is also a member of Whitcomb’s fraternity, said he is patient and thoughtful, with a lot of character.
Dave Tuttle, who owns Riverside Farm Stand in Berwick, served as vice chairman of the Maine Farm Service Agency alongside Whitcomb. The two formed a close bond.
“Dairy has been his life, but he really has an open mind to all different aspects of agriculture, because he’s dealt with it,” he said.
Tuttle said Whitcomb has common sense and is eager to grow his knowledge base about the diverse agency he now leads.
“He’s a hands-on type of guy; he’s not going to sit in his office,” Tuttle said. “He wants to travel the state a lot because he wants to learn more and talk with people, and that’s how you learn and find out what’s going on in the state.”
Whitcomb said he’s been impressed with what he’s seen and heard so far, from meetings with groups such as the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, blueberry producers in Washington County and potato growers in Aroostook County.
“There are good people doing great things, and it’s spread across the state,” he said.
Some of the biggest challenges facing members of Maine’s agricultural community are also those facing other business owners, Whitcomb added.
“It’s very difficult to paint everybody with the same brush, except in the overall business climate,” he said. “Can we lower some costs statewide? Can we have any luck with (lowering) the electrical costs and the food costs and so forth?”
Whitcomb said Gov. Paul LePage, who nominated him, wants the department to provide as much help to farmers as possible and listen to what they say their needs are.
“The governor’s focus is to help improve the business climate, and he clearly considers agriculture to be business entities; and to the extent that we can provide services to MOFGA or any other folks, that’s what our charge is to do,” he said, acknowledging that department goals would have to be accomplished with a lean work force.
“Whether people are there yet or not, the government isn’t going to get bigger. It just plain isn’t,” Whitcomb said. “And as we downsize, we’ve just got to be more efficient, just like the farms have to be.”
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat representing Maine’s 1st District, said Whitcomb possesses the kind of experience and vision necessary to lead Maine’s agricultural community into the future.
Pingree and Whitcomb served in overlapping districts when she was a state senator and he was a state representative.
“Even though he comes out of a dairy farming background, he’s not somebody who’s going to think that our state is going to thrive based on one commodity. I think he understands that there’s a bright future out there for agriculture in Maine,” she said in an interview.
Waldo County serves as a great example of Maine’s changing agricultural landscape, Pingree said, and Whitcomb has had a front-row seat. Over the past 30 or 40 years, the ranks of local dairy farmers have shrunk, only to be replaced by young farmers making profits by selling produce at farmer’s markets or making goat cheese, she said.
“That’s one of the good things about having him in that position, because he is willing to think about the future and just anxious to preserve agriculture and farming in Maine, not to hang on to the old ways,” said Pingree, who also serves on the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture.
Though Whitcomb readily admits the challenges of his job, he remains excited about the future.
“When you’re in this industry for a lifetime, like I’ve been, you’re an optimist. You have to be prepared for times that aren’t so good and some times that are better,” he said. “This is an industry that’s going to be here. We’re going to eat. We’ve got a great chance in Maine.”
Rebekah Metzler — 620-7016