AS LAWMAKERS, WE are lucky to represent areas that are rich in Maine’s agricultural heritage. All across our districts we have farms of all different shapes and sizes. Some have just started up, others have been in the families for generations. Though we come from different parties and have many issues about which we disagree, we’ve always been proud of the bipartisan work we’ve done together to protect and fight for farms in the state of Maine — particularly dairy farms, which far too often disappear in this state and across the country.
That’s why we were struck by Eliot Cutler’s recent opinion piece in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel that takes legislators like ourselves to task for our bipartisan work to protect Maine dairy farms and our unique dairy stabilization program, which serves as a price support to Maine farmers.
This program is something that so many other states wished they had, and it has been a success since its creation. It, like many other programs, however, is underfunded. Each session since the program has been around, Democratic, Republican and independent lawmakers have checked politics and partisanship at the door to work toward a bipartisan compromise on many aspects of the program, often with input from all sides of the dairy industry. Despite setbacks because of a lack of funding, those on the front line of the issue recognize that the program has weathered financial instability and overcome proposals that call for its complete elimination because lawmakers, farmers and industry advocates understand that finding common ground on this issue is key to its survival.
Cutler’s failure to recognize all of this demonstrated a lack of background, knowledge and understanding about dairy policy in this state that we would expect from a candidate for governor. He ignored years of bipartisan work done by legislators like us and the mounting fiscal problems facing this state.
Making this program a political lightning rod as Cutler did in his opinion piece does not benefit the program or Maine’s struggling dairy industry. It turns neighbor against neighbor. It has been our goal as lawmakers not to make the program about large farms vs. small farms, but rather about preserving a struggling industry and supporting Maine businesses.
Over the years, legislators like ourselves have been guided through discussions about the dairy stabilization program by folks like Russell Libby, John Piotti, business owners, past agricultural commissioners, economists and some of Maine’s hardest working farmers from varying sized farms. Each time, a majority of people sought a middle ground, not wanting to turn one family farm against another family farm.
Once, after a very heated work session, a conversation with Libby in 2008 helped us understand that, regardless of how big or how small a farm may be, in Maine every farmer is linked.
You see, we live in Central Maine and we pass farms of all sizes every day, and they all are part of the economy. They all weave together to make a complex system. They depend on each other, and the businesses that support them will tell you that.
Rather than casting judgments about tough choices we’ve had to make, we invite Cutler to see what it is like at the State House, when emotions are high and the Appropriation Committee members are trying to figure out how to find money, while advocates for many programs, including Maine dairy farmers, are sitting in the room.
It is not easy, and it’s not fair to tell only half the story.
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, is assistant majority leader in the Maine House of Representatives. Rep. Jim Dill, D-Old Town, is House chairman of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. Rep. Dean Cray, R-Palmyra, is ranking minority member of the Agriculture Committee, and Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, also serves on the Agriculture Committee.