AUGUSTA — Fred Hardy, a retired dairy farmer from New Sharon, said he’s been opposed merging the state departments of agriculture and conservation from the get-go.

“My biggest concern, in all probability, is that agriculture will lose its identity,” Hardy said. “My suggestion is to have one department for agriculture and one department” for conservation and forestry.

Hardy wasn’t the only concerned voice during a public forum held Tuesday at the Maine Forest Products Council office in Augusta. State officials held the gathering to bring together interest groups for input on reorganization ideas and identify goals “to achieve a viable, land-based economy in the state.”

State law that takes effect Aug. 30 will merge the two offices, creating a new Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. It has 732 full-time and seasonal employees and will have a budget of $96.5 million.

There are no state worker layoffs in the plan, but one commissioner will be eliminated, with a savings in excess of about $100,000. Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb and two deputy commissioners will head the newly merged agency.

Most of those who spoke at the forum Tuesday were executive directors and representatives of Maine’s interest groups.

Tom Doak, executive director of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, said he supported the merger, but hopes the new department continues to provide the necessary resources to deal with the biggest threat to the forestry industry — pests and disease.

James Robbins, president of Robbins Lumber Co. of Searsmont, said a top concern is that foresters won’t lose their ability to consult with the governor’s office.

“They’re bleeding our funds to help other industries,” Robbins said. “I just don’t want to see us go down any lower on the food chain.”

Jon Olson, executive secretary of the Maine Farm Bureau, also offered some suggestions to Whitcomb and Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley, who hosted the forum. Olson said some sections in the department should be changed around, suggesting that the division of plant and animal health be split in two.

Donald White, president of the Maine Forest Products Council, said the merger of conservation and agriculture is making farmers and foresters nervous.

“We’re looking at each other like it’s a first date,” White said. “What’s going on?”

White agreed with others that forestry is viewed more as a regulated industry. He said it would be great if the new department partnered with foresters the same way the agriculture department has partnered with the farming community.

“We’re more alike than not alike,” White said. “The thing that makes us nervous is farmers are loved. In the Legislature when a farmer talks, everybody stops playing with their iPads and listens. Farmers have clout, but we are bigger.”

He said what foresters really want the most is to be left alone.

“We believe in the free market system and don’t want the state to get involved and screw it up,” he said.

Eric Rector of the Maine Cheese Guild said he hopes the new department does a better job supporting dairy farmers. He said dairy processors need a team of agriculture consultants to help them update their business plans. Without milk, he said his members won’t be able to make cheese, and right now the cheese industry is booming.

“You need to look for effective ways to support Maine dairy,” Rector said. “The time to act was 20 years ago, but now is better than never.”

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

[email protected]

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