Two of the three leading candidates for governor outlined their agricultural policies on Tuesday to the Agricultural Council of Maine, a group that represents more than 30 local agriculture associations, commodity groups and businesses.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud said he would work hand-in-hand with the agricultural community to fulfill his vision of making Maine the food basket of New England, while independent Eliot Cutler said he’d use his private business experience to open up export markets to local producers.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage did not participate in the public forum, held at the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine headquarters in Augusta, because of a late scheduling conflict. Instead, he met with a smaller group of board members Tuesday morning, where he stressed the need to reduce energy costs for farmers.

During that meeting, LePage said he would “absolutely” support extending to farmers a tax exemption for off-road diesel fuel currently offered to commercial fishermen as a way to reduce costs, according to Alex Willette, his campaign spokesman.

Cutler said he would “probably not” support the exemption but “could be persuaded otherwise,” while Michaud said he would first need to know the cost.

The pitches were made to a group that claims to represents about 10,000 people. About 50 people were in attendance for the public forums.

Candidates acknowledged agriculture’s growing — and important — role in the future of Maine’s economy, especially in providing employment opportunities in rural Maine.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Maine had 8,174 farms and roughly 1.46 million acres of farmland in 2012. That’s 38 more farms and roughly 107,730 acres more than it had in 2007. The average size of each farm increased to 178 acres from 166 acres.

Pastureland saw the biggest increase, at 32 percent, while cropland declined by 10 percent, according to the census.

Both Michaud and Cutler, who were given nearly an hour to speak and answer questions, expressed their support for investing in infrastructure important to farmers, including roads, cellphone service and food hubs, where food can be processed and stored.

Both promised to review burdensome regulations. Cutler said he would establish an “Office of Grim Repealer,” while Michaud said he would establish a “high-level advisory group” to weigh in on agricultural issues.

Meanwhile, LePage, whose environmental policies are the target of a $400,000 ad campaign by the Maine League of Conservation Voters, said he was “all in” on agriculture and a “big proponent” of soil and water conservation, according to Willette.

Michaud’s campaign released an 11-point plan for improving agriculture on Tuesday. However, Michaud stuck to the basics of his agricultural proposal that were unveiled in February, including encouraging more state entities, such as schools, to use more local produce.

Michaud said conservation is key to protecting farmland from development pressures, keeping it affordable to farmers.

He also said that he would like to work with the Public Utilities Commission to reduce the electricity rates for dairy farmers during peak hours, when they milk their cows.

“Farming is a centerpiece of my economic plan,” Michaud said. “In me, each and every one of you will have a partner and a strong advocate.”

Cutler said the state needs to do more to develop a brand and open up export markets where Maine products can fetch premium prices — whether it’s selling lobsters in China or tomatoes in New York.

Cutler also called for the creation of a magnet school at the University of Maine at Presque Isle that could introduce young Mainers to agriculture as a possible career.

Cutler said new ideas are needed to move Maine forward. He said the economy has retracted in the 11 years — eight years under a Democratic governor and more than three years under a Republican — since fellow independent Angus King was governor.

King now represents Maine in the U.S. Senate. He endorsed Cutler for governor last week.

“It’s time for boldness. It’s time for innovation,” Cutler said “We’re not going to solve our problems if we replace something that isn’t working today with something that didn’t work before and that got us into this mess in the first place.”

Michaud said he would support both large and small farms, saying both can “co-exist.”

However, Cutler repeatedly hit Michaud for taking special interest money from agricultural giant Monsanto and for voting for a bill that would have prevented businesses such as Oakhurst Dairy from labeling its products as GMO-free.

Cutler said he would be “unbought and unbossed” by special interest groups. He also would not support policies by groups that have “bought access.”

LePage’s willingness to extend the fuel tax exemption to farmers impressed farmers such as Anne Kennedy, who operates an 80-acre sheep and wool farm in Knox County, but it wasn’t enough to win her support.

Parkinson Mino, who runs the 40-acre Happynest Farm in Dover-Foxcroft, said he needed more information to decide whom to support.

“We are going to need some leadership on these agricultural issues,” Pino said.

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