A massive, multi-year farm bill headed to President Trump’s desk contains provisions that could benefit Maine’s growing agricultural sector, including increased federal funding for research and grant programs used locally.

In a blip of bipartisanship before the new Congress takes office, Democrats and Republicans in both chambers worked together this week to pass the $867 billion bill, which has been in the works for several years. The bill sets policies and funding levels not only for agricultural programs – including controversial crop subsidies – but also for welfare programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. The measure also proposes billions of dollars to upgrade broadband infrastructure nationwide, a major priority for underserved areas of rural Maine.

All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation – Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin – touted aspects of the final product, even if they disagreed with some provisions of the bill.

Pingree, D-1st District, said there were no “revolutionary changes” to major policies in this year’s bill. “But we did well in the kinds of programs that benefit Maine,” said Pingree, who owns an organic farm and inn on North Haven island.

Provisions highlighted by members of the state’s congressional delegation include:

• Up to $50 million in dedicated annual funding for organic farming research.

• Up to $350 million per year (compared with $25 million annually in the current farm bill) to help deploy high-speed, broadband internet services in rural areas.

• Creation of a “Next Generation in Agriculture” program to assist young or beginning farmers, which could help in Maine where the number of farms and young farmers is growing.

• $80 million per year in grants to support farmers markets, farm-to-retail marketing, agritourism and other programs.

• Legalization of the production of hemp nationwide. While hemp production is already legal in Maine, hemp farmers still faced federal restrictions on sales, transportation, marketing, banking and other issues.

• Additional support for research and development of “cross-laminated timber” and other engineered wood in construction, a provision that could help companies in Maine.

“With some of the most expansive and dependable working forests in the nation, Maine is America’s wood basket,” outgoing Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, said in a written statement. “Generations of hardworking Mainers have made their living in this industry. I’m proud to strongly support our wood products workers and allow for continued research into technologies that will help the industry grow and prosper for our next generation.”

Delegation members and representatives of Maine’s agricultural sector said the farm bill also was notable for the items it excluded.

After months of debate, House Republicans agreed to drop language that would have imposed new work requirements and other restrictions on food stamp recipients. Maine’s rate of food stamp use is among the highest in the nation.

Negotiators also deleted language that could have restricted or nullified local control over food and pesticides.

So-called “food sovereignty” is a major issue in nearly two dozen towns across Maine that have enacted local ordinances allowing local governments to regulate farmer-to-consumer transactions. Also, many Maine towns have imposed stricter pesticide-use regulations. The language originally included in the House version of the bill would have required states or local governments to allow the sale or production of “any agricultural product” legal under federal law.

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association was pleased with the elimination of language that could have prohibited local-control of pesticides. MOFGA also praised farm bill provisions on cost-sharing for organic certification, the beginning-farmers program and other initiatives aimed at supporting the organic industry. But MOFGA officials said they were “deeply disturbed” by changes on the federal National Organic Standards Board that helps set policies on keeping toxic substances out of organic production.

Overall, MOFGA called the farm bill “a mixed bag.”

“This farm bill represents a significant step forward for organic agriculture in multiple arenas and is a good first step,” Sarah Alexander, MOFGA’s executive director, said in a written statement. “The bill also includes increased support to assist beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers, provisions that improve land access for future generations, and expansion of local and regional markets critical to organic producers. Much more can be done, however, to advance policies that benefit family farms, communities, health, the environment and the changing climate.”

Maine’s maple syrup producers, meanwhile, will likely be pleased that the final version of the farm bill exempts maple syrup from having to feature an “added sugar” label on the nutritional panel. Members of Congress from throughout maple-producing New England states fought hard against the labeling requirement for single-ingredient sweeteners,

“This common-sense provision, which mirrors an amendment I secured in the agriculture funding bill, will prevent the harmful consequences the FDA’s labeling rule would have had on Maine’s maple syrup and honey producers,” Collins said in a written statement. “Although the FDA’s rule was well-intentioned, it would have created widespread consumer confusion and negatively affected many family-owned businesses.”

Both Collins and Pingree serve on their respective chambers’ appropriations committees, which make the final decisions on how much funding individual programs receive.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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