Amanda Beal, Gov. Janet Mills’ nominee to head the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, will be busy on all fronts.

Beal will have to help restart conservation efforts after eight years in which it was not a priority for the Blaine House. She’ll have to guide state policy in support of the resurgent forest products industry.

And Beal will be at the helm during a critical time in Maine agriculture.

On that last count, she doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. Beal, who spent the last two-plus years as president and CEO of Maine Farmland Trust and served on the board of directors at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, was one of the authors of the “New England Food Vision.”

Released in 2014, the 48-page report looks 50 years into the future and imagines a time when New England produces half of its own food — and does so in a way that lifts up the rural economy, protects the environment, and feeds the hungry.

It is a bold vision, and one Maine should follow.

Maine plays a key role in the “New England Food Vision.” Using 5 percent of its land, the region produces about 12 percent of the food it consumes. To produce half its food, about 15 percent of land would have to be in food production — and most of the available farmland is right here in Maine.

Maine farming is heading in the right direction. Young farmers have been setting up shop, and land once used for agriculture is being reclaimed. But the industry faces challenges now that inhibit growth.

Maine agriculture is largely made up of many small producers who do well in selling their goods directly to consumers, such as through farm stands and farmers markets. Real growth requires that many of these small producers scale up, and many of them want to do so.

But growing, packaging and selling your product is more than a full-tme job for these small businesses, and it can be difficult to find the time, expertise and capital to ramp up production. It can be hard to connect to the necessary markets, or to the processors who can take raw goods and add value.

State policy can help. It can encourage cooperatives that allow small producers to come together gain power, and perhaps — as one Harvard study recommends — build a dedicated agriculture business accelerator program that helps producers find investors and develop business plans. It can clear the way for workforce development so producers and processors have the workers they need. It can push for more widespread use of local foods.

This is, of course, not all on Beal’s shoulders. If confirmed as commissioner, she’ll have to build a strong team that can work well with legislators from all backgrounds, and help coordinate the efforts of the state’s various food-related trade groups.

Gov. Mills should put farm and food policy out front, too, so that Mainers grasp its importance. And state leaders will have to push for changes in federal law, where so much of food policy is made.

The seeds have been planted for a bright future in Maine agriculture, but they have to tended the right way.

It’s time to think about what the industry should be like in 10, 20 and 50 years, and then push in that direction. It’s time to think big.


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