January 7, 2011
Dear Gov. Paul LePage and the 125th Maine Legislature,
Next week the Maine Department of Agriculture is hosting its 70th Maine Agricultural Trades Show. The anniversary is an opportunity to celebrate and honor the contributions of Maine’s farmers, farm workers, and the countless people working to make agriculture a viable way to earn a living in Maine. It is also an opportunity to reflect on the changes in agriculture over the last 70 years and assess the impacts of those changes.
Over the last seven decades Maine’s rural economies have come to resemble that of so many poor countries throughout the world that have had their economies taken over by multinational corporations, Structural Adjustment Programs, and free trade agreements like NAFTA. Today Maine as a state is largely an exporter of raw materials, commodities, and some luxury goods, and an importer of our basic essentials, including nearly all our food.
How has this come to be? How were our rural economies transformed from productive and largely self-sufficient to impoverished and heavily dependent on state and federal aid programs? Why is it easier for multinational corporations to sell food in our communities than it is for our local farms and farm-based businesses?
Two themes that have pervaded agricultural policy over the last 70 years are largely responsible for the decline – failed rural development policies based on the principle of “get big or get out”; and the consolidation of the entire food supply chain into the hands of a very small number of powerful multinational corporations. Both have led to low prices and fewer markets for farmers, increased debt, and are responsible for the disappearance of millions of farms and farm families from the rural landscape.
While long-range changes are needed, immediate action must be taken in support of Maine’s remaining family farms to stem the further decline of Maine’s rural communities. As such, Food for Maine’s Future and the undersigned call on the 125th Maine Legislature and the Governor’s office to take the following measures:
Enact an immediate moratorium on farm foreclosures.
Corporate concentration has driven up input costs and driven down prices for farmers. The USDA and Department of Justice have recently concluded a series of public hearings looking into the effect of corporate concentration in agriculture. Maine’s farmers who find themselves unable to break even should not be punished for external market forces that may be the result of violations of anti-trust law or bad public policy. A moratorium should last at least one year from the release of the USDA/DOJ findings for the review of the report and for farmers to seek compensation should there be a determination of illegal activity.
Conduct an inquiry into how corporate concentration and free trade has impacted Maine farmers, including the ability of small-scale farms to compete fairly in their local markets and the fairness of commodity contracts.
U.S. subsidies primarily benefit agribusiness corporations like Cargill, General Mills, and Smithfield who are legally allowed to pay for their inputs below the cost of production. In other words, when General Mills buys corn or wheat for their breakfast cereals they pay less than what it cost the farmer to grow it. This in turn allows them to spend millions on advertising budgets, lobbying elected officials, and placing their tax-supported products in grocery stores and rural markets everywhere.
In the case of Smithfield, they not only take advantage of subsidized feedstock for their pork empire, but they also benefit from free trade. Since NAFTA, Smithfield has moved much of their operation to Mexico where they utilize the skilled labor of displaced farmers, lax environmental standards, and tariff-free exports to flood U.S. markets with cheap pork. This undercuts Maine producers who have higher standards and charge the true cost of their food.
Provide assurances that Maine farms, cottage-scale food processors, and cooperative food buying clubs will not be subjected to the harsh law enforcement tactics being used in other parts of the U.S.
We are particularly concerned with what appears to be a coordinated national crack-down on raw milk dairies in the U.S., as well as food buying clubs. Armed police have burst into homes and private warehouses, holding people at gun point while their food is confiscated. Videos available on the internet show the extreme lengths being gone to in the name of “food safety”.
Here in Maine we have an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild our rural economies and strengthen our communities through food and farming. But it will take courageous leaders willing to challenge the powerful interests that have taken control of the food supply to their profit and at our expense. We hope this Administration and the 125th Legislature will join us both as leaders and as executors of public will.
Food for Maine’s Future
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