By Jon Harker - transcript from Maine AGCOM Maines Eye View of Agriculture A Virtual Tour for Maine's Policymakers 2021
The 1980’s were a turbulent time for Maine agriculture. There was development pressure and increasing cost of production, and a generational shift with new back-to-the-landers and homesteaders entering the state. There was an increase in the environmental movement with more pressure on farmers with their use of chemicals and pesticides. Farmers also faced a total reorganization of the Department of Agriculture, with the Department trying to be more marketing proactive but also with more regulatory control, especially with pesticides. Big changes were also occurring at the traditional schools of Ag Engineering and Science at the University of Maine and they were being replaced with environmental studies and sustainable agriculture programs. Understandably, farmers were becoming more frustrated with these changes.
Adrian Wadsworth from the Maine Endowment for Research Extension and Teaching, Jon Olson from Maine Farm Bureau, Bill Bell from Maine Association Conservation Districts, and John Harker from the Department of Agriculture sat down in 1989 to strategize how we could get more farmer input into these changes. Bill suggested we form a council similar to the New York Council of Ag Organizations and with that, AGCOM was born. A Board of Incorporators were convened, bylaws were written up, and the corporation was formed on May 11, 1990. Sixteen statewide organizations and a number of other organizations and individuals joined the original group of AGCOM. The Maine Farm Bureau, made up of the largest organization of farmers in the state, was a major supporter of AGCOM by passing a resolution supporting it and allowing it to be housed at the Maine Farm Bureau offices. The goals of Maine AGCOM were to develop a united effort on agricultural issues, to enhance communications amongst the agricultural organizations, and to provide leadership on issues affecting Maine agriculture. While AGCOM would become the major networking and communication tool for farmers, the legislative efforts were still up to Maine Farm Bureau and the individual commodity organizations.
One of the problems was how to deal with divergent views on various issues, especially on pesticide use. The members decided, in the end, to only advocate and lobby for AGCOM bills if there was a unanimous decision amongst the group, otherwise the group would continue to network and communicate and each individual organization would advocate on its own. One of the unique aspects of AGCOM was the fact that they allowed the other federal and state organizations to come in as associate members; in this way there could be better communication about the various programs and feedback to those governmental organizations. One of the first orders of business was to list out all the areas of concern that AGCOM members had. It was a long list and it included taxation, University staffing, the Department of Agriculture reorganization, pesticide use, food safety, and many other issues that needed to be addressed in 1990. Committees were set up to help deal with these issues and to work with the various state and other governmental organizations to work on and come up with agreeable solutions.
Over the past 30 years, AGCOM has completed 5 strategic plans. Most of the issues have remained the same, but as times change, solutions differ. Some issues are shared by all organizations, such as labor, marketing, food safety, and environmental issues; and some are very specific to the industry. However, all organizations come together when we go to the legislature, we all support each other. Communication, cooperation, and mutual respect are AGCOM’s hallmark strengths. A vision of a bright future for agriculture is shared by all.