The stereotypical Maine lobsterman is known for fierce independence and distrust of government interference.

But it appears lobstermen are not about to turn down a free government program that will give them business training and cash payments.

Although informational meetings for the program start today, lobstermen are already signing up for the training and up to $12,000 in cash payments they may receive to help them make their operations more profitable, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association in Kennebunk.

Maine blueberry growers are eligible as well.

The program, called Trade Adjustment Assistance for Farmers, is offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which determined that both groups experienced adverse financial impacts from imports last year.

Lobstermen who can document that they harvested and sold Maine lobster in 2009 and at least one other year from 2006 to 2008 are eligible, as long as their gross non-fishing income for 2009 did not exceed $500,000 and their average 2009 adjusted gross fishing income did not exceed $750,000.

Under that formula, about two-thirds of the state’s 6,000 licensed fishermen qualify, officials said.

“This is a really exciting opportunity to talk with a lot of people and inject them with new ideas and invigorate the conversation about the lobster industry,” said Dana Morse, an extension associate at the Maine Sea Grant program, which is helping to sign up lobstermen.

This is the first time the program has been extended to lobstermen, McCarron said. Lobstermen in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island are also eligible.

“You have to know how to run a business as well as fish these days,” McCarron said.

The program is also available to shrimpers from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Northwest, and to asparagus growers throughout the country. All have experienced adverse financial impacts from imports.

The import competition has been from Canada, said Gregg Whitton of South Portland, a lobsterman out of Portland.

Whitton said lobstermen are talking about the new program, and he expects interest to be high.

“It was such a disastrous season,” he said.

In Maine, lobstermen saw imports increase 5.9 percent last year, when the value of the lobster catch plunged to $228 million from an average of $279 million in 2006 through 2008, Morse said.

Maine’s roughly 575 blueberry growers have faced growing competition from South America, said David Bell, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine. They saw the value of their products drop from an average of 82 cents per pound from 2006 to 2008 to 35 cents last year.

The business training includes a two-hour meeting to introduce participants to the program, with attendance required by March 23, and about 12 hours of workshops to develop an initial business plan and learn about marketing, product handling and other topics.

Those who complete the training receive up to $4,000.

The second phase involves developing a long-term business plan with a business counselor by Sept. 24, 2013. Those who complete phase two receive up to an additional $8,000 to help implement their plan.

The deadline to apply is Dec. 23.

 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

bquimby@pressherald.com