Saturday, May 18, 2013
A series of workshops billed as an opportunity to bring conventional and organic farmers together is raising concerns in Maine's organic agriculture community.
The Maine Farm Bureau will host a workshop, "Convergence = Sustainability," each day of the Maine Agricultural Trades Show, scheduled for Tuesday through Thursday at the Augusta Civic Center.
While organizers say each workshop will address "food safety, biotechnology and the challenges of organic and modern farmers," Maine's largest organic farming organization won't be represented at the three sessions.
"This is the second year in a row where the Farm Bureau has put on this program, and in neither case have we been invited to be part of the conversation about moving toward common ground," said Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
MOFGA, which has more than 6,300 members, oversees organic certification in the state. It will hold its own workshops at the trade show.
Jon Olson, the Maine Farm Bureau's executive secretary, said MOFGA and other sustainable agriculture organizations weren't involved in planning the workshops because "we deal with individual farmers. We don't deal with commodity groups."
Founded in 1971, MOFGA is the oldest and among the largest organizations of its kind in the nation. It is probably best known for hosting the annual Common Ground Country Fair in Unity.
Certified organic foods are produced without synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics or genetically engineered ingredients. According to the national Organic Trade Association, 2009 sales of organic products in the U.S. reached $26.6 billion, an increase of 5.3 percent from the previous year.
The Maine Farm Bureau was founded in 1951 and represents 2,200 members. It is part of a national network of farm bureaus that lobby on behalf of farmers and agricultural issues.
In organizing the trade show, Olson said, "our intent is to have common ground and have all farmers in Maine come together and find solutions. . . . together, we're much more successful."
Coincidentally, the Farm Bureau scheduled the first of its three workshops at the same time that MOFGA holds its annual meeting and the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society hosts two of its three sessions.
Olson said the Bureau was not aware of the conflicts when it scheduled its sessions.
"We try to pack in a lot of organizations in those three days," said John Harker, director of market development for the Maine Department of Agriculture, which is in its 70th year of hosting the trade show. "So there are a lot of conflicts."
Judy Blaisdell, who handles all the scheduling for the trade show as the department's agricultural promotions coordinator, said organizations request specific time slots, and she does her best to accommodate them.
She pointed out that the Maine Milk Commission and the Maine Cheese Guild ended up scheduling their sessions at the same time this year as well.
"There's always somebody who's upset, but I try to stay out of the politics of it," she said.
This year's trade show includes 108 vendors and more than 100 workshops. Blaisdell estimates it will attract 5,000 attendees.
"MOFGA probably has the biggest meeting (at the trade show), association-wise," Blaisdell said.
Bob St. Peter heads Food for Maine's Future, which promotes small family farming and nonpolluting agricultural practices, and he is a frequent opponent of the biotechnology industry and genetically engineered crops.
He worries that the "Convergence" sessions are actually designed to promote conventional agriculture at the expense of organic farming methods.
"Not having the leading organic farming organization in the country or even our organization, that has been a leading critic of biotech, at the workshop tells me this session is about a particular agenda," St. Peter said. "It's difficult for me to believe they're really after convergence."
Food for Maine's Future intends to hold a rally and press conference at the State House at 11 a.m. Monday that will urge the Legislature and the LePage administration to take steps to support family farmers and environmentally responsible agriculture.
Olson said the Maine Farm Bureau's workshops will focus on labor issues, farmland protection and taxation.
A scheduled address by the head of the pro-pesticide Crop Protection Research Institute has been canceled and replaced by an open forum where farmers will be asked to suggest instances of regulatory red tape that hinder their businesses.
The information gathered at the session will be forwarded to the LePage administration.
Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: