Politics

May 10, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Capital idea sprouts at Maine State House

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

There he stood one snowy day last winter on the third-floor balcony of the State House, overlooking snow-covered Capitol Park as it gently sloped all the way down to the Kennebec River. And there freshman state Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, closed his eyes and saw blueberries, sage, hyssop, oregano, chocolate mint . . .

click image to enlarge

State Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop

AIRING IT OUT

Tune in to NewsRadio 560 WGAN at 8:08 a.m. today to hear columnist Bill Nemitz talk about this column and other issues.

"I'm a farmer," said Hickman, who along with his husband owns and operates the Annabessacook Farm Bed & Breakfast and Organic Farm Stand 10 miles west of Augusta. "So when I see open space, I see food. There's nothing else that I think of."

Trouble, like an approaching summertime thunderstorm, is looming over Maine's political landscape. From paying the state's hospital debt to expanding MaineCare, from letter grades for public schools to talk of a government shutdown, lines in the sand are appearing here, there and everywhere beneath the State House dome.

But wave a little fresh produce under these lawmakers' noses and look what happens: "An Act to Require Edible Landscaping in a Portion of Capitol Park" -- a fancy way of saying "Let's grow some food right in front of the State House!" -- is now a governor's signature away from becoming the law of the land. Or at least one highly visible sliver of it.

The edible-park bill -- one of 15, all dealing with agriculture, submitted by Hickman this session -- passed in the House on a 107-33 vote last week. On Tuesday, it quietly cleared the Senate, 28-6.

All of which reinforces Hickman's long-held theory that "food is the universal language." If watching a tiny seed blossom into a head of lettuce ... or collard greens ... or the ever-nutritious sweet potato doesn't bring out the humanity in all of us, then the republic is indeed imperiled.

"The reception has been positive in a way that I didn't anticipate," Hickman said in an interview Wednesday. "Words like, 'Brilliant! Genius! What a fabulous idea!' And I'm thinking to myself, 'Really?'"

Really. While 39 lawmakers, all Republicans, voted against the measure, the only stated opposition Hickman heard was, "Why can't we just do this? We don't need a bill for this. Just do it!"

Needed or not, the legislation carries an important message at a time when backyard gardens and farmers markets are sprouting all over Maine: Growing our own food -- "food sovereignty," as Hickman calls it -- is beyond cool. It's increasingly essential.

"Two things are going on here," Hickman said. "People are becoming more and more educated about how toxic our industrial food supply is. And Number 2, people are absolutely interested in supporting their local economy."

Then there's the simple magic of watching food grow.

In his testimony before the State and Local Government Committee in March, Hickman noted that just before collards go to seed, "they produce tall, abundant shots of startling yellow flowers that reach toward heaven. Folks who visit my farm while collards are in bloom are always struck by their significance."

"Who likes braised collard greens with onions and garlic?" he asked his salivating colleagues. "Have you ever seen the flowers of a sweet potato plant? They look like morning glories."

Hickman's goal: "I want people, especially children, to see agriculture when they visit the State House. I want them to see how beautiful food-producing plants can be."

It won't be the first time Capitol Park, established in 1827, has doubled as a garden.

From the end of the Civil War until 1878, the state leased it out to farmers. Then, in 1920, Gov. Carl Milliken commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted to design a multi-use plan for the land that included tennis courts, a zoo with native Maine animals, a bandstand, a grove for public speaking ...

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