AUGUSTA — Fred Hardy, a retired dairy farmer from New Sharon, said he has opposed merging the state departments of agriculture and conservation from the time it was proposed.

“My biggest concern, in all probability, is that agriculture will lose its identity,” Hardy said. “My suggestion is to have one department for agriculture” and one for conservation and forestry.

Hardy’s wasn’t the only concerned voice during a public forum Tuesday at the Maine Forest Products Council office in Augusta. State officials held the gathering to bring together interest groups on reorganization ideas and to identify goals “to achieve a viable, land-based economy in the state.”

A state law that takes effect Aug. 30 will create a new Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, with 732 full-time and seasonal employees and a budget of $96.5 million.

No layoffs are planned, but one commissioner’s position will be eliminated, saving about $100,000. Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb and two deputy commissioners will lead the new department.

Most of those who spoke Tuesday were executive directors and representatives of Maine interest groups.

Tom Doak, executive director of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, said he supported the merger but hopes the new department will continue to provide the necessary resources to deal with the biggest threat to the forestry industry — pests and disease.

James Robbins, president of Robbins Lumber Co. of Searsmont, said a top concern is that foresters won’t lose their ability to consult with the governor’s office.

“They’re bleeding our funds to help other industries,” Robbins said. “I just don’t want to see us go down any lower on the food chain.”

Jon Olson, executive secretary of the Maine Farm Bureau, offered suggestions to Whitcomb and Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley, who hosted the forum. Olson said some sections in the department should be changed, with the division of plant and animal health split in two.

Donald White, president of the Maine Forest Products Council, said the merger is making farmers and foresters nervous.

White agreed with others that forestry is viewed more as a regulated industry. He said it would be great if the new department partnered with foresters the same way the agriculture department has partnered with the farming community.

“The thing that makes us nervous is, farmers are loved,” White said. “In the Legislature, when a farmer talks, everybody stops playing with their iPads and listens. Farmers have clout, but we are bigger.”

 

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Mechele Cooper can be contacted at 621-5663 or at: [email protected]