Lisa Webster of North Star Sheep Farm was recently elected president of the Agricultural Council of Maine (AGCOM). The group includes members from various agencies (government and otherwise), nonprofits and associations – Webster represents the Maine Sheep Breeders Association – and was established in 1990 as a forum for agricultural interests. Its mission is to advocate on behalf of Maine agriculture.

We caught Webster at home in Windham, rattling pots and pans in the kitchen as she got ready to represent North Star at a food show put on by Native Maine to showcase the distributor’s vendors.

HAIL TO THE CHIEF: Webster apologized right off the bat for multitasking, but Native Maine’s food show is an important event for her. “It’s one of the few times when you get a chance to meet the chefs face to face.” You’ll never guess what she was making. OK, you will. “A slow-cooked lamb shoulder,” she said. “I use the herbes de provence and carrots, onions and a vegetable stock. I used the vegetable stock so that it would be lighter, with more of a broth. For spring. I wanted it to have that fresh lamb taste. We’ve all been eating hearty all winter.”

BOOKED UP: Despite the need for multitasking – Webster and her husband Phil have 1,000 acres at North Star, including 800 acres leased from Pineland Farms, and at this point about 3,600 sheep with another 1,500 lambs due this spring – she said she was happy to take on the extra duties of heading up the Agricultural Council. “I could be just as busy as I wanted to be without doing this give-back,” Webster said. “But it is so important at this point to actually get a farmer at the helm of it.” It has been 12 years, she said, since the council was led by someone in private business. (She takes over from Frank Miles, secretary of Maine Farmland Trust.)

BOARD ROOM: AGCOM meets the last Tuesday of every month at the Maine Farm Bureau office in Augusta, and it can be a crowded boardroom since the group is an umbrella held over all of Maine’s agricultural interests. The USDA often sends five representatives, state government sends another four people and just about every agriculture-related association, from the Maine Potato Board to the Maine State Beekeepers Association is part of the group. Is it like a powwow for agriculture types? “That is exactly what it is,” Webster said.

SUCH AS? Lately that’s been a lot of questions about labor-related issues, specifically how the Department of Labor sets standards for part-time agricultural workers and interns and interprets some farm work as either agricultural (like milking cows) or non-agricultural (making yogurt from that milk). The former is exempt from some regulations, like overtime, under the Fair Labor Standards Act; the latter is not.


The council is also interested in how farms are classified: Are they “retail” businesses if they sell goods that aren’t from their own farms, even say, value-added products from other nearby farms? Then there are expected additions to the bodies of water overseen by the EPA through the Clean Water Act; farmers are anxious about facing new regulations on streams and drainage ditches. “That will affect every small farmer that isn’t on public water,” Webster said.

POWER IN NUMBERS. “If we feel strongly on an issue then we can send letters out as a whole group,” Webster said. That’s what happened with the genetically modified organism (GMO) issue, for instance, when the Agricultural Council united behind the legislation to require food sold in Maine derived from GMO crops and animals to show that in its labeling. Webster believes strength in numbers made a difference in the governor’s willingness to sign the bill into law. If everyone – from the blueberry farmers to the sheep breeders – is on board, “that is a pretty strong message,” Webster said. “And that is the number one thing we do. The rest of the time we just have an open dialogue, and we try to stay ahead of things, so we don’t have to wait until someone gets in trouble to take action.”

SPEED IS OF THE ESSENCE: With the growth of the local food movement, Webster believes the council is more relevant than ever. “Things are moving so fast right now in the food and farming world,” she said. “A lot of people are scaling up. And with that also comes a scaling up of public image. You don’t want to set yourself up for failure. You want to set your groups up for success.”

LOOSER TONGUES: Nobody can tell a better story about their product than the producer, Webster notes, but farmers haven’t always been willing to share those stories. “We farmers tend to get a little barn blind,” she said. “We just stay on our own farm, and we are very bad at telling our own stories.” All that has changed in the time she’s been building up her sheep business. Maine agriculture “is in a fantastic place right now,” she said. “We’ve got a great opportunity for growth, and the backbone of AGCOM is there to drive the infrastructure.”

SPEAKING OF BACKBONE: Webster grew up farming. Her grandmother (93) and mother (73) were farmers before her. And her sister is about to take over their grandparents’ old farm in Fairfield Center, producing beef cattle, some small fruit and most likely hops, that last in conjunction with Webster’s son Peter Busque, who is one of the founders of the Hop Yard in Gorham. “We will really see another family farm come back to life,” Webster said.

PHILOSOPHY: All that multitasking seems like it could really take it out of you, but Webster sounds energized. “Everybody talks about ‘How can I farm and make a living?’ ” she said. “But if you are farming, it isn’t about ‘How can I.’ It is about ‘I must continue to do this.’ It’s not about how hard it is. It is about, ‘I absolutely cannot fail at this.’ It’s kind of like that Maine way of thinking – you just go do it. Because there is nothing sadder for a farmer or a farmer’s wife or a farmer’s daughter than seeing an empty farm.”


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