Gov. Mills has notably been steering us through this COVID-19 crisis with appropriate concern for our health and well-being.  But some tough decisions are ahead, as many of Maine’s industries are still struggling through the pandemic. Last week, her Economic Recovery Committee gave its first report on how the $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funding should be used.

As a business owner and nurse-midwife, I know that many priorities need our attention. Child care, education, housing, broadband, transportation and workforce development are all important. As a farmer, I was surprised and dismayed that supporting agriculture wasn’t included in the public health recommendation, or discussed as part of the critical infrastructure needed in the near term as a key strategy to promote economic recovery.

Food is the foundation of our public health. We need fresh, nutritionally dense food to live resilient lives. The pandemic has exacerbated the cracks in our already-fragile food system. Maine had nearly 47,000 adults in food-insecure households at the beginning of the pandemic, and as of July 7, that number is over 86,000.

At the same time, we have farmers who are producing food who have lost their usual markets. Restaurants aren’t back in full swing, catered events have been canceled and institutional markets (university and office cafeterias) haven’t come back yet. While Maine imports about 90 percent of the food that we eat from outside of the state, studies have shown that we could be producing as much as 50 percent of our food with the right investments and growth.

Farming and agriculture deserve critical attention as part of our state’s pandemic response. Back in June, Agriculture Commissioner Amanda Beal shared with the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee that her department had requested nearly $80 million of the state’s $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding to support urgent needs of agricultural and food-related businesses. The funds are needed to address: lost farm income; increased costs from COVID-19; purchasing additional food from Maine farmers that can go to food security programs like Maine Senior Farm Share and Mainers Feeding Mainers; state processing infrastructure grants and loans, and online markets and e-commerce support for farms.

Most of the federal aid programs that were created specifically for agriculture have not been able to help Maine farms. At Broadturn Farm, which I co-own and have been operating with my husband for 14 years, we produce food for wholesale accounts and grow cut flowers. We’ve worked to diversify our business, and grow in ways that worked for our family, our land, our employees and our community. Seemingly overnight, we lost 75 percent of our business for the season, and had to completely retool what our year looked like. As a result, I returned to nursing as a way to supplement our farm income, and contribute during the pandemic. None of the federal programs for lost farm income has helped our farm, and I know we’re not alone.

Federal programs cater to larger industrial farms in other parts of the country. In Maine, most of our 7,000-plus farms are comparatively small, and diversified. This is where state support could really make a difference in Maine. With the input of farmers, our state leaders can come up with an approach for distributing aid to Maine farmers that makes sense for our businesses.

My husband and I started farming in Maine because of the support system that organizations in Maine provide. We got our start in the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association beginning farmer program, and we farm on land that was conserved through Maine Farmland Trust. While nonprofits and the state of Maine have done a lot to help Maine’s farms through this crisis, without critical COVID relief funds through the state and federal government, we are likely to lose a number of farms this year, and every farm lost is a setback to both our economy and our overall food security.

I hope that Gov. Mills and the Legislature will consider how important food security is for all of us in Maine, and support Maine’s farms and farmworkers through the pandemic.

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