Ever since COVID-19 swept across the globe, small businesses and industries have been struggling to adjust, to keep themselves afloat and to continue to supply people with the items they need. In Maine, farms are some of our most crucial businesses, and they have not been immune to the economic toll of this pandemic. Farms have been up against difficult odds, but they have been pushing through to help Mainers get the products they need.

Maine’s 13,000 farmers have been faced with the threat of revenue loss for months now, and financial support from the Federal Government did not provide enough early support. According to Amanda Beal, Maine’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, funding streams from the $2 trillion CARES Act that passed in April, like the Paycheck Protection Program and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, were not enough to support our farms. Instead of waiting for help, farmers got creative with their customer base.

With restaurants and larger consumers shrinking or eliminating their orders, farmers increased their direct sales to customers. More and more, producers are selling their meat and produce straight to consumers. That direct line results in support for farms and safe, healthy food for Mainers.

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension, which supports the state’s agriculture industry through education and promotion, had a big hand in creating this direct line. This spring, a cheesemaker in Waldoboro created an online service where farmers and producers could list what products they had available. The Cooperative Extension reached out to that cheesemaker and took over management of the service, expanding it to include farmers in every corner of the state. The Cooperative Extension now maintains the Maine Farms and Seafood Directory, allowing people all over Maine to access local products with ease, and improving sales for many producers. Lincoln County has its share of farms and farmers markets in this directory

Increased reliance on local products is a good thing for our agriculture industry and Maine consumers, and it should not end when the pandemic subsides. Maine has an incredible farming industry in our back yard, and we need to continue to support it so it can support us. That’s why I was proud this year to vote in favor of two bills to increase our state’s reliance on Maine food and food products as a way to support our economy and enhance food self-sufficiency. One sponsored by Rep. Craig Hickman, a farmer from Winthrop, directs the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to establish and promote a Maine foods procurement program with the goal that 20% of food and food products procured by state institutions be from Maine. It calls for this to be accomplished no later than 2025. The other, sponsored by Sen. Eloise Vitelli, will help schools buy and serve local produce.

Local farmers are also stepping up to feed our food insecure. Good Food for Bath, a collaborative meeting weekly since mid-March, has helped moved fresh produce from our local farms, largely through the efforts of Merrymeeting Gleaners and its Sharing Tables, into the hands of food pantries and individuals who need it.

Increasing our reliance on Maine farms has multiple benefits. We will better support a vital Maine industry that will continue to support our state’s overall economy. In times of crisis, like this one, when importing becomes difficult, we will already have an established in-state option to get the products we need. And then there’s the positive impact sourcing locally has on the fight against climate change. When we get our meat and vegetables from the farm down the road rather than the corporate giant, we eliminate the extra energy used and pollution created from mass producing items that then need to be transported across the country.

In Maine, we believe in self-reliance, and we believe in each other. We are demonstrating those traits clearly as we increase our food production and efforts to buy local. This pandemic has demonstrated how important it is to control our food stream and expand our agricultural independence. When we spend our food budget on fresh, healthy local meat, dairy and produce, that money stays in our community. Maine farmers are producing what we need, and the more we buy from them, the better off we will be.

Allison Hepler represents the towns of Arrowsic, Dresden, Georgetown, Phippsburg, part of Richmond and Woolwich in the Maine State House of Representatives and is a member of the Woolwich Selectboard.

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