By: Sen. Susan M. Collins
Having been born and raised in Aroostook County, I know how essential agriculture is to our state’s economy and our way of life. Supporting Maine’s dairy, potato, and special crop industries—such as our wild blueberry growers—has always been one of my top priorities in the Senate.
The Maine Farm Bureau is a strong advocate for our State’s farmers, and has been an invaluable resource helping me to better understand the issues confronting our agriculture community today. I was honored to receive the organization’s Friend of the Farm Bureau Award on Oct. 16 for my work to support this vital sector of our economy. More than 8,000 family farms throughout our State help sustain rural communities, protect the environment, and preserve the open space that is a vital part of our heritage.
The award presentation took place at Misty Meadows Farm in Clinton, the town that is considered the dairy capital of Maine, with 13 percent of our State’s milk production coming from seven farms. Misty Meadows Farm, which is owned and operated by John and Belinda Stoughton and Tom and Kimberly Wright, has been recognized for its high-quality milk and, in typical years, hosts Maine Farm Days.
With the exception of three not-for-profit educational farms, Maine’s 205 dairy farms are family owned and operated. Maine’s dairy industry generates $570 million annually, contributes more than $25 million per year in state and local taxes, and provides more than 4,000 jobs.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Maine’s families, farmers, and food systems have been serious and are certain to persist for months to come. That is why I have helped to lead bipartisan efforts in Congress to direct more support to farmers.
With my support, Congress passed COVID relief bills establishing a $19 billion relief program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture for our nation’s farmers and producers, known as the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, or CFAP. Additionally, I urged Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to prioritize assistance to Maine farmers, including those in the dairy, potato, and blueberry industries.
Following my advocacy, Maine farmers received more than $34.5 million in direct payments through CFAP. That includes more than $14 million for potato growers, nearly $12 million for dairy farmers, and nearly $2 million for livestock producers. USDA is accepting applications for the second round of CFAP through Dec. 11, and this round better accommodates specialty crop producers like our blueberry growers. I strongly encourage them to apply.
I also worked to ensure that Maine benefits from the Farmers to Families Food Box Program I championed that is supporting farmers across the nation with up to $3 billion in purchases of fresh produce, dairy, and meat and distributing these products to low-income Americans in need. After no Maine distributors were awarded a contract in the first round of funding, I led the effort that convinced the Secretary of Agriculture to rectify the program’s shortcomings, resulting in contracts of $2.14 million awarded to the Maine Farmers Exchange in Presque Isle and $1.35 million to Native Maine Produce and Specialty Foods in Westbrook.
Combined, these two contracts enabled the distribution across Maine this summer of more than 10,000 food boxes per week for eight weeks, totaling more than 1.8 million pounds of food that was provided directly to Mainers in need. It was so inspiring to join organizers and volunteers in both Westbrook and Van Buren to assemble and distribute some of the food boxes to help seniors and families struggling during the pandemic. As a founding member of the Senate Hunger Caucus, I know that Maine is so fortunate to have a statewide network of non-profits that have partnered with local farmers and food distributors to deliver boxes of nutritious food that was grown and produced here in our state.
Although the public health and economic crisis caused by COVID-19 has been unprecedented, the commitment and collaboration shown by Mainers helping Mainers today make me confident that we will prevail. I will continue to work across the aisle to ensure that Maine farmers and families have the support and resources they need to get through this difficult time.