Following up on a visit to her Washington office and staff in March, the leadership of Maine's Association of Conservation Districts (MACD) met Wednesday, April 14 with U.S. Senator Susan Collins to discuss strategy for increasing conservation allocations to Maine.
Participating in the meeting, held in the senator's Portland office, were Steve Hobart of Piscataquis County, President of MACD; Reinald Nielsen of Washington County, MACD Secretary; Fred Hardy of Franklin County, MACD Treasurer, and Tony Carroll of York County, MACD Executive Board member. Also participating were Bill Bell, MACD's Executive Director, and David Bell (no relation), Executive Director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine.
After thanking Collins for her successful efforts, together with those of the other members of Maine's congressional delegation, in obtaining a significant increase in federal conservation spending in Maine for 2004, Hobart emphasized the need for "sustainable water use" in Maine. David Bell of the Blueberry Commission explained that crop yields in the blueberry fields have been greatly increased through proper irrigation practices. Bill Bell noted that Maine's legislature, governor, and voters have supported millions of dollars of state bond funds for sustainable water use, but that federal rules accompanying the 2002 Farm Bill have prevented federal cost-share funding for new irrigation projects on Maine farms. Collins noted that federal farm policy consistently favors large commodity growers in other parts of country.
The senator agreed to move forward with a concept discussed earlier with her Washington office staff, whereby she will seek legislative language permitting up to $2 million in existing federal funds allocated to Maine to be used for new irrigation programs in Maine, regardless of USDA rules limiting expenditures for this purpose. Collins and the conservation district leaders agreed that it would be more productive to seek greater flexibility rather than additional funds from Washington.
Collins also advised the district leaders that she would continue to seek restoration to Maine's budget of $750,000 in 2004 funds which had been spent to meet a special emergency in the potato industry. The district leaders reported that some New England states are having difficulty putting the greatly increased "regional equity" allocations to good use prior to a May deadline. The senator agreed to request USDA to reallocate within the Northeast any such unused funds.
District leaders outlined to the senator a potential shortfall in the EPA Clean Water Act budget for activities important to Maine's Department of Environmental Protection and local lake associations. Collins promised to alert her staff to this issue. Hardy, a dairy farmer, outlined the continued pricing issues facing dairy producers in the Northeast. The senator expressed great enthusiasm for many innovations which she has noted in Maine agriculture.
The conservation leaders, who had met in February with U. S. Senator Olympia Snowe, left Senator Collins' office with positive reinforcement of the commitment of Maine's two Senators to Maine's farmers and on-farm conservation practices.