Friday, February 1, 2002

Maine farmers facing crunch in federal subsidies

Published in Interface Business News

BANGOR—Farmers are having a tough time of it lately, and the federal government is helping, but Congressional limits on eligibility and available funds make it hard for Maine farmers to get the money they need to stay in business.

“It’s not enough,” said Kevin Maxwell of Maxwell Farms in Lee. “If you’re farming to (get paid) the government prices, you won’t make it.”

Maxwell Farms, which grows potatoes and grains, received more federal money than any other farm in Maine between 1996 and 2000, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data compiled by Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C.-based policy advocate firm. The farm got $314,328.59, mostly in disaster relief payments to help the farm recover from flooding and drought; but the farm still had trouble: “We have had to sell part of the farm, even with these programs,” Maxwell said.

Other farms received as little as $3.02, while others even had to repay money they had been given in previous years. A total of 2,731 farms or farm owners in Maine got at least a total of $1,000 from government programs between 1996 and 2000. The programs vary from wool and mohair subsidies to corn and soybean price supports, and even extend to conservation of land. Most of the money Maine got from the USDA programs was in disaster relief and conservation, but even then there are problems.

To get disaster relief aid, a farm has to lose at least 35 percent of its income due to a natural or weather disaster, like drought or the army worm invasion last summer, said David Lavway, the executive director of the Maine office of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Even then there are limits on the amount of money an individual can get in an emergency.

Far more difficult than emergency limits are Congressional priorities for farm assistance. Maine grows “the wrong crops,” according to EWG spokeswoman Sarah Steinberg, meaning many farms do not qualify for any subsidies or have a very small pool of money available to draw on.

Funding limits are a problem for Lavway, too. He said apple and potato support is capped at $38 million across the nation.

The conservation funds are targeted at farms that have big needs, which Lavway said leaves out those farmers who are doing a well at conservation. “The person doing a good job is not benefiting from the program,” Lavway said. But he said he has hope.

The release of the data by EWG and pressure from Maine’s Congressional delegation could, he hopes, put more money into conservation funds, meaning Maine could receive more than the $41 million it got from 1996 to 2000, an amount Lavway describes as “peanuts,” compared with what the Midwestern states get.

And with potatoes having the best year they’ve had in the past decade, Lavway said there might be an opportunity for those farmers to pay down some debt as well.