AGCOM In The Beginning

Crisis in Maine Agriculture – 1989

By John Harker

In the Beginning, God created heaven and earth, and someone said it was good. But by May of 1989 a crisis in Maine Agriculture and Nationwide was brewing. Land Grant Colleges were under attack to be more relevant on environmental issues and organic agriculture. The public was becoming increasingly remote from the farming community, farm businesses were going global and the national funding and priorities for State Experiment Stations and Extension were changing. This prompted the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Experiment Station to put together a new plan to become more relevant, to change their structure, and to shift resources to other issues, primarily “water quality” and “Sustainable Agriculture”. This plan, called New Directions for the ‘90’s, upset the agricultural community, and the organization that supported Extension and Experiment Station. The farming community needed to come together to show the University there was still a need for support for traditional agriculture.

The Maine Endowment for Research, Extension and Teaching (MERET) went into action. MERET had a 27 year history of support for the University. Adrian Wadsworth, current president at the time, and board members Bill Bell (Secretary), Jon Olson (Treasurer) and directors John Harker and Ed McLaughlin championed the cause to meet with the University.

On March 24th, 1989 MERET held a first ever Maine Agricultural Leadership Conference to bring together farmers and the University to talk about priorities. Over 100 attended the conference, sponsored by 21 farm related businesses [1]. Based on the overwhelming concerns brought out at the meeting, the University agreed to further meetings with the agricultural community.

On April 26th a follow-up workshop was held with agricultural leaders [2] and the subjects included: What can sustainable agriculture do for commercial agriculture?; What can agricultural groups do to promote regional cooperation at land grant colleges of New England to save resources and $?; and What should the University of Maine be doing for your commodity?.

On Monday, June 12th at the Farm Bureau Office, a MERET Board meeting was held to develop a plan of action for the coming year. Present were Bill Bell, Steven Goodwin, Ed McLaughlin, Jesse O’Brien, Jon Olson, David Rowe, Adrian Wadsworth, John Harker and Christos Gianopoulus. The outcome of that meeting was the need for further discussion on how to help all agricultural groups speak with one voice.

A Vision is Formed – August 7th, 1989

Perhaps the most important piece of AGCOM history is the hand written note from Bill Bell to John Harker, Adrian Wadsworth and Jon Olson on August 7th, 1989. In the letter Bill brought forward the idea to create a “Maine Council of Agriculture”, folding MERET into that new organization, and add in agricultural leaders from statewide organizations. Bill envisioned the objective of the organization would be “maintaining and enhancing Maine Agriculture”. He encouraged Adrian to call a meeting of directors to decide on that strategy. The Board met on August 25th to hash out the possibility of forming a new organization. Bill Bell again sent an email to Adrian and John Harker on August 30, outlining the example of the New York Council of Agricultural Organizations, and suggesting that the MERET Board of directors transition to the new organization. On October 2, 1989 Olson, Bell, McLaughlin and Harker formed a nominating committee and agreement was reached to form the organization. The purpose of the organization would be for communications, education, legislative advocacy, and seminars. Members would be from bona fide agricultural organizations. On December 4th, 1989 Jon Olson, Bill Bell and John Harker. introduced the name, Agricultural Council of Maine (AGCOM) to then Commissioner of Agriculture Bernard Shaw.

A Baby AGCOM is Born – April 1990

Over the winter months Bill Bell, Jon Olson and John Harker worked on bylaws for the new organization, drawing heavily on those of New York State Council of Agricultural Organizations. On March 5th, 1990 MERET Board of Directors [3] met to review the draft and decide how AGCOM would work. Adrian Wadsworth, President of MERET outlined the need for the broad-based organization to be “pro-active, not a defense fund”. Jon Olson and Adrian advised against AGCOM becoming too involved in legislative positions, while McLaughlin and Bell advocated for majority rule. A Board of Incorporators was formed.

On April 11, 1990 the first organization meeting of the Board of Incorporators [4] met at the Coastline Inn in Augusta. The bylaws were discussed, and long discussions led to tentative agreement that AGCOM would not engage in lobbying. The major issues to start tackling were: Maine’s over-reliance on property taxes, granting communities the right to pass their own pesticide regulations, and Food Safety Issues. On April 26th, 1990 a group of Incorporators, led by Adrian Wadsworth, developed the draft bylaws. Farm Bureau was approved as the registering Agent for the nonprofit.

Crisis in Agriculture II – What Say Ye AGCOM…Legislative Advocacy or Unanimity and Communication?

The April meeting turned out to be a watershed event for the fledgling AGCOM organization. The bylaws mission statement was approved to state “The Agricultural Council of Maine is a nonprofit association devoted to assure the continuing success of Maine agriculture”. The Objectives of the organization were to:

  • Develop a united effort on agricultural issues;
  • Enhance communications;
  • and Provide leadership on agricultural issues.

Membership on the Board would be for statewide organizations, with others as affiliates.

But, when it came to legislative advocacy…Adrian Wadsworth wanted to let the record state “a good amount of time was spent discussing the role of the Council in legislative lobbying”. Dwight Sewall and Tom Scarponcini favored lobbying while Adrian Wadsworth and Jon Olson favored information gathering and coordinating individual commodities to do testimony. The Board finally agreed to a role for legislative lobbying.

Another long discussion ensued about what percentage of Board members were needed for AGCOM to lobby an issue…..In light of the need to be sensitive to MOFGA and other minority opinions on an issue, the group finally decided that 90% of the Board must vote in the affirmative in order to actively lobby for or against an issue.

The group decided on the major issues to deal with initially including: Groundwater, Non-Point Source Pollution, Wetlands Definitions, Food Safety, Animal Rights, Monitoring the move by the University to eliminate the Experiment Station from the College, Farmland Preservation, Taxation, and Comprehensive Planning. Finally, John Harker developed and displayed a logo for the organization to be used in correspondence. Rod McCormick, Department of Agriculture graphic artist cleaned up the logo. Dues were discussed and decided that Regular and Affiliate members would be charged $50, and individuals would be charged $20. The stage was set for the birth of a nation and a Statewide Agricultural Organization…AGCOM.

Crisis III…Give me liberty or give me AGCOM! with MOFGA! – July 1990

Close to the date of the birth of our nation, AGCOM was born on Wednesday, July 11, 1990. Adrian Wadsworth set the tone of the day with a letter supporting AGCOM but warning “the rights of the minority and smaller groups must be respected” and “If we don’t hang together, then we’ll hang separately. It would be unfortunate if long range accomplishment was sacrificed for the short term gain of a few.” The trouble brewing was how to incorporate the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardener’s Concerns about lobbying.

Nancy Ross started out the debate with request to reconsider the 90% vote to lobby. Michael Zuck said that erosion of agricultural support in the legislature demanded we go forward with at least 2/3rds of the Board members voting to advocate an issue. Nancy Ross from MOFGA stated her Board would not stay with AGCOM unless 100% voted in the affirmative before lobbying. Jean Childs stated that a divided AGCOM in the legislature would not be received well. John Harker suggested majority/minority reports. Jesse O’Brien wanted the 90% previously agreed upon. In the end, the majority agreed that AGCOM should be a communications and education vehicle for individual commodity associations, and that unanimous consent would be attempted for two years.

This was followed by bylaws adoption, election of the tentative Board of Directors [5], and deciding on Issues to address developed by John Harker. The Board tentatively elected Ed McLaughlin as President and Bill Bell as Secretary.

On October 18th, 1990 the first Board of Directors meeting was held. The following were elected as officers: Ed McLaughlin, President, Nancy Ross, Vice President, William Bell, Secretary and Jon Olson, Treasurer.

The front burner issues decided on for the first year included:

  • Workmen’s Compensation Reform
  • Nonpoint source pollution management
  • IPM funding
  • Pesticide Notification

John Harker was to expand on the issues needing to be addressed, and the Board would meet to fill in details into a first strategic plan.

Taking Flight…AGCOM into the 1990’s

The first general membership meeting was held on December 5th, 1990 at the Maine State Grange in Augusta. Commissioner of Agriculture Bernard Shaw heralded AGCOM as an important step to rally agriculture and improve communications within the industry. The Honorable Robert Tardy, then Chair of the Agriculture Committee of the Legislature gave an overview of the agricultural issues impacting farmers in the upcoming session of the legislature and his need for Agriculture to be there at the table for these important discussions. The first legislation that AGCOM unanimously approved to lobby for was for IPM funding legislation for $150,000. Thereafter, pesticide use, irrigation, non-point source pollution, agriculture in the classroom, Agriculture Day in the legislature and many other issues and events arose throughout the 1990’s, and AGCOM provided valuable advice on these issues with the support of many agricultural organizations.

To be continued…

 


 

[1] The Sponsors were: Maine Farm Bureau, Agrimark, Agway, Inc, Southern Maine Agricultural Credit Association, Hammond and Tilton, Inc, Knox-Lincoln County Farm Bureau, Maine Sheep Breeders Association, Maine dairy Industries Association, Inc., American Agriculturist, Maine Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association, Maine State Florist Association, Maine Nurseryman’s Association, Maine Pomological Society Association, Maine State Grange, Maine Potato Growers Association, Maine State Rabbit Breeders Association, Maine Beef Industry Council, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardener’s Association, Maine Poultry Federation, and Mid-Maine Greenhouse Growers Association.

[2] The attendees at this meeting were: Ellis Addition, Bill Bell, Terry Bourgoin, John Cancelarich, Robert Day, David Hansen, John Harker, Art Kelley, Dr. Matt Liebman, Ken Maxwell, Jon Olson, Nancy Ross, Lester and Elizabeth Stevens, Adrian Wadsworth, Susan Erick, David Rowe, Mary Wiedenhoeft, Frank Drummond, Wyatt Courtemanche, Greg Porter, Arthur Whitman, Laura Merrick, Tim Carter Elizabeth Dyck, Christos Gianopoulos, David Smith, Peter Mosher and Vaughn Holyoke.

[3] Present at the meeting were Bill Bell, Steven Goodwin, Ed McLaughlin, Jesse O’Brien, Jon Olson, David Rowe, Adrian Wadsworth.

[4] The Board of Incorporators were: Dwight Sewall, Maine Potato Board, Ed McLaughlin, Maine Blueberry Commission, Jon Olson, Maine Farm Bureau, William Bell, Maine Poultry Federation, Adrian Wadsworth, Maine Dairy Industry Association, Nancy Ross, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, David Rowe, Maine Pomological Society, Bill Jordan Jr, Maine Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association, Michael Zuck, Maine Greenhouse Association, Jesse O’Brien, Maine nurserymen’s Association, Tom Scarponcini, Maine Beef Producer’s Association, Anne Gass, Maine Sheep breeders Association, Jean Childs, Maine Standard bred Breeders and Owners Association, and Ex-Officio…John Harker, Maine Department of Agriculture, Don Stimpson, U of M College of Agriculture and Applied Science, and Vaughn Holyoke, U of M Cooperative Extension Service.

[5] The first Board of Directors were: Dave Lavway, Maine Potato Board, Dave Emery, Maine Dairy Industry Association, Bill Bell, Maine Poultry Federation, Dave Rowe, Maine State Pomological Society, Jesse O’Brien, Maine Nurseryman’s Association, Ed McLaughlin, Maine Blueberry Commission, Bill Jordan Jr., Maine Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association, Michael Zuck, Mid-Me Greenhouse Growers Association, Tom Scarponcini, Maine Beef Producer’s Association, Anne Gass, Maine Sheep Producer’s Association, Jean Childs, Maine Standard bred Breeders Association, Nancy Ross, MOFGA, Jon Olson, Maine Farm Bureau, ex-officio.. John Harker, Maine Department of Agriculture, Don Stimpson, U of M Agricultural Experiment Station, and Vaughn Holyoke, U of M Cooperative Extension Service. In addition, members for Maine State Florist, Maine Christmas Tree, Maine Beekeepers, Maine Rabbit Breeders, Maine Draft horse and Ox , Maine State Grange, Maine Extension Association, Maine Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and Maine Dry Bean Growers Associations were solicited for future directors. Supporting organizations were Maine Association of Agricultural Fairs, Maine Arborist Association, Maine Dairy Goat Council, Mainely Donkey and Mule Association, State of Maine FFA, Hog Growers Association, Maine horse Association, Maine maple Producers Association, Maine Squash Growers, and Maine Turkey Growers Association.