Testimony for the 2023 Farm Bill field hearing of the House Agriculture Subcommittee — July 31

Joan Ferrini-Mundy testimony for the 2023 Farm Bill field hearing of the House Agriculture Subcommittee, Freeport, ME July 31, 2023

Good afternoon, Chairman Thompson and esteemed members of the House Committee on Agriculture.

As you know, the reauthorization of the Farm Bill provides Congress an important opportunity to enact policy and investment to strengthen, grow, and make more resilient rural America, and by doing so, improve the health and productivity of all American people and our environment, and accelerate our economy and its global competitiveness. I want to thank you for coming to Maine to better understand the transformational impact the next Farm Bill could have here, and also recognize our terrific host, Congresswoman Pingree, for her ongoing leadership and vision.

My name is Joan Ferrini-Mundy and I am the President of the University of Maine, the state’s land, sea, and space grant institution, which in 2022 achieved Carnegie R1 classification, and the first Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation for the University of Maine System. I also am the Chair of the Council of Presidents for the Association of Public & Land-grant Universities (APLU).  The Farm Bill reauthorization priorities that I would like to emphasize today, along with some insights about their importance for Maine and the University of Maine, are generally consistent with those supported by APLU and its 250-member public research universities. Not surprisingly, these include sustaining and increasing federal investment in 21st century university-based work in agriculture, climate, and forestry research; outreach and engagement with the public; workforce development; and modernization of the public facilities necessary to foster these activities.

From our founding in 1865 under the Morrill Act, UMaine has taken seriously our responsibility to serve the state through education, research, and partnerships, which we advance through more than 150 world-class university campuses, centers, institutes, and laboratories statewide. Significantly, those include our University of Maine Cooperative Extension offices, which are our front door to farmers and growers, and Maine Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station research farms and greenhouses.

Our signature strengths are in areas that matter most to Maine and its place in the world: agriculture and forestry, natural and marine sciences including aquaculture, advanced materials for clean energy and infrastructure, climate change, and STEM education. We constantly evolve to meet the changing needs of our students and the state. Last year, for example, the UMaine School of Food and Agriculture launched a new Bachelor of Science in Sustainable Food Systems that will prepare students for careers in supply chain management, food production and processing, community development and support services, policy making and governance, regional planning, and farm management. Similarly, leveraging Congressionally Directed Spending secured by Senators Collins and King with the full support of Representatives Pingree and Golden, UMaine is establishing a new soils, water, and tissue testing lab and technical assistance program to help farmers with contamination from forever chemicals, known as PFAS.

Given this, ultimately, every provision of the next Farm Bill is a priority for someone within our university, or the constituents, companies, and communities we serve. I could spend hours talking about each title, and the opportunities it offers that would advance our activities or be informed by our research and experience in that particular policy area. Instead, I would like to use my two minutes to reinforce how Farm Bill investments in land grant universities are leveraged for the benefit of every stakeholder of our food and farm systems.

University of Maine System students, nearly half of whom qualify for need-based federal Pell grants, and their families rely on SNAP and other nutrition access and assistance programs authorized through the Farm Bill. Many are place-bound, and broadband connectivity is essential to their ability to advance their social mobility and our economy and communities through postsecondary education, as it is now also a necessity for Maine’s rural farms, health care providers and small businesses. UMaine’s farm and forest landowner partners and colleagues tell us they need information about why and how they can adapt and mitigate climate change. They seek federally funded incentives that reduce their risk in adopting evidence-based sustainable and regenerative practices, including those that advance carbon sequestration and storage, which our research shows can be achieved while maintaining and even enhancing current harvest levels.

Perhaps nowhere is the success of agriculture and dependent rural communities more intertwined with the activities and capacity of the land grant university than here in Maine with our flagship university. There are many reasons for this, including that more than 99% of all Maine businesses are considered small businesses, which often lack their own R&D capabilities and thus depend on UMaine’s expertise and facilities to understand and solve problems, generate new ideas, and commercialize and catalyze innovation. UMaine Extension alone directly supports 5,600 Maine businesses annually, almost all of which are food-based. Our partners at the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, from whom you will hear today, recently noted that it is because of UMaine that production of this delicious, healthy berry has increased by 500% over the past 50 years, and that this iconic industry has turned into an economic powerhouse for Maine.  It also is well-positioned for new climates and markets.

Our collaboration with the wild blueberry and other sectors of the agricultural economy has been made possible in large part because of past federal investments in Cooperative Extension and our Experiment Stations, including through capacity grant programs, all of which should be reauthorized and increased. It is important you know that federal funding not only leverages State match, but also significant industry investment, as evidenced by a recent gift from Wyman’s, the Maine-based number one brand of frozen fruit in the nation, to establish a wild blueberry research field site at UMaine with plots controlled for genotype, akin to research traditionally conducted in orchards or row crops.

Consistent with recommendations of APLU and the Northeast Extension Directors, UMaine also suggests reauthorization as written of Smith-Lever Sections 3(b) and 3(c); Smith-Lever Section 3(d); Renewable Resources Extension Act of 1978; Urban, Indoor, and Other Emerging Agricultural Production Research, Education, and Extension Initiative; and the Sun Grant Program. We support reauthorization of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, the New Beginnings for Tribal Students, and the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, but recommend the removal of matching requirements for these programs, programs which are so important here in Maine. For example, through New Beginnings, UMaine is supporting Kinap Mentorships through which upper-level undergraduates or graduate students are serving as mentors to younger Wabanaki students at the university and in their tribal communities, with goals of helping Native American students persist in the sciences through college, career, and civic life, and advancing inclusive excellence.   

At the heart of all of our activity to support food and agriculture are our students, including undergraduates. Their participation in hands-on research learning creates new knowledge and prepares them to be leaders, problem-solvers and innovators in the future workforce. For this and other reasons, we suggest reauthorizing and updating the Hatch language to be in alignment with the Smith-Lever Act reference to State Extension directors and to align the statutorily responsible party with the modern execution of the program and with the Experiment Station directors’ role in being accountable for its success, and, secondly, to allow Hatch funds to be used for graduate student tuition.

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) should also be reauthorized at the current level of $700 million, and new investigator criteria should be adopted that specify the applicants should be within 12 years of their terminal degree, with an allowance for medical leave or other extenuating circumstances, and do not already have extensive publication records. Just last month, UMaine Extension won a $6.5 million AFRI award to partner with organizations such as Mano en Mano in Milbridge and the Somali Bantu Community Association in Lewiston to increase the number of youth studying food and agriculture, with a focus on preparing migrants, immigrants, and refugees for meaningful careers in the Maine food system.

Meanwhile, we urge reauthorization and a meaningful increase in funding for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) and the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP), which would better ensure farm viability by providing business and entrepreneurship support to those currently employed within the food system and the next generation food system workforce. The next Farm Bill should also increase and initiate investment in university/extension educational programs for certificates, micro-credentials, and apprenticeships that are valued by employers and are open to learners of all ages, including youth and those 25 and older seeking to upgrade their skills and abilities.

UMaine’s ability to serve food and farm stakeholders for the benefit of Maine and beyond is dependent upon modern facilities that meet the needs of our student and faculty researchers and are accessible to our partners and the public.

APLU has identified an $11.5 billion backlog of deferred maintenance at public university agriculture research and teaching facilities across the United States.  This is painfully relevant at UMaine where our overall infrastructure investment need is nearing $1 billion. Setting aside our ability to meet basic health, life safety, and ADA requirements, we simply cannot conduct 21st century research and development in 19th and 20th century facilities.

For example, Aroostook Farm in northern Maine is home to our world-class potato breeding program. In 2021 alone, varieties released by UMaine and its collaborators – like the Caribou Russet, which has dual value in both the processing and fresh consumption markets – had an approximate seed value of $25.8 million and a potential food production value of $239.4 million. Applied research at the century-old farm is disjointed across nine separate buildings.

The Research Facilities Act was authorized but never funded. We strongly urge Congress to reauthorize the Act, and provide at least $5 billion in mandatory funding for which all capacity-eligible institutions can compete. APLU and some 340 agriculture groups comprised of your constituents, including the Maine Farm Bureau, Maine Potato Board and Maine Grown By Vets have endorsed this request, as does UMaine, which no doubt would seek funding to modernize Aroostook Farm to strengthen our potato breeding program and pest management research; increase capacity for rotational crop research and partnerships with academic, government (USDA), and industry; and reduce future operating and maintenance costs.

We also support the strong partnership between USDA and NSF, with USDA currently co-sponsoring three AI centers with NSF.  We hope that the Farm Bill will provide opportunities for continued interagency collaboration, to expand the potential for interdisciplinary research and development in key areas like climate science and clean energy, as well as STEM education opportunities, that can make a critical difference for agriculture in our nation.

Undergirding Maine’s and our nation’s farms and food systems is cutting-edge research and a skilled, highly innovative workforce produced by America’s land grant universities. This country’s ability to maintain our global leadership and economic competitiveness and ensure equitable prosperity for all people; address climate change and cyberthreats; advance rural communities, food safety and security, and energy independence; and solve problems not yet imagined is dependent upon the investments in our institutions you can help make possible in the next Farm Bill.

Please know that the researchers and innovators of the University of Maine stand ready to be a resource to you as you continue your critical work for America’s future, and also invite collaboration with our counterparts in your districts. I thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today and welcome your questions.