I got my exercise today. A hearing by the Environment and Natural Resources Committee on the DEP’s proposed mining rules kicked off on the second floor of the State Office Building at 9 am and lasted all day. At the same time, the Appropriations Committee, in the Capitol building, opened a hearing on the budget for the Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Department. And upstairs on the fourth floor of the Capitol building, hearings on bills on the citizen initiative process began.
My goal in the morning was to testify against the mining rules and for changes in the citizen initiative process, while attending the Appropriations Committee to write about some controversial measures in the ACF budget. So I hustled back and forth between buildings, and each time I entered the Capitol building, I had to go through security. By late morning, I finally got to testify on the citizen initiative issues, then took a break for lunch, monitoring the Appropriations Committee during the lunch hour, mostly by checking in with friends who were there.
At 1 pm I was in the State and Local Government Committee, waiting to testify for Rep. Russell Black’s bill to designate maple syrup the state sweetener. While sitting there, I got word that my name had been called to testify on the mining bill. Just couldn’t be in two places at once. Thanks to Senator Tom Saviello, the Senate Chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, I didn’t lose my chance on the mining bill, so after testifying on the maple syrup bill, I traipsed on over to the other committee, and shortly after arriving, Senator Saviello gave me a chance to testify.
So I got to testify on three different bills in three different committees, while monitoring the hearing on the ACF budget. I also stopped by the Marine Resources Committee to catch up on an interesting conflict between clam and worm diggers.
That’s too much to write about in this column, so here’s what I’m going to do. Today I’ll tell you about the really fun bill, maple syrup.
Tomorrow I’ll give you a report on the citizen’s initiative bill. And sometime next week, I’ll have a report for you on the mining bill.
It was a sweet hearing. Rep. Russell Black presented his bill, LD 110, An Act to Make Maple Syrup the Official Maine Sweetener, at the request of the Maine Maple industry, the third largest in the country. Russell noted that Maine currently has about 1.8 million taps but has a potential of 41 million taps. A University of Maine study found that the maple industry generates an annual direct contribution to the State’s economy of an estimated 48.17 million dollars in output, 805 full-time and part-time jobs, and $25.1 million in labor income. We rank third behind Vermont and New York. And we want to be number one!
To get there, we must expand our marketing, promotion, and branding of Maine maple syrup. A bunch of legislators testified for the bill, including Senator Paul Davis, who has a lot of maple syrup producers in this district. Paul told the committee some of the history of his bill to designate the whoopie pie as the state desert.
I especially liked the history of maple syrup making in Maine that Paul offered. He reported that the Farmer’s Alamanac stated in 1803, “Prepare for making maple sugar which is more pleasant and patriotic than that ground by the hand of slavery and boiled down by the heat of misery… make your own sugar and send not to the Indies for it. Feast not on the toil, pain, and misery of the wretched.”
The only disappointing testimony came from Ellis Additon speaking “neither for nor against” the bill on behalf of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources. Addition said, “The Department feels it should also bring to the Committee’s attention that honey is another sweetener within the State of Maine.” Shame on them!
Jon Olson of the Maine Farm Bureau testified for the bill, noting that it “will help increase the public’s awareness for Maine’s maple syrup industry.” Jon was one of several speakers who said many Mainers don’t even know our state produces maple syrup.
Representative Mary Anne Kinney offered terrific testimony. She and her husband run Kinney’s Sugarhouse, a 9000 tap maple operation in the town of Knox. She offered the committee maple treats (alas, none for the audience!), and showed them a variety of maple products, along with lots of information about how healthy maple sugar is.
I told the committee that Amy Bouchard of Isomax Wicked Whoopies initiated the whoopie pie bill, with support from a lot of whoopie pie makers. I was there to testify for the bill. The hearing room was full of whoopie pies, which we were invited to eat. It was the tastiest hearing ever!
Blueberry growers objected, countering that the blueberry pie should be the state dessert, so the committee fashioned a compromise, designating the blueberry pie as the state dessert and the whoopie pie as the state treat. Now we’ve got a good excuse to eat both of them!
Many of us who testified for the bill emphasized the economic value of a state designation. For example, after starting her whoopie pie business in her Gardiner home, Amy used the state designation to help expand her business to the point where she has now sold mover 30 million whoopie pies. Whoopie!
I also told the story of my feeble attempt to make maple syrup, 35 years ago just after we moved to Mount Vernon. I put some buckets on a bunch of my trees, including a real big one out on the State Highway, Route 41. That tree turned out to be an oak tree! I got no oak sap. And took quite a ribbing from friends and neighbors.
I did tap enough real maple trees to get quite a bit of sap. So I set up a small wood stove in the driveway, where I could watch it from my office windows, started a fire, and poured the sap into a big container. I boiled and boiled and boiled some more, until I finally had a nice jar of syrup.
But when Linda tried it, she said it tasted like soot. Turns out the short stove pipe let soot and ashes drop down into the boiling sap. Needless to say, we didn’t eat a lot of that syrup! And luckily, soon after, our neighbors Ron and Nancy LaRue started making maple syrup that we’ve been buying ever since.
Wrapping up my testimony, I told committee members that they might be asking why they should designate maple syrup as the state sweetener. But the better question is why not? It will help the industry, and we should do it.