February 4, 2011

Agriculture commissioner nominee clears hurdle

Panel offers unanimous backing

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- A dairy farmer from Waldo who is Gov. Paul LePage's nominee to be Maine's next agriculture commissioner earned unanimous support Thursday from a legislative committee.

click image to enlarge

Walter Whitcomb, agriculture nominee

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Walter Whitcomb of Springdale Jerseys Inc. got support from Democrats and Republicans during a hearing before the Legislature's Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. The committee voted 12-0 in favor of his nomination to the position, which pays $70,616 to $102,689 a year.

Whitcomb has helped run his family's dairy farm for 32 years. He is a past president of the Maine Dairy Industry Association and has served as chairman of the Maine Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

He has lobbied in Washington on behalf of dairy farmers and served in the Maine Legislature from 1984-96. He was Republican floor leader in his last three terms.

"I feel strongly he would be an excellent commissioner," said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who was House speaker while Whitcomb was the Republican leader.

Several farmers testified in support of Whitcomb, as did Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and former House Democratic leader John Piotti of Unity, who is now executive director of the Maine Farmland Trust.

No one testified in opposition.

"Walt is smart, Walt is hardworking, a man whose integrity can simply not be questioned," Piotti said.

Whitcomb, 58, whose nomination faces a Senate vote, said his two daughters will run the farm while he serves as commissioner. He will remain a one-third owner of the farm, which will continue to receive subsidies from the state's dairy stabilization program.

Whitcomb said he sought advice from the governor's legal counsel to ensure that there is no conflict of interest when it comes to his ability to oversee the program.

He said commissioners must follow the same ethics guidelines as legislators, which allow them to vote on policies that affect the industry as a whole, but not on legislation that would affect them personally.

Whitcomb said he will not get involved in detailed discussions of changes to the dairy program, but will be an advocate for it. "This program is the envy of the country," he said.

Later Thursday, members of the agriculture committee continued discussions of the program with the Appropriations Committee. Dairy farmers will receive the last payment from the program in mid-February, then it will be out of money.

A majority of the agriculture committee asked that $1.2 million be put into the fund to get the farmers through this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

"It seems to be the 11th hour," said Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. "We do not have a source for that $1.2 million."

Susan Cover -- 620-7015


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