April 3, 2011

Farming in Whitcomb's blood

Commissioner a dairy farmer, former legislator

By Rebekah Metzler
MaineToday Media State House Writer

AUGUSTA -- Where Walt Whitcomb comes from, people know what it means when the cows are out.

click image to enlarge

Walter E. Whitcomb, the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, right, chats with Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, in the Cross State Office Building recently. Sherman is Senate chair of the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Although the area has lost some of its farming character over the years, there's still a neighborly spirit when it comes to spying stray livestock, he said.

"Interestingly, as MBNA and now Bank of America developed in the Belfast area, they'll have a late shift that will get out at midnight or 1 a.m. because they've been talking to folks on the West Coast," Whitcomb said. "And more than one night, they've come knocking on doors saying, 'You've got a cow out on the road.' So we hurry out and try to get it in."

Whitcomb, Maine's new commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, grew up on, and still owns, a dairy farm in Waldo, between Newport and Belfast.

Whitcomb, 58, said he always knew he would take up the family business.

"It was perhaps a factor of growing up around it, but it's always been sort of a passion as well as a comfortable activity," said Whitcomb, who graduated from Mount View High School in 1970 and earned a degree in animal science from the University of Maine.

Whitcomb's family farm milks 150 to 180 Jersey and Guernsey cows and sells breeding stock, calves and veal to in-state buyers. Its evolution mirrors that of many Maine farming success stories. Beginning with his grandparents, each generation found a way to grow and adapt to the changing landscape, using resourcefulness to maintain the agricultural livelihood.

His grandparents milked at most a dozen cows, Whitcomb said, but his grandfather also sold potatoes and his grandmother made butter.

"It was just the typical do-everything farm," he said. "In the old days, they were diversified. When the railroad came through that area, they and the other farms there began to sell cream, and it went on to Boston."

Whitcomb's parents later purchased the land next to his grandparents and began their own farm with five cows. At times, the sheep outnumbered the cows; and at others, they had a lot of laying hens. His mother helped take over his grandparents' produce route, though eventually it fell by the wayside.

"You take eggs and vegetables to town, you deliver them house to house, and that was where we got a lot of our grocery money and egg money growing up, was the Friday egg route," he said. "I think with the advent of supermarkets and sort of this fresh produce and those things, it was easier for people to just go get it somewhere and it was relatively inexpensive; and so as we grew up, why, we gave that up and went on to doing other things."

After Whitcomb spent a few post-college years in Illinois working as a traveling representative for the national Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity, he came home in 1979 and bought his grandparents' land.

Now, with Whitcomb occupied by the agriculture commissioner's job, his two daughters, Carrie and Holly, who both studied dairy science at Cornell University, have taken over running the farm, as has his 87-year-old mother, Lois.

"She's very much involved. She does some of the chores and takes care of the little baby animals morning and night," he said. Whitcomb and his wife, Nancy, also have a son, Joel, who lives in Boston.

Those who know Whitcomb, a Republican, say his mix of experience in government and in the agricultural industry make him the perfect choice as agriculture commissioner. He spent 12 years in the Legislature, from 1984 to 1996, serving as House minority leader for the last half of his tenure. He also helped oversee U.S. Department of Agriculture programs in Maine from 2000 to 2008 as chairman of the Maine Farm Service Agency.

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