January 9, 2011

MOFGA, critics will not meet

AUGUSTA — If you held a discussion on best practices of both organic and conventional farming and the use of genetically modified crops wouldn't you want all the players to weigh in on the conversation?

You would think.

But that isn't the case.

At the Agricultural Trades Show that starts Tuesday at the Augusta Civic Center, the Maine Farm Bureau is hosting a "Convergence = Sustainability" workshop for the second year in a row. The theme of the workshop is to promote co-existence of organic and conventional farming along with genetically engineered crops.

But members of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association are excluded from the meeting.

They'll be down the hall attending their annual meeting, which was scheduled the same time as the workshop.

The workshop starts at 2 p.m. in the Cumberland Room and MOFGA's annual meeting starts at 1:30 p.m. in Piscataquis/Sagadahoc rooms.

Each year during the three-day show, MOFGA offers a series of presentations on sustainable agriculture along with its annual meeting.

MOFGA's executive director, Russell Libby, said the whole purpose of the farm bureau's workshop is to bring together different agricultural groups. MOFGA has more than 6,300 members and oversees organic certification in the state.

"During this session the Farm Bureau is bringing in a speaker to attack organic farming, and that's during our annual meeting," Libby said. "They can bring any speaker they want to attack the idea of organic agriculture, but it would be nice to at least schedule it so we could be there."

Libby said author Mischa Popoff is a guest speaker at the "Convergence = Sustainability" workshop. He said Popoff has written several articles and a book criticizing the organic food industry.

Libby said complained about the scheduling to Seth Bradstreet, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture.

"What he told me is that people put in for time slots and that they try to accommodate everybody's request," Libby said. "I'm pretty sure the farm bureau had several different time slots they could have used. If they really want to have a conversation about these issues, scheduling the same time isn't the way to do it. I welcome (Popoff's) opinions, but would like to make sure people who want to respond can. I'm not going to be there because it's during our annual meeting."

Bradstreet could not be reached Saturday, but Judy Blaisdell, trades show coordinator, said it is her job to schedule rooms for agriculture organizations based on preference of time and date and the amount of participants.

Several meetings are scheduled for Tuesday, she said, the show's biggest meeting day.

"Tuesday is ultimately the day most organizations request available space," Blaisdell said. "I do not get involved in rearranging preference of schedules between organizations unless both organizations ask me to make the change. For example, the Maine Milk Commission has a meeting scheduled on Tuesday the same time as the Maine Cheese Guild. This is a conflict for dairy producers and they need to choose which meeting they would like to attend."

She said there are several instances where meetings conflict with other meetings, but unless she is approached by an organization, she has to schedule based on request and availability.

"For me to try and guess whether a conflict will arise with participants on all meeting request would be impossible," she said. "Please understand that if I'm approached by both parties and asked to reschedule I would do so happily, as long as both parties are in agreement. I was not approached by either group until after the schedule was posted."

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