MFPC Board finds common ground with ACF nominee

Amanda Beal, Gov. Janet Mills’ nominee for commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, speaks with MFPC Board.

The committee confirmation hearing for Amanda Beal, Governor Janet Mills’ nominee for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, is Thursday, Feb. 14, at 1 p.m., before the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Joint Standing Committee in Cross Building, Room 214.

When she met with the MFPC Board Jan. 29, Amanda Beal, nominee for commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (ACF), acknowledged right from the start that her expertise is not in forestry, but in agriculture.

“I haven’t spent a lot of time in forestry. I definitely have a lot to learn there,” said Beal, who lives in Warren. “But what I come to this with is just a really genuine feeling and understanding and belief that our natural resources industries in Maine are the backbone of our economy and our culture and are incredibly important. And I think over the long time span, they are going to be the most enduring.”

Beal, currently executive director of the Maine Farmland Trust, grew up on her family’s commercial dairy farm in Litchfield. She earned a master’s degree from Tufts University’s Agriculture, Food and Environment program, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Natural Resources at the University of New Hampshire. She’s worked on agricultural issues as a policy advocate, a researcher, and the manager of a retail food store that supported numerous local farms.

Amanda Beal sees “a lot of similarities between agriculture and forestry.”

“You probably have a lot of questions that I don’t have answers to because I’ve only known for maybe a couple of days longer than you have that I would be the governor’s nominee for this position,” Beal said. “So I haven’t had a long time to be thinking and strategizing, but I am trying to get out and meet folks and just let you know that my ears are open and I’m really interested in hearing what you all have to say.”

Beal’s strong support for the state’s natural resource industries resonated with MFPC Board member John Cashwell.

“She went right to the fact that fishing, farming and forestry have been and will be ad infinitum the basis of a lot of the economics and character of the state of Maine,” Cashwell said. “They’re important issues. I think she’s ready to learn about the working forest. I didn’t hear anything in the conversation at the meeting that threw up flags.” 

Beal told the board she hopes to get a better understanding of ways that the department “can really support that forward-thinking and innovative work going forward. And really be a partner in making sure that you’re successful in reaching your goals.”

“I do understand that there are some real opportunities in forestry,” she said. “I’ve been following along with the FOR/Maine initiative and I’ve been really impressed that so many different people have come together to work on a vision and a roadmap for forestry. And that gives me hope and excitement for where things can go.”

From conversations she’s had so far, including with Executive Director Patrick Strauch, Beal sees “a lot of similarities between agriculture and forestry,” such as succession issues and a serious need for workers. Both industries are becoming more mechanized and the equipment is becoming more expensive. Both must find balance between environmental standards and production.  

“I think there is a lot that I can bring in terms of my perspective from working in agriculture so deeply and over the last 20 years of my professional career,” Beal said. “But I look forward to learning much, much more from everybody in this room and beyond.”

Jim Contino also noted common ground in the pressures faced by farmers and forestland owners in southern Maine from “development, small parcels and subdivisions to the farmlands. I think that’s one place where we can have some synergies between farming and forestry.”

“Amanda has dedicated much of her career to supporting Maine’s agricultural economy and bolstering conservation efforts across the state. Her wealth of knowledge, experience, and skills will be a valuable asset to the people of Maine as she undertakes the role of leading the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry,” said Gov. Mills. “I know that Amanda will build a team of intelligent people who are good listeners and who have common-sense and a bit of dirt under their nails so that we can bring together the diverse and equally important interests overseen by this department and ensure that everyone gets a fair shake from state government.”

Contino spoke about the need for outreach to forest landowners, saying, “There have been studies that show that the number one most credible source that could be reaching out to them are the state foresters, the extension folks, and that’s never really been resourced well. I think that’s an opportunity for you.”

Beal agreed, adding, “so many farmers have forest resources and they don’t see them as part of their business model. There’s a lot that could be done to help them understand that they could be managing in a way that would be very beneficial to their bottom line . . . It would help the farmers to be more viable, it would help to stave off the development pressure that people are experiencing, if we could really help them to see what they have there as an asset.”

Recently Beal had the opportunity to visit an active logging site and ride in a feller buncher, “which was amazing,” she said. “I really do hope I get to have more experiences like that to help me really understand what the core issues are and what some of the opportunities are that you’re excited about.”

Saying he was speaking on behalf of everyone in the room, Jason Brochu quickly invited her to visit any of their facilities.

“Just like farming we’ve automated,” Brochu said. “We have really high technology. I think people who come through our facilities are always surprised at what we’re able to do. There are so many similarities between what we do and farming. We have a long crop rotation, but we are basically farmers. If you can get out to the facilities when the dust settles – I know you’ll be very busy up front – I know everybody in here would extend that invitation to you.”

Strauch later told board members that Beal “is interested in people’s ideas about how to staff her agency. And I think that if we reach out to her, she will take in all that information. She’s interested in making the right decisions, being supportive of our industry, and I think she’s looking for our advice on getting the right people into the key jobs.  So I would encourage you all to talk with her and invite her out to your operations.”

Board member Terry Walters and MFPC lobbyist Michele MacLean both said they were “very impressed with her.”

“She’s definitely going to need help in forestry,” Walters said, “but I think it is incumbent upon us to try and assist her in finding good people for positions in ACF.”

“She exceeded my expectation,” MacLean said. “Obviously she doesn’t have the background in forestry and forest products but she seems open and interested and genuine in her desire to learn.”