Why no one wants grain from plains of Maine

America's easternmost state has a dilemma.

There are between 52,000 and 60,000 acres of oats waving in the northern breeze on the plains of Aroostook County this summer.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, Maine oats command the lowest price in the nation -- an average in 1981 of $1.40 per bushel, compared with between $1.80 and $2.10 in Midwestern states. ''They about give away the oats up here,'' says Terry Jones of the Aroostook County Extension Service.

So where do farmers in the hilly southern part of the state get their grain? From the Midwest, 1,000 miles away.


Because it's cheaper.

The grain situation illustrates one challenge facing New England as it gropes toward more agricultural self-reliance: tough competition from long-established marketing systems outside the region. Maine's vegetable-growers and orchard owners run into similar problems, since the major distribution center for New England crops is near Boston. The result: Maine vegetables and fruits often pass through Chelsea, Mass., on their way to Maine supermarkets.

Some farmers in the southern part of the state, like dairyman Robert Allen in Hebron, have tested the grain system on their own. Grain for his 94 head of cattle, he says, costs up to $80,000 a year -- ''the largest single item'' in the budget.

So a few years ago he took his truck up north. But he says that by the time he located good oats at a good price, bagged it, brought it home, had it milled, and mixed it, ''The labor costs involved made it pretty expensive feed.''

Maine's commissioner of agriculture, Stewart N. Smith, is well aware of the problem. ''We've built some of our self-reliant arguments on a false premise,'' he says. That premise, he says, is that increasing energy costs will make New England-grown crops more competitive within the region as the costs of transportation from the Midwest increase.

In fact, he says, of the total amount of energy used in the food production system, only 3 percent is used for transportation. So the amount saved by freighting oats for only 200 miles instead of 1,000 is small. Such saving matters little, compared to the costs involved in small-scale operations typical of Aroostook County, where oats are grown as a rotation crop with the county's staple, potatoes.

Nevertheless, state officials are looking for ways to help. A Small Grains Task Force is studying ways to transport and market grain within the state for the benefit of dairy and chicken farmers.

And by December a site is to be selected by the state for a new grain-handling center to be built somewhere along the Auburn-to-Yarmouth axis in southern Maine. Such a facility, says Wayne Thurston, director of the Maine Milk Program, will allow ''unit trains'' to bring grain in bulk from the Midwest whenever the price is right. He adds that the new storage depot ''might speed the use of Maine grain'' as well.

At present, however, three problems face Maine's oat business:

Quality. Dr. Edward Micka, an economist with the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Maine, notes that the moisture content of Maine oats is high. That increases the weight per bushel (and the cost) without increasing the feed value.

Transportation. One source involved in the marketing of oats in northern Maine singled out transportation as the central issue. Over the past five years , he says, his firm has experienced freight-rate increases approaching 70 percent. He also points out that the capacity of the local railway cars is typically about 110,000 pounds, instead of the 200,000 pounds available to shippers on the major transcontinental lines. But since the cost of hauling each car is roughly the same, the per-bushel transportation costs for Maine grain is correspondingly higher.

Marketing. Mr. Jones of the Aroostook County Extension Service cites the need for a coherent marketing plan. He recalls a meeting recently among grain consumers in southern Maine, in which the concept of a grain-handling and marketing plan was raised. ''Everybody thought it was a good idea,'' he says, ''but nobody wanted to do it.''

Behind these problems lies a question of priority. ''Oats is such a secondary crop,'' says Agriculture Commissioner Smith, that ''farmers don't put a high enough priority on it.'' He adds that ''they will deliver oats when they have time away from their potato activity.''

For, as the grain dealer quoted earlier noted, ''There's just not that much profit in oats.''

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