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Why no one wants grain from plains of Maine

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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.

Why?

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.

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