Final report for FNE20-958
SBCA explored the untapped commercial markets by which to provide more farmers with opportunities for economic and food security, through cornmeal production. We researched the potential for a value-added African flint cornmeal in Maine’s farmers markets and in Maine’s local, food-based businesses, where current research showed increasing market potential. We found much enthusiasm and support from various outlets including Maine Grain Alliance, who provided some technical assistance to the project, and Maine Grains, who purchased almost 90% of the corn we produced and then donated 5% of proceeds from the final product back to our organization. We ended up selling over 9,000 pounds of African flint corn, which helped our farmers secure critical income, over $12,000, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
This project was so successful that we are doubling our corn production this season to keep up with demand. We have conducted significant market outreach and will now have 6 (up from 3) market outlets for our corn crop this coming harvest season. Our farmers are incredibly satisfied and excited for the next opportunity to sell their corn. We anticipate that demand for this product and, consequently, enthusiasm for our programming will continue to grow.
This project seeks to determine if unfamiliar varieties of value-added products, particularly African flint cornmeal, has a market in Maine. We will compare customer perceptions to conventional cornmeal, and their reaction to our chemical-free, local, more nutritious product. With this information, we will evaluate the product’s potential in farmers markets, local businesses, and our Somali Bantu community throughout Maine. We aim to answer the following questions: What is the familiarity with flint corn in Maine’s agricultural heritage? How much are farmers market, wholesale, and Somali Bantu customers willing to pay for the product? With what frequency do these parties predict using this product?
If this project is successful, we will have the capacity to invite more farmers to access our programs, resulting in increased food and economic security in Somali Bantu communities in Maine, and more Maine-grown products into Maine businesses, farmers markets, and food pantries. Consequently, this growth will stimulate an economic boost in the economically depressed areas of Lewiston and Auburn. Additionally, this product would not only promote Liberation Farms, but also the products of other Maine farmers who aspire to reintroduce traditional Maine crops into commercial markets, food systems, and the food consciousness of Maine’s residents and customers.
Brought to Somalia in the 19th century by slave traders, Bantus endured centuries of oppression in the horn of Africa as enslaved agricultural laborers. During Somalia’s civil war, many Bantu, facing violence, evacuated to camps in Kenya. Our founder and executive director, Muhidin Libah, grew up in a Kenyan refugee camp before moving to the United States and enrolling in college in New York. In 1999, the U.S. government began resettling Somali Bantu refugees around the country. In the early 2000s, Somali Bantu arrived in Lewiston. Today, there are over 6,000 Somalis in Lewiston and Auburn, over 3,000 of which are Bantu.
For many decades Lewiston suffered a decline in the manufacturing industries that were once its economic base. Although this trend bottomed out in the 1980s, the most recent U.S. Census still reported harrowing results. Over 23% of people in Lewiston are living at or below the federal poverty level. Downtown Lewiston is home to three “extreme poverty census tracts”, which are among the poorest in the nation. The poverty level in these areas reaches as high as 67%. In 2017, 96% of children in the city’s school system were eligible for free/reduced meals. Further, in the most recent update of Household Food Security in the US (2015), Maine ranked third in the nation for people experiencing very low food security. In this context, the Somali Bantu are the poorest community in the poorest city in one of the poorest states.
Additionally, our community has experienced notable health consequences as we have immigrated to the U.S. The transition from Somali food to an American diet often leads to diet-related illnesses including obesity, diabetes, and heart diseases. The stress of adjusting to new cultures, in conjunction with the inability to access familiar foods, puts our community at a distinct disadvantage in Maine. On top of these barriers, families in our community are unable able to provide their family with nutritious, affordable foods using SNAP and WIC benefits alone. All of the farmers participating in Liberation Farms struggle with food insecurity and 100% use SNAP benefits to help feed their families. We aim to combat these alarming trends with exclusively sustainable farming practices that provide economic opportunities, healthy and culturally appropriate food, and the ability to practice essential cultural traditions. We source our seeds locally, distribute our food locally, use human power to grow our produce, and we have never used chemical fertilizers or herbicides.
Our program is accessible to anyone who wants to participate and our commercial sales prioritize that communities struggling with food insecurity have access to our high-quality produce. The program actively addresses issues of hunger and accessibility in Cumberland County through its Farm-to-Pantry participation, and bolsters the local food economy with our institutional relationships and farmer’s market participation.
We participate in ‘farm to charitable food system’ work including our contract with Good Shepherd’s Mainers Feeding Mainers. Further, we engage in ‘farm to low-income consumer’ markets by selling at farmers markets that accept SNAP, WIC, and Maine Harvest Bucks.
In 2014 the Liberation Farm program supported 20 farmers. As of September 2019, the program now boasts 137 farmers who grow and distribute fresh, local produce to help build healthy communities. Our program participants report that 12-24 people typically eat produce from their 1/10 acre plot, most of whom are children. This success is a testament to the imperative need that it serves within the Bantu community. According to SBCA Executive Director, Muhidin Libah, “There is no shortage of new Mainers looking for a way into farming.”
In addition to increasing food security and access to culturally appropriate and familiar foods for our family farmers, the expansion of Liberation Farms’ corn production into value-added cornmeal would allow for more Maine-grown produce in local food pantries, farmer’s markets, and local businesses. This increase of local produce means that these parties and our farmers are cutting down on the carbon footprint of transportation and packaging of produce that may not be grown without chemical assistance. With additional income and influence in commercial markets in Maine, this expansion would also extend the farming program’s ability to sustain and provide a safe place to connect with land, gather as a community, and preserve cultural traditions for more farmers than those who currently participate, which is critical to the collective health of our community as we adapt to our lives in Maine. Farmers consistently report that our program improves their physical, mental, social, and emotional well-being.
The Somali Bantu community in Lewiston and Auburn enthusiastically expressed interest in value-added African flint cornmeal. To capitalize on this potential, we surveyed past and current family farmers, past and current Iskashito commercial farmers to determine how much corn they would like to grow, and if they are interested in being involved in corn processing after harvest. We reached out to these folks via word of mouth, our farming program email and whats app groups to recruit survey participants. Survey questions included: What price would you pay for cornmeal milled by SBCA from African flint corn grown by community members? If you had access to this cornmeal, in how many meals a week would you use this product? In what size bags would you like to see this product packaged in (1 lb, 5 lb, 10 lb, etc.)? How many people in your community would likely be interested in this product? If this product is more appealing to you than conventional alternatives, how so? How many people are you typically feeding and how long will 1 lb of cornmeal last for your family?
Some folks responded to this survey from our office or over the phone at scheduled times to complete the survey in Maay Maay. We used these results to determine how many African flint corn seeds we saved and distributed from last year's crops.
We also conducted market research that strongly suggested that a heritage grain organic cornmeal product is likely to be in high demand among Maine’s local food-based businesses and farmers markets. We expanded upon our existing relationships with existing commercial accounts like Tortillera Panchanga, a dedicated supporter and market account for Liberation Farms’ current corn production, and conducted outreach to find new market partners, including Maine Grains. We also brought some cornmeal to our farmers markets in Norway and Yarmouth, and found great success.
Through conversations with folks at markets and comparing market prices of similar products we landed on a price of $5 a pound for our cornmeal. We broadcasted this opportunity to our supportive network via email and word of mouth and, with the guidance of our Markets Manager, Kristina Kalolo, who reached out to many potential buyers of this product to supply samples, we were able to secure accounts with Maine Grains, SongBird Farm, Night Moves Bakery, and expand our account with Tortilla Pachanga. We conducted research of organizations who already used heritage grains in their products, and who we may have an existing connection with via our network, to inform our outreach strategy.
We carefully tracked the amount of cornmeal we sold and worked with all of these accounts to help this product reach a broader audience in farmers markets and health food stores. We shared many resources with Maine Grains and Maine Grain Alliance, and are still connected via this project. Our product can now be found at a number of small distributors and local food stores in Portland and Skowhegan.
Finally, we were also able to obtain an old 1950's coffee grinder from a generous donor to get our farmers involved in the processing piece of this project. While we did not process all of our corn, we were able to use this equipment to process some of it for family consumption. Family farmers who grew corn could bring their crop in to the office to be ground into cornmeal. This was an in person demonstration that, unfortunately, was not accompanied by written materials as it was conducted in Maay Maay, which is largely a spoken and not a written language. Many of our farmers cannot read or write.
Thus far, this grant has allowed us to survey members within our own community and in our larger Maine community to gather initial data about whether an unfamiliar corn meal would be well-received in Maine's commercial market. We asked the following questions: What price would you pay for cornmeal milled by SBCA from African flint corn grown by community members? If you had access to this cornmeal, in how many meals a week would you use this product? In what size bags would you like to see this product packaged in (1 lb, 5 lb, 10 lb, etc.)? How many people in your community would likely be interested in this product? If this product is more appealing to you than conventional alternatives, how so? How many people are you typically feeding and how long will 1 lb of cornmeal last for your family?
We received strong support through this process and decided to move forward with marketing our corn throughout 2020. We spend some of this grant's resources funding the communication process with a few potential markets, and have since developed strong and consistent relationships with additional market accounts who are selling our flint corn in different forms - Maine Grains processes our corn into cornmeal for retail sale at grocery stores and online, Night Moves Bakery processes our corn into meal to incorporate into their specialty breads, and Songbird Farm distributes our corn in their seasonal CSA. We sold out of over 6,000 pounds of corn immediately, indicating wonderful success for our farmers and our larger corn project. This additional income, over $6,500, for our farmers has been critical, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of our farmers are out of work, and are turning to farming with SBCA to support their economic and food security.
The resulting cornmeal products have also seen incredible popularity in grocery stores, in CSA's, in tortillas, and in bread, suggesting that Mainer's are interested in supporting local heritage grain products! Our market accounts are praising our corn and often come back to us with the message that they "cannot keep our products on the shelves". Due to this success, we have invested in more corn seeds and additional infrastructure for drying corn, and we have recruited more farmers to join our corn coalition next season. The success has fueled a lot of energy for our corn project with in our community, which is a wonderful way for us, Somali Bantu folks, to honor our cultural heritage in Maine.
We sought to determine if African flint cornmeal had a profitable place in Maine's local food economy. We surveyed community members to gauge interest, reached out to potential market accounts, developed relationships with these accounts, sold over 6,000 pounds of corn for our farmers, and provided essential economic security and an avenue to celebrate our Somali Bantu traditions. The resulting cornmeal products have seen incredible popularity, suggesting that Mainer's are interested in supporting local heritage grain products! Due to this success, we have invested in more corn seeds and additional infrastructure for drying corn next season, and we have recruited more farmers to join our corn coalition next season. The success has fueled a lot of energy for our corn project with in our community, which is a wonderful way for us, Somali Bantu folks, to honor our cultural heritage in Maine. We anticipate these changes will bring at least $7,000 of additional income to our corn farmers next season, and will help to promote SBCA as a valuable resource for new Mainers in need of fiscal support and a connection to their agriculture roots.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
We have hosted multiple demonstrations and workshop days to help our farmers become familiar with the quality control that our market accounts require. In particular, we have hosted food safety and handling workshops, demonstrations about how to efficiently de-cob and winnow (clean) our corn, and drying workshops.
Mark Fulford, co-founder of Adaptive Ag and a heritage grain farmer, has been integral to this process. He has helped us to develop a corn drying system that works for our farmers and market account holders, been an invaluable corn drying, cleaning, and packaging consultant, and continues to be a constant resource whenever hiccups in our processing arise.
We have also facilitated a campaign to make sure that our farmers can also afford this food that they are growing. We have purchased an old coffee grinder and held a workshop on how to operate it so that farmers can keep any amount of corn they would like to, and process it into cornmeal at our office in downtown Lewiston for free.
Key areas of increased knowledge and skills include food safe handling, cleaning, and packaging of our corn, and knowledge development for corn processing machines. This grant has allowed our farmers to attend workshops to safely handle food to the standard of our market accounts, and to access to unfamiliar tools that help to make processing our corn more efficient. These tools include a grinder for our farmers to process their personal corn into meal for the food security of their families, hand-crank de-cobber machines to help speed up the process of taking kernels off of corn cobs, and a winnower to help speed up the cleaning process of the corn kernels. All of these machines required knowledge building so that they can be used safely.
Not only has this cornmeal provided our farmers with critical income and food security, many of our farmers have also noted that they feel a heightened sense of pride in their corn as a result of this project. They see it as a piece of themselves, their culture, and their original home in Somalia. This pride has enlivened our community and energized younger generations of Somali Bantu community members, boosting their interest in corn, agriculture, and Somali Bantu culture.
We have been able to establish 3 new markets, and are looking to expand in 2021. We saw increased yield, and an increase in the quality of our corn throughout this project.
Our study's approach was community-centric, which was key to the success of this project. Without the enthusiasm and existing knowledge of our farmers and Somali Bantu community members, we would have not had the expertise or momentum to grow corn of as high a quality and yield as we did. Further, without community energy and pride, our market accounts would likely be less interested in this project.
We certainty answered our initial question: Is African flint cornmeal a viable commercial product in Maine? Yes! We plan to continue drawing on our generations of corn farming experience to make this program a cultural and economic success. There is more work to be done in two key areas: recruiting more farmers to participate in our program, and establishing our product in farmers markets. This year, our market account demand was too large for our yield. We need more farmers to meet this demand, and then our product will be able to accompany us to farmers markets, as well, which would be a wonderful way to communicate to shoppers about our culture and our pride in our corn.
One change we will make moving forward, is a return to the greenhouse drying method. This season we experimented with a solar bubble drying system, and outdoor system that holds corn in a large plastic tube to optimize the sun's energy for drying out the grain. While we were hopeful this system would help to speed up our process, we found that it was not impermeable to moisture, and much of our grain got wet while after a period of intense weather, setting us back 2-4 weeks. To combat this, we pivoted to investing in drying tables that could accommodate more corn, and we moved this wet product into our greenhouse where it was able to dry to appropriate levels for cleaning and packaging. Many grain farmers in Maine may benefit from this finding. Solar bubbles may not be able to stand up to Maine weather! We have found that they are not quite as hardy as Maine's people.