Maine Alternative Agriculture Assoc. (“MA3”) is working to create a local foods hub in southern Somerset County, Maine, a distinctly rural area with minimal urban outlets for small farmers wishing to market directly to consumers. The physical facility is in place to collect, store and do some value-added processing of local agricultural products. This current project, funded by SARE, is meant to move MA3 into the next phase of the effort and has two main components:
• Survey and meet with farmers to assess their willingness to grow or produce for the new enterprise which will develop new markets for their products; and
• Develop contacts with consumer groups, both in rural and in adjacent urban areas, and facilitate direct marketing of farm products via food clubs or other bulk-buying arrangements.
The objective of this project is to stimulate farm production in an area of Maine that currently has tremendous potential for agriculture – still open farmland, excellent soils, reasonable proximity to urban markets – but much of this valuable farmland is underused. The goal is to see some of this acreage in food production for Maine consumers. (Hundreds of acres with the potential for high-quality food production – vegetables, grains, pasture – are presently being kept open by the production of low-quality hay.) At the same time, the project seeks to engage more Maine consumers in the buy local movement.
The performance targets of MA3’s original proposal were comprehensive and ambitious. We have met some of them, failed some, and, surprisingly, achieved some notable accomplishments we had not remotely contemplated. Everyone at Maine Alternative Agriculture has worked hard to promote this project and we hope NE SARE will appreciate the sometimes surprising turns the project has taken.
Our original objective was to have six farms under contract and producing for a total of 100 food club buyers by the end of the project period, one year. We do not have those farms under contract but we are still engaged in the process: they know we are here to stay and willing to buy. We have the facility in place to aggregate, store and package their product and we have made the contacts with three adjacent communities interested in buying local products either through food clubs or by establishing a local outlet.
Our verification/evaluation plan for the project as submitted to SARE, and our accomplishments (and our on-going efforts) are itemized below.
April 2012 – Create Legal Documents
A simple farmer production contract and an MA3/Food Club supply agreement have been drafted. Copies are included in the supplemental materials submitted with this report.
May 2012 – Hire assistants, initial contact and sign-on for participating farms and potential food clubs.
We had hoped to hire two assistants who would work as needed throughout the entire project but found that impossible. For both farmer and potential food club contacts, we felt it was necessary to have personal who could discuss the local food issue – from production to costs to plate – on a professional level. We wanted farmers talking with farmers and, to a great extent, farmers talking with buyers. As we approached those people with the idea of working on this project, the response was pretty uniform: they would not commit to being hired for six months to a year but would be happy to be involved on an ad hoc level. This allowed us to hire farmers for particular stints: one with years of experience in vegetable production to talk with hay producers about what it would take to make particular sections of hay ground suitable for a vegetable crops; another with wheat production experience to visit potential small grain producers; another to talk directly with a Waterville group interested in forming a food club about a possible annual delivery schedule based on an annual growing schedule, for example.
Consequently, we contracted the work out as the project moved along. This allowed us to engage more people in the overall project and it allowed us to make use of various levels of knowledge and expertise.
We made initial contact with seven farms (Song Bird, Sweet Land, Richie, Harakiel, Hoskins and Hilton in Starks; Blue Ribbon in Mercer) to discuss the production possibilities for food buying clubs and continued this contact throughout the project.
We made initial contact with potential food buying clubs or institutions in Bangor (St. Joseph’s Hospital), Brunswick (Parkview Adventist Hospital), Waterville (working with the Sustain Maine citizens group), and the Starks community.
June – October 2012 – Anticipated monthly production/orders/sales
It became clear very early on that our initial plan – to be taking orders and encouraging production for the spring/early summer 2012 – was too ambitious. Initial contact with the farmers indicated equal amounts of interest and caution; they were eager to hear of the marketing possibilities and willing to consider growing to contract. But growing to contract is not common among smaller producers in this area and there was a definite reluctance to commit.
At the same time, we were looking for a very diverse array of products – mixed vegetables (from fresh greens to storage crops), pasture-raised poultry and beef – and we were looking for farmers who were willing, whether they were organic or not, to work with us on ways to assure our customers that the farming methods employed by our suppliers were eco-friendly, humane, safe and sustainable. We have even gone a little further and are asking the farmers we work with to commit to an effort to improve their soils to a level where we can justifiably assure our customers that we are striving to bring them the most nutrient dense products possible.
We only contacted farmers we believed would be amenable to these specifications and who, in many cases, were already engaged in healthy, holistic farm planning. They are all, without exception, interested in applying the concept of soils management for nutrient density.
And, except for poultry production, the farmers we talked with were already producing many of the varieties of product we knew we would need to supply potential customers.
To back up and to create the knowledge base we needed, we developed a schedule of six public meetings to discuss the project and to feature agriculture consultants, experts and practitioners (farmers, veterinarians, lawyers) who gave presentations on the practical aspects of a diversified local food system. (Please see enclosed materials for samples of brochures, mail-outs, etc.)
By inviting these landowners to a series of presentations on different sorts of agricultural production that might suit their land and labor and equipment resources, we tried to interest them in growing/producing for local consumers. At the same, we introduced them to the Maine Alternative Agriculture facility which can serve as both a collection/aggregation/storage center and a marketing medium for any new products they produce.
We brought soils and livestock consultants together with these landowners to assess the viability of these areas for food production:
• May 31, Mark Fulford on biological soils enhancements Part I;
• June 13, Dr. Robert Patterson on safe and humane livestock management;
• June 27, Diane Schivera on pasture raised poultry;
• July 11, Dr. Michal McNeill on long-term consequences of glyphosates in soils and livestock;
• September 12, two current documentary films on genetically modified organisms in agriculture;
• October 3, Mark Fulford on biological soils management Part II.
Two dozen farmers consistently attended these presentations with smaller numbers of consumers participating. Dr. McNeill’s presentation drew sixty-five farmers.
Additionally, Dr. McNeill, a soils consultant from Iowa, met with six individual farmers to assess their specific operations for the possibility of wheat, or other small grains, production.
These presentations covered sophisticated biological soils management, livestock handling and care, pastured poultry production, large-scale organic production, and farming without glyphosates or genetically modified seed and animal feed. The focus was on sustainable production methods, not exclusively organic, with a strong emphasis on building healthy soil.
Instead of a final fall harvest dinner we preceded each of these presentations with a social hour and a pizza/salad buffet – all from locally grown wheat, vegetables and meat products – prepared in the MA3 kitchen and baked in our wood-fired brick oven.
One long-term, model production/purchase relationship with an institutional buyer was established with the Pierce House, a residential home for the elderly in Farmington. Food safety was the first concern of the management there and the Director was under the impression that “local food” implied no safety standards in production and handling. Maine Alternative Agriculture was able to bring the Director to two of our farms to explain our commitment to food safety and to show her those standards in practice. She was particularly impressed with the production and handling of greens, assured of the cleanliness of the washing and handling process, and subsequently entered into an agreement with one of those farmers for weekly greens delivery that extended through December 2012.
October – November 2012 – Ongoing discussion w/potential food clubs/farmer suppliers
Eighty private households were surveyed for their feedback on buying local with overwhelmingly positive results. (Simple telephone questionnaire included with supplemental documents.) Follow-up meetings were scheduled for January and February.
MA3 worked with local farmers to develop the first-in-Maine municipal Agricultural Commission for the town of Starks. Our focus on the 21st century agricultural potential of this area has drawn the kind of attention and public awareness necessary to protect hundreds of acres of prime farmland from non-agricultural development.
We held meetings again with the potential institutional buyers mentioned above and contacted an additional three area school systems for inclusion in the project. We now have institutions willing to contract in advance for some fresh product (potatoes, onions, carrots and ground beef), and have farmers “on the brink” of putting some of their land into this new, wholesale production scheme.
December 2012 – March 2013 – Plan spring planting/production for food clubs
In January we met with Maine Farmland Trust to discuss our project, the available prime farmland in Starks, and the local foods facility MA3 has developed there. MFT agreed that the area consists of very high quality agricultural land, currently underused, and in need of protecting. The existence of the MA3 facility is the sort of “infrastructure” they like to see in order to justify their support of young farmers who wish to purchase land with MFT’s help – either through their buy, protect, sell program, through the outright purchase of protective easements or through financing assistance. Currently, they have purchased one local farm for resale with restrictive covenants and they are in the process of assisting a young farmer from outside of the area to purchase a farm adjacent to the MA3 facility.
This new focus on the area – by local citizens by means of the Agricultural Commission, by Maine Farmland Trust for preservation purposes, and most, excitingly, by young farmers who are suddenly looking at this region/community as suddenly the place to be in Maine for good land, reasonable prices (to buy or lease), supportive existing farmers willing to mentor, and for an outlet for their products, the MA3 project – is the success surprise of this past year’s endeavor.
In February and March 2013, we began to develop a community food club plan for Starks while working with local residents and farmers on the new Agricultural Committee. Because we were having difficulty convincing our farmers to commit to producing for two new marketing concepts (food clubs, contract-in-advance with institutions) we decided to try a community-project approach. Using USDA statistics on consumer demand for various products, annual consumption rates, and acreage requirements for vegetables and livestock sufficient to feed a town of 500 citizens, we presented the plan to the community at a public meeting on March 2. (Copy of the flip-chart presentation included with supplemental documents.) The eighty respondents to our original poll were contacted directly about the meeting, and a public invitation to the entire town was sent out by the Town Clerk via e-mail.
The response, in absolute numbers, was disappointing. Only fifteen people attended, four representing farms we had been working with for nearly a year.
The response to the plan for creating a community-wide effort that focused on food self-sufficiency was encouraging: most were impressed with the relative ease, in absolute production numbers, with which local farmers could feed a town this size. One existing farm operation could produce all of the potatoes and carrots necessary, a local onion grower could up his production to produce sufficient for the entire town, the two local pasture-fed beef producers could produce enough to meet beef needs, there is already one 10-month hoop house for greens in the town, one or two more would be sufficient. The farmers were very excited about the possibility – more so than they had been at the prospect of growing for food clubs elsewhere.
(Only one negative response was heard: one local landowner, who is very interested in making his land available to lease to new farmers, voiced the opinion that a local foods focus here would make the town appear too “provincial.”)
To introduce the idea to the town at large plans were very quickly created for producing a local Thanksgiving: projections for producing vegetables and turkeys sufficient to feed the entire town were drawn up and the farmers divided up the production responsibilities between them. One took on the potatoes and squash, another the onions and greens, and four producers agreed to raise the turkeys. All agreed on a certain donation level so that the local food pantry would also be stocked with the local products for the holiday.
The plan was brought before the town at the annual Town Meeting later in March with a sign-up sheet where residents could indicate their interest and support. (Copy of hand-out to Town Meeting attendees included with supplemental materials.) There was no commitment required from citizens at that point, merely an indication of interest so that the farmers could begin to plan the summer production schedule. Further meeting schedules and the responsibility of maintaining contact with customers was left with Maine Alternative Ag.
Very sadly, only one couple indicated their support by actually signing up for the project at the Town Meeting.
Why this was so is still being debated. There is some feeling that the idea is just too new for local residents to embrace immediately and that they are suspicious of a “catch” somewhere. Ways to work around the apathy or resistance are still being discussed and we at MA3 believe that the farmers’ enthusiasm – and the empowering realization of their ability to feed their town – will keep this plan alive. We are now talking with our farmers and the new Agricultural Commission of ways to promote the scheme for next year.