Maine Fiberarts Online Tour Map: Studios and Farms, 2009-2012

Project Overview

CNE09-062
Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2009: $24,378.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Christine Macchi
Maine Fiberarts

Commodities

  • Animals: goats, rabbits, sheep

Practices

  • Education and Training: technical assistance, demonstration, display, farmer to farmer, mentoring, networking
  • Farm Business Management: agritourism, new enterprise development, marketing management, value added
  • Sustainable Communities: community planning, new business opportunities, community services, employment opportunities, sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    The issue. Maine’s fiber industry remains largely undefined, unrecognized and undervalued. The industry needs organized support and market development to bring the community together and to reach its economic potential. The market exists, but consumers need help locating farms. In a recent study, “30% of tourists intending to purchase a local product did not know where to look.” Tourists stated they would buy more if items were “clearly labeled” and “more available.” Today’s farm visitors also seek recreational and learning experiences. 35% of Maine tourists in a recent study said that “visiting local farms is important to them.” Support for farmers who create added value for their own raw products is the key to sustainable agriculture and to preserving farmland in Maine’s rural landscape. However, fiber farmers are missing out on networking to improve market access. Farmers are not accustomed to developing strategies for cooperatively marketing their products to residents or tourists. Sales events that successfully bring buyers together with makers are rare. Out-of-state shows are expensive, and with rising fuel costs, harder to justify. Tourism agencies do not tout Maine as an arts destination, let alone recognize the gem it has in its working farms. Museums and galleries do not honor fiber art, deeming it “commonplace” or “women’s work.” A large opportunity exists for change. With Maine’s beautiful landscape, numerous fiber-producing farms, art studios and learning centers, fiber represents an important sector of the Maine economy, and bringing the total sector together can create a powerful marketing draw.

    Farmers and constituents. Maine has an incredible resource in the number and quality of craftspeople and farmers working in fiber. According to the 2002 USDA Census, the fiber constituency is growing rapidly. “Of the 7132 total farms reported in Maine, many who focus on fiber are operated by women. Women-operated sheep and goat livestock operations regionally increased by 18.5 percent to 1,234 farms.” Maine’s fiber industry is also unique in that it is comprised of a network of producers, processors, craftmakers, and suppliers, encompassing the entire spectrum from raw material producer to end user. Farmers raise animals that produce quality cashmere, wool, alpaca, mohair, llama and Angora rabbit. Twelve fiber processing mills in our State—the largest number in the Northeast—turn raw material into natural, dyed or blended roving, batts, and specialty yarns. Craftspeople and manufacturers add value to these products through spinning, weaving, knitting, felting, and other fiber art techniques. Suppliers offer handspun and millspun yarns, equipment, and tools through numerous shops, as well as workshops and classes. Galleries offer finished items—blankets, apparel, household goods, and more—to the public. And museums, offer exhibitions of fiber artwork.

    The impact. The potential impact in recognizing our fiber industry—in Maine and throughout the Northeast—is enormous. Organizational support would help bring together experienced producers and craftspeople, set up a structure to educate the next generation, improve communication as a whole, and help develop cooperative marketing opportunities. This project will cut across sectors of art, agriculture, economic development, craft heritage and tourism. “Fiber” is a trend that lends Itself to the “buy local” movement and, next to gardening, remains one of America’s favorite pastimes. We have already witnessed strong impact for our previous projects, including: Maine Fiber Arts Festival (bringing thousands from 23 states and Canada); The State of Fiber (115 exhibits and events statewide); “Maine Values Maine Wool” (our display at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival). Our Midcoast Center regularly attracts visitors from around the US. In 30 years involved with this field, we have witnessed growing interest in fiber, increased experiential tourism (with travelers increasingly naming “learning new craft skills” over “shopping” as reasons for travel), and heightened value (with quality fleece bringing $12-$16 per pound, while farmers’ pooling their wool are paid pennies per pound). We know the economic impact on the farms could be even larger with better organization, communication and marketing.

    Fitting grant purposes. The project we are proposing, an expanded version of our fiber tour map, meets grant objectives for “marketing” and “value-added product development.” It will also be a rallying point for expanded organizational development of the sector. By connecting the community directly with farmers, we foster greater sales and sustainability for farms. Results are proven, apply to large numbers, and are replicable throughout the Northeast. As one example, our previous fiber tour map has stimulated interest in “fiber trails” from organizers in MD, MN, CT, NM, and NH.

    Farmers’ role in projects. Farmers are the driver of the organizations’ projects and events. They serve as Maine Fiberarts’ members and trustees and will serve on various committees formed to complete the project.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    By Spring of 2009, we will have published 60,000 copies of Maine Fiberarts Tour Map: Studios & Farms for distribution throughout 2009-2012. Over 134 studios, farms, processing mills, supply shops, galleries and learning centers will be listed with contact info, driving directions, and descriptions. The public will be invited to explore Maine’s fiber community in self-guided tours. Visitors can take in a weaving studio, try their hand at felting, locate a yarn shop, accompany farmers as they do chores, or learn how wool fleece is spun into yarn. Along the way, they can stroll through gardens, pet a sheep, buy a patchwork quilt, and learn how cloth is made. Our first map resulted in site visits, sales, visibility, and national publicity. We need to do more, however, to build on the momentum generated. Here’s how we’ll put SARE funds to work:

    Create an online, interactive Tour Map available at www.mainefiberarts.org. </em> Maps in the 21st century must be accessible online. We learned a lot distributing printed maps, but basically left a much wider audience, untapped. We need to create an interactive, online fiber map to reach greater numbers, to amplify print impact, and to allow visitors to create their own itineraries. The online map will include descriptions of farms and studios, downloadable/printable regional maps, live links to farmers’ websites and visually-compelling photographs. We’ll employ interactive capabilities using existing Google mapping and promote the site heavily. We’ll hire a web consultant and part-time staff to develop the online map and keep farmers’ information up-to-date during the three-year period.

    Promote a Fiber Arts Tour Weekend when all sites demonstrate fiber skills. </em> SARE funding will also be put to work organizing and promoting a Fiber Arts Tour Weekend—August 7, 8, 9, 2009. Road signs measuring 14×22” on wire stands (similar to political signs) will be posted at each site announcing their participation. Attractively-designed 11×17” posters will be posted throughout the state. 20,000 copies of a full color 4×9” rack card will be distributed through the August weekend at fairs, festivals, tourism trade shows, participating farms, and information centers. Content will go on the website.

    Promote and distribute printed maps throughout 2009-2012</em>. SARE funding would help provide memberships in two key groups for distribution through seven Maine Information Centers, Portland Jetport, Amtrak Bus Terminal, Commercial Street Center, Deering Oaks Info Center, etc. It would help us place targeted display ads in major publications—Yankee Magazine, Down East, and Farming—to draw enthusiasts to Maine and New England. Postage, mileage and storage fees could be met.

    Offer technical assistance to help farmers market themselves to get ready for Tour Map visitors. Over the past 7 years, we have asked farmers to send photographs of their farms, animals, products and activities. Perhaps two have complied! Taking good photographs is not their expertise. While delivering Tour Maps, rack cards and road signs, we will visit sites, photograph farms, and advise farmers on how to get ready. Proven ideas include: separate well-marked entrances to on-site shops, clean premises, clearly-labeled goods, attractively arrayed products, visible signage, and tied-up dogs. Mileage and an office manager will be hired two days per month to manage our Center will we are on the road.

    Innovations. With Northeast SARE funding, we will take this project to the next level and expand outreach to a regional, national and international audience. This project is cutting edge in that it expands farmers’ abilities to diversify their offerings using experiential tourism as a draw, building one-on-one connections with customers, thereby enabling strong relationships for repeat business on the farm. Having witnessed strong interest in our first map and having documented numerous benefits through surveys to participants, we know this works!

    Potential benefits for farmers. Projects will expand benefits generated the first time, such as:

    Tylerfarm in Limington welcomed close to 1,000 people on one weekend using the Tour Map, many of whom returned throughout the year to purchase meat, vegetables, and fiber products.
    Black Locust Farm in Washington sold $1000 worth of cashmere yarn to an out-of-state visitor who used our Tour Map and who returns to the farm each summer when she comes to Maine.
    Susie Stephenson of Edgecomb received a $2000 commission for a hooked rug because a local fabric shop owner used the map to refer a customer to her home studio.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.