Washington County is well positioned to be a vibrant part of the local and regional food production system, despite rumors that the county is located at "the end of the world." The positive news was delivered at the Washington County Food Summit held on Saturday, March 8. The warm, sunny day was no competition for the over 135 participants who met at the elementary school in East Machias and were so engrossed in discussing the potential of all‑things farm that the eight‑hour summit flew by with hardly a glance out the windows.
Organized by Judy East of the Washington County Council of Governments (WCCOG) and Regina Grabrovac, Downeast Farm to School coordinator for Healthy Acadia in partnership with Washington County: One Community (WC:OC), the summit guided participants to think action along with the bigger picture. The question of the day was how to attract and support farmers in Washington County.
Keynote speaker John Piotti, executive director of Maine Farmland Trust, set the framework by explaining that the breadbasket of the United States supplying people with bread and animals with grain is made possible by the Ogallala Aquifer. The aquifer is expected to run dry in 20 to 30 years and extends from Texas to South Dakota. Once that water is gone, the ability to produce extraordinary amounts of crops in that region will be gone as well, he noted. Other regions will need to step in.
Maine, Piotti stated, has enough land suitable for farming to supply a good portion of New England's food needs. Of the 20 million acres in the state, one million are designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as prime farming acreage. There is much more acreage available for less need‑intensive crops such as fruiting trees and shrubs and pasturage. In a short history lesson, he explained that in the 1880s the state had 6.5 million acres in production. Since then 4.5 million of those acres have grown back into scrub tree growth. Currently the state is growing about 5-8% of its food needs on 700,000 acres. "It's a huge opportunity. Farming is growing, and there is the vision out there," he said.
Farming is taking two tracks in Maine, Piotti explained. The first is the conventional "big‑ag" farm with usually well over 300 acres in mixed‑use or in mono‑crop production like potatoes, blueberries and dairy. The big‑ag farms are selling their products as commodities for wholesale and processing. The second is the specialty niche farm. "It's less of what you grow and more of how you sell it," he noted as the key difference between the two. They're also usually much smaller, at well under 100 acres. However, there are some "significantly sized farms in this category." These farms sell directly to customers through Community Supported Agriculture shares, farmers markets, buy local clubs and to markets such as restaurants and health food stores. Most growth in Maine has been in the second type of farm. Piotti anticipates that the future of farming in Maine lies in a combination of the two types by taking features of the second type and "scaling up" enough to feed Mainers through more traditional channels such as grocery stores.
Building the foundation
While attracting new farmers to take over farms belonging to aging owners or to resuscitate farms and land long out of production is a priority, a common refrain by participants suggested that first the existing local farm community must be strengthened. Once markets are built and the supportive infrastructure is in place for processing, storage and distribution, young farmers will have a base, including experienced farmers as a knowledge resource and market systems, upon which to start their businesses. As one blueberry farmer said, "We need a strong base as a foundation for the house that could be built by a large farming community."
Eat local buying clubs and other buy local outlets are a significant part of farming successfully, noted John Jemison, professor of soil and water at the Maine Cooperative Extension. Of 15 listening sessions the extension held around the state, "Buy local was discussed in every session. It was a big positive," he relayed. Farmer Sam Cheeney of Salty Dog Farm noted that farmers markets and even agreements with schools can leave a farmer holding the bag. Other outlets, like weekly year‑round "Eat Local" buy clubs such as those held in Machias, Eastport and Calais, allow for farmers with storage and seasonal products to sell year‑round. Or farmers can partner up with Crown O' Maine Organic Cooperative (COMOC) based in Aroostook County to find venues for their products all over the state.
Cheeney noted that education played a big part of his own metamorphosis from a guy who liked playing with compost to a full‑fledged farmer. He started by learning as he went but found that the resources available at agencies and organizations like Maine Organic Farmers & Growers Association made his life much easier. Rather than winging it, he now uses software and spreadsheets to calculate how many square feet of what product he should be growing for his markets.
For someone like Marada Cook, a business partner in COMOC, Northern Girl and Fiddler's Green Farm, Cheeney's use of planning software can make a big difference. While a company like COMOC or Northern Girl can take a relatively small one‑time yield of 100 pounds of product to process or distribute to buyers, it can't be taking small increments every week. It doesn't work that way. She noted that over the last 10 years "the threads of food production and the local level began to weave together." COMOC now has two refrigerated trucks that travel all over the state and into Massachusetts, selling for 200 producers.
COMOC doesn't think of the delivery route as one way. Washington County was the first region where COMOC used route analysis to work out how to make the county profitable. "We don't see it at the end of the road," she exclaimed. There's the value of the delivery added to the value of any product picked up that is then divided by the mileage costs. Washington County was exporting at a right good clip. A profitable route was identified. "It's the first and longest micro‑distribution region for us," she said. "There's a lot of history in Washington County and exciting changes being seen."
Cook and Amber Lambke, who is president of the Somerset Grain Mill and director of the Maine Grain Alliance among others, were bullish on specialty markets for Washington County farmers. New York City, Lambke said, is changing its policy to allow Maine‑grown grain and dried beans at its farmers markets because New York state cannot produce enough to supply its own demand.
Another area wide open is the production of organic seed for specialty seed distribution companies. Many of the state's larger farming areas are located where cross‑pollination contamination can occur. With genetically modified organism (GMO) contamination a significant concern for those needing GMO‑free and organic seed, the county could take advantage of its "end of the road" status, Cook stated. Some farmers, such as organic seed potato growers, really want that isolation. Without it they risk contamination from blights, GMO strains and other risks that could ruin their livelihood. Building a seed market around Maine and regionally unique markets would be using the county's assets, Cook said.
Finding value‑added uses for below‑grade crops is another area for exploration, said Cook. With her processing facility, Northern Girl, she noted that Grade B potatoes had few markets. However, schools and other institutions have a high demand for potato wedges. Voila. A market was found for the less desirable potatoes. The same could be done with apples, blueberries, stone and shrub fruits that don't make the first cut. Or there's the frozen market to tap into and the market for specialty teas and dried culinary herbs.
In terms of equipment needs, Cook said, "Any amount of infrastructure that can be dialed down to the farm is important. If the farm has its own freezer, then storage can take place until a processor like Northern Girl is ready." Co‑shipping could be another big plus, Cook said, for farmers within a specific region of the county. Banding together, in other words, helps more than it hinders. And that was a message heard over and over again during the day. Farmers in Maine and in Washington County help each other. They are not competitors. They are builders of a system that needs many inputs to flourish.
The summit was organized by WCCOG, WC:OC, GROWashington‑Aroostook and Maine Farmland Trust. For more information about the summit and food system planning, visit <gro‑wa.org/healthy‑communities.htm>. For more information about Maine Farmland Trust's many programs to assist existing and aspiring farmers, visit <www.mainefarmlandtrust.org>.