On a gray, misty day last week, I visited Edie Johnston at her farm in Dresden. Edie’s farm looks quite different from other farms I’ve visited for MFT: there are no animals (aside from her son’s dog), and just one high tunnel, in addition to long rows of different perennial plants and large piles of mulch at various spots around the property. This farm is the growing space for Maine Medicinals, a certified organic processor and manufacturer of standardized nutraceuticals from locally-sourced plants. This year, Edie participated in MFT’s farm business planning program Farming for Wholesale, which helps Maine farmers better serve wholesale markets.
Edie and her husband Phil moved to Portland, Maine from Pennsylvania in 2002, and bought their home in Dresden Mills in 2003.
“I saw elderberries growing wild throughout Maine, and in particular abundance along the Eastern River which flows by our house.” Edie said. “I wondered if Maine’s native medicinal berries and botanicals were especially high in health-promoting constituents, and when that was verified through my research, I was interested in seeing if they could be grown organically at a commercial scale.”
Her federal and state funded research led to establishing both the farm and Maine Medicinals. In 2009, their son Geo joined them in Maine to help launch their first product, Anthoimmune– an organic elderberry syrup. Geo’s wife, Sarah has also since joined the family business.
The process of finding farmland took almost a year and they looked at dozens of places. “We choose Dresden because it’s close to Portland and like many small rural towns in Maine, it had an inherent beauty and great history; not to mention lots of agricultural opportunities.” They have since expanded the original purchase and also expanded their manufacturing facilities last year, moving production from their farmhouse in Dresden to the Ames Mill in Richmond.
Edie found out about Farming for Wholesale through Daniel McPhee, director of MOFGA’s Education program. “He sent me an e-mail introducing MFT’s Wholesale 101 program. Our business is about 90% wholesale. To keep up with distribution of Anthoimmune we need the farm to produce at it’s highest capacity. As we increase distribution and expand our product offerings, we recognized the need for the tools and know-how to keep pace, effectively manage farm expenses, and improve overall efficiency.”
Edie says taking the workshop was one of the smartest and most timely things she has done to support the success of both aspects of the business: farming and wholesale manufacturing.
Edie was also impressed by the fact that in addition to leading the workshops, Jed Beach and Alex Fouliard both visited the farm and offered their expertise and suggestions- which she immediately put into place by refining their accounting practices and purchasing key equipment to support the sustainability and profitability of their organic orchard, among other things.
“One great example of this expert advice was Jed’s recommendation to look into buying a Millcreek Mulcher. This tractor attachment allow us to efficiently apply mulch row by row in our orchard. Every year I use literally hundreds of yards of biomass (ramiel mulch, dried leaves, compost, grass clippings, etc.) to keep our orchard healthy, our plants happy and the rows of berried and botanicals weed free. Before the mulcher we were applying mulch several times a year by hand, and the labor costs were quite high. In less than two years the purchase price of the mulcher will be fully offset by savings in labor costs.”
Why focus on helping farmers like Edie sell wholesale? MFT believes the next wave of growth for local agriculture will be to help farmers scale-up and tap into wholesale markets in ways that retain the best features of local agriculture. This includes ensuring that adequate benefits flow back to the farmers.
“Wholesale is an important, and sometimes overlooked, market in Maine’s local food economy.” says Alex Fouliard, director of Farming for Wholesale. According to the Maine Food Strategy’s 2014 Consumer Survey Report, 97% of Mainers purchase the majority of their food from a wholesale market. Wholesale includes grocery stores, co-ops, institutions, restaurants, food hubs, and other kinds of distributors. In the Farming for Wholesale program, we’re helping farms tap into these markets – by helping farmers identify their products best suited for wholesale, assess infrastructure and equipment needs, or whatever challenges and goals farmers hope to achieve through selling to wholesale markets.
There are several innovative models and initiatives going on around the state to achieve this larger goal (including the market development work of the Unity Food Hub and MFT’s FINI grant to expand the customer base at local food retailers). The Farming for Wholesale program is focused on helping farmers with the business planning to be able to produce for these types of markets.
“The most exciting part to me, is how eager farmers are to get involved,” says Alex. “There’s been so much interest in the program and seeing farms want to get started immediately has assured me that we are truly meeting a need for the farming community.” She goes on, “We’re hearing from farmers that they see wholesale as the best way to grow their businesses. Whether their direct-to-consumer markets are saturated, or too resource intensive, for logistical reasons, or for personal reasons, wholesale is where many farmers see potential for growth.” The Farming for Wholesale program helps farms — big or small — determine how best to enter or expand wholesale markets, and do so in ways that are profitable and sustainable.
Edie says they are working hard to see that Maine Medicinals remains on the cutting edge by continuing their research, developing new products and increasing production capacity and efficiency.
“As Americans increasingly look to holistic approaches to health care, we want offer high quality, locally grown and produced formulas that they can count on,” she says. “We see great opportunity here.”
Edie would love to see organic and sustainable farming initiatives continue to expand. “There is a huge opportunity to bring marginalized farmland into greater production for plants like elderberries, aronia and other emerging high-value specialty crops. As consumer demand for these specialty crops increases, producers and manufacturers are looking to farm partners to provide raw materials, and farmers are going to need to connect with these markets. Within the herbal supplement industry, this is just now beginning to emerge.”
They recently purchased the Ames Mill, a beautiful old mill building located on the Kennebec River in Richmond. “This beautiful building is a key element to our story. The space will allow us to expand our own production, but we will also be leasing out available space. We would love share the building with other producers, and to encourage that next phase of growth other small businesses.”
Maine Medicinals’ mission is to optimize human health by merging ancient herbal traditions with current phytomedicinal research. They believe in the generational knowledge that comes from the field and grows in the heart. Expanding the larger, and continuously growing, community of artists, producers and manufacturing definitely fits into their company vision.
Registration for the 2017 Farming for Wholesale program opens on Tuesday, November 1st.
201 track application deadline is December 1st, and 101 workshop registration deadline is January 6th.
Support for MFT’s work makes services and program such as Farming for Wholesale available to farmers. Become a member to make this work possible.