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Meet: Kurt Shisler of the Mainstreaming Project to get institutions to buy local food

Man in the (ag) middle builds pipeline for Maine crops

By Mary Pols Staff Writer

Kurt Shisler is the founder, director and project manager of the Mainstreaming Project, a Maine-based nonprofit supported by the John Merck Fund. Shisler’s project, just starting its second year, promotes the idea that buying locally grown foods should be standard, not just for shoppers at Maine farmers markets but for institutions like hospitals, colleges and universities across the state. And beyond.

Maine has the potential to feed people beyond its borders, Shisler said, especially if he succeeds in his goal to build a “pipeline” to “move the carrots,” i.e., help midsized Maine farmers find markets for their crops.

RESUME: Shisler grew up coming to Maine regularly for summers on Mount Desert Island. He wanted to go to Bowdoin, “but Bowdoin didn’t want me.” Instead he went to Ohio Wesleyan and on to Harvard Business School. He worked in marketing at General Mills and just as his mother died unexpectedly, took a job at Idexx in Maine. “I think I put a lot of my grief into Idexx,” he said. “I worked 14 hours a day.” Then two years later, he got laid off. “My whole world went black and white,” Shisler remembered. “I got knocked out.”

AND GOT UP AGAIN: But slowly. Trying to make a living in Maine, he started Good Clean Food, a company that made simmering sauces for the fresh market. (Think a sauce you can throw a piece of fish in and pretend you made bouillabaisse). For five years, he grew that business, then took a hiatus, working as a consultant in various industries, including health care out of state. But “I didn’t like getting on a plane and leaving.” By 2008, he was back to Good Clean Food, pushing hard to get it to the next level. He was raising money in New York to take the company national when “everybody’s phone started going off and word came that Lehman Brothers had just shut down.”

NO MORE GOOD CLEAN FOOD? That was the death knell. He said investors were still willing to give him money, but “it didn’t sit well with my soul” to take it. “I made a rational assessment,” he said. “I am not a risk seeker.” From there a stint with the Good Shepherd Food Bank led to his current fascination with expanding Maine’s food economy. “In my mind, the fundamental driving goal is to move the needle in getting Maine farmland into production.”

AGRICULTURE OF THE MIDDLE: For him, the farmer in the middle, the subject of the national Agriculture of the Middle initiative, is the crux. “Industrial farmers have flourished,” he said. “Small farmers have been flourishing. And those folks that have really been the backbone of American agriculture, the ones with up to a thousand acres – people will debate that size – those are the farms that are selling out for real estate developments.”

DON’T SELL OUT: That’s exactly what Shisler wants to avoid. “We’ve got to get hundreds of thousands of acres back into production,” Shisler said. “And a way to get them back into production is to access this institutional market that is basically sourcing all of its produce from California. We’re talking big numbers of carrots.”

BUT HOW? Two phases, Shisler says. The first phase, as he sees it, is tapping into the eight to 12 midsized farms in Maine to “start proving that any Maine farmer can be a credible, reliable member of this chain.” Specifically, by proving that the Maine farmers can “deliver those carrots” and building what is known as a values-based food supply chain. Shisler wants to serve as the connector between Maine farms and broadline distributors (those are the companies that function almost as the supermarket of distribution, dispensing everything an institution needs, from protein to produce, and paper plates to boot).

LOCAL CAN BE A HASSLE: This pilot year of his Mainstreaming Project was about networking and establishing business contacts, specifically to make sure what is good and special about local foods is clear to institutions. Because Shisler knows going local has a price for institutions. “It is a hassle (for them),” he said. “They could say, ‘I can enter into huge contracts!’ ” And spend less money. But those carrots and/or other vegetables “will be tasteless, genetically modified things that look like ‘Star Wars’ clones.” (Shisler is engaged in a little hyberbole here; if we’re talking carrots sold in America, they won’t be GMO.)

MAJOR TRIUMPHS TO DATE: Last month Shisler was at a Mainstreaming Local Foods to Institutions conference at Colby College, moderating, networking and spreading the urgency to move carrots. The conference sponsors included Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association; Maine Farmland Trust; the huge multinational Sodexo, which operates Colby’s food services; and one of the broadline distributors Shisler has been working with, Performance Food Group (PFG). PFG owns the Augusta-based NorthCenter, a distributor serving Maine, New Hampshire and Boston area food service operators. Shisler started lobbying NorthCenter to go local last year and finally made headway earlier this year, helping broker a relationship between the distributor and farmer Stew Smith (a former state agriculture commissioner) of Lakeside Farm. The vegetables served at lunch that day? They all were from Smith’s farm and they were all delicious, carrots and all. No hassles in sight. “This is what I do,” Shisler said. “This is getting people unstuck.”

WAIT, ARE CARROTS A METAPHOR? “Carrots are just a proxy for other things,” Shisler said. But “I have had conversations with big distributors in Boston who want Maine carrots. It can also be beets, or other vegetables. I like to leave potatoes out of the equation because Maine already ships potatoes.”

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