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Olivia's Garden

Business: Changing/the/Food-Chain

Mainers are transforming markets for growers and consumers, from farm stands to food hubs and beyond

By Melissa Coleman
Photographs by Greta Rybus

The saying goes that there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them, and the same could be said for changes to local food systems. Maine has evolved from individual mom-and-pop farm stands and CSA shares, to the all-in-one farmers ‘super’ market, to present-day models of distribution and retail that look something like souped-up versions of the old mom-and-pop model. What’s most interesting are the ways in which these old stories are being told anew, right now.

THEN TO NOW

Growing up on a rural farm in the 1970s, my family’s primary source of income was, at first, a serve-yourself farm stand resembling the ‘Doctor is In’ structure from Peanuts, with a hanging scale and honor-system money box in place of Lucy. Word spread of tomatoes and strawberries as sweet as those of distant memories, and our small stand soon grew to a freestanding building filled with fresh vegetables in colorful displays on shelves covered with smooth pebbles wetted to stay cool.

As Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) came into being in 1972, these stands were the best income option for small farms. There was only one farmers market in the state, in Portland, and not even one food coop, as best I can tell. The first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares in Maine wouldn’t be available until 1989. As these things go, by the time I moved back to Maine and settled in Freeport in 2002, there were lots of farmers markets and CSAs across the state, but few obvious local farm stands near my home. A writer not a farmer, I was seeking a consistent day-to-day connection to local food—a place to run in a pinch for a head of fresh lettuce or local pork chops. I’d visit my dad, Eliot Coleman, who with my stepmom Barbara Damrosch was planning to open a bigger version of that childhood stand at Four Season Farm. Whenever I said there still wasn’t a place like that in my area they’d send me home with bags and coolers full of vegetables.

What puzzled me was that there were a number of big farms near my home and lots of enthusiastic customers, but there was only a once-a-week opportunity to meet at farmers markets. I’ve since learned others were thinking the same thing—that this brave, new local network needed redefining. The following trailblazers are some of the many who did something about it.

Pictured: Tomatoes and a variety of greens grow inside the New Gloucester greenhouses of Olivia’s Garden, a year-round supplier of vegetables distributed by Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative

THE FARM/DISTRIBUTOR/FARM-STAND MODEL

Farm Fresh Connection
Farm Fresh Connection
food hub

It was the summer of 2003 or 2004 when I first spotted a Farm Fresh Connection (FFC) truck in Portland and struck up a conversation with the driver, Martha Putnam, then a 20-something go-getter from Houlton with a blonde ponytail and quick smile. I asked how I could access local farms in the Freeport area and she told me John Schwenk at Wealden Farm was planning to open a stand on Pleasant Hill Road—one that would look a lot like the Peanuts stands of my childhood.

She also mentioned she’d received a $10,000 grant from Common Good Ventures to start a nonprofit distribution company under the umbrella of Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society to help Maine farms access new markets. As a result, she was delivering produce to Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby colleges, as well as other wholesale customers.

“I noticed a lot of us here in Maine didn’t have access to local food,” Putnam says now, reflecting exactly what I was sensing at the time we first met. “It’s being grown down the street, but we can’t get it.”

In what would make for a superpowers merger, Putnam and Schwenk fell in love and married in 2006, effectively joining Wealden Farm and FFC. By 2008, renting storage space from large commercial distributors had become limiting, so Putnam and Schwenk resolved to put up a timber-frame building at Wealden Farm to serve as both market and warehouse.

The benefits were many. The attractive red barn-like structure has refrigeration so produce can be stored during transition, and heat so the indoor market can operate from May to December, supplemented, of course by bounty from FFC’s partners.

“To have a good business, you have to provide more than you grow,” Putnam says. “Honey, bread, cheese, raw milk from Bisson’s, and butter, are the things people want on a regular basis. People stop for these and crops like corn that we don’t grow, but while here they buy green peppers that we did grow.”

FFC is now an LLC, grossing over one million dollars in 2013. It buys both organic and conventional fruit, produce, meat, dairy, honey, and syrup from a network of more than 100 farms, including R. Belanger & Sons Farms, Bowden’s Egg Farm, Backyard Farms, Hahn’s End, and of course Wealden Farm; and delivers to 300-some schools, buying clubs, restaurants, and markets from Portland to Bath and beyond, such as Rosemont Market and Bakery, Jordan’s Farm, and Wealden’s own market; and even provides vegetables to commercial distributors like Sysco.

Putnam and Schwenk’s model of farm/market/distribution under one roof is similar to that of larger operations like Pineland Farms, but they prove it can be done successfully on a mom- and-pop (Martha and John) scale as well.

Looking forward, Putnam believes the best thing investors can do to help local food distribution is give money to schools: “Schools are a guaranteed buyer, and with donations they can pay for large quantities of local food at a price that makes it possible for the farmer to grow it,” she explains. “We need to find ways like this to pay the farmers enough money to keep farming.”

Pictured: John Schwenk is the chief farmer at Wealden Farm and is married to Martha Putnam, founder of Farm Fresh Connection, the local produce distribution company now based at the farm

THE BUTCHER/MEAT-UP/MARKET MODEL

Farmers' Gate Market
Farmers' Gate Market
Farmers' Gate Market

By 2013 Wealden Farmstand had a freezer full of beef and pork from Luce’s Meats and chicken from Maine-ly Poultry; and Bow Street Market had Wolfe’s Neck/Pineland Farms beef, but everyone I knew was going in on half a pig or cow. In this spirit my dad decided to gift his children with half a pig each, as well as some roasting chickens.

If not for this good fortune, I would have sought out Ben Slayton of Farmers’ Gate Market in Wales. Opened by Slayton and his wife Erin Cinelli in 2010, Farmers’ Gate is a specialty butcher shop that cuts from the rail pasture-grown, humanely raised and slaughtered animals from Maine farms with environmentally sound practices.

When I met Slayton at his shop, his calm good looks, easy manner, and passion for his work instilled confidence that he not only cuts a filet mignon exactly right, but in the best way for customers, the animal, and the whole community. To this end, his goal of transparent meat production means sharing with customers exactly where and how their meat was raised, slaughtered, and processed.

However, while the Farmers’ Gate location—along

a rolling farm road in a town of 1,300—is near animal raisers, it’s nearly an hour’s drive from Portland’s customer base. It was Cinelli’s mother in Yarmouth who had a bright idea: “Everyone I know around here wants to get good meat,” she said. “Why don’t you bring some cuts down here and I’ll have a party and invite them to come buy it.” And thus the first Meat Up was born.

“People were showing up with Radio wagons to get orders and hanging out in the driveway talking about recipes,” Slayton says. “We realized it was more than just a transaction, it was a social thing, and people were asking interesting questions like: How do you tie a chuck roast, and who are these farmers? There was really positive energy.”

Meat Ups now occur regularly on Thursday nights in a number of towns including South Portland and Damariscotta, but by the fall of 2013 Slayton and Cinelli realized they were running out of Thursdays. Around the same time, Farmers’ Gate received a $50,000 loan from Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) to buy beef cattle for the butcher shop to be raised by dairy farmers transitioning away from milk production. The loan was facilitated by Slow Money Maine, which found MFT an investor willing to put up the funds.

When Slayton realized he’d soon have more quality meat than he could sell, he began talking with Penny Jordan of Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth about combining forces to open a market in 2014 that would offer Maine meats, vegetables, bread, and cheese, as well as homemade soups, meat pot pies, salads, sandwiches, salsa, and chicken stock. The location on Ocean Street—near the bridge in South Portland—was selected because of the demand for Meat Ups in the area and the preexisting Jordan’s Farm customer base.

Slayton’s vision of a price point that makes it possible for everyone to prosper—animals, farmers, markets, and customers—is one he’s determined to make a reality.

“For too long value has stopped with the middle man and not trickled back to the farmers,” Slayton says. “Farmers’ Gate is working hard to reverse this by starting with the farmer. We ask them: What are your true costs of production to raise the animal right and make it work for you? We’ll pay that, and then establish the sale price and educate customers on the value.”

Pictured: Ben Slayton works with half of a pig at the Farmers’ Gate butcher shop in Wales

THE DISTRIBUTOR/PROCESSOR/MAIL-ORDER MODEL

Food Hub
Olivia's Garden
Farmers' Gate Market
Farmers' Gate Market

It was in 2001 that a 19-year-old girl named Marada Cook came from Aroostook County to apprentice with my dad at Four Season Farm. By way of a head full of red curls, big ideas, and lively personality, she made an impression on everyone she met, and my dad said she’d surely go on to do great things, which turned out to be true. She thinks big.

“I’d really like to be working on a 100-year vision for food distribution in Maine,” Cook says now. “How can we get toward a more sustainable and interconnected way of providing our own food? It’s like running play trains around a track— you keep making the track smoother and better with each pass.”

Her father, Jim Cook, was a potato farmer in Grand Isle who found himself limited by the distance of his farm, Skylandia, to pretty much everywhere else. In 1995 Jim and his wife Kate decided to start Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative (COMOC) to bring carrots and potatoes from ‘The County’ to Boston markets.

When Jim passed away in 2008, Marada found herself compelled to carry on the family business. Her sister Leah was already involved and together they sought to refine the business model with assistance from the Small Business Development Center. Slow Money Maine participants helped secure loans for inventory and lines of credit from Rudolf Steiner Social Finance and the Coop Fund of New England by connecting COMOC to loan guarantors.

COMOC relocated to the site of the former Kennebec Bean Factory in North Vassalboro in 2010 and began renovations on a 1939 building that has evolved from woolen mill to bean processing plant to now, a warehouse for local food distribution. It serves as the storage and transition point for goods from 200 food suppliers, including Aurora Mills & Farm in Linneus, Heiwa Soy Beanery in Belfast, and Misty Meadows Organic Farm in Grand Isle, as they travel to over 350 customers in all corners of Maine and beyond, including Blue Hill Co-op, Growing Concern, and Colby College. COMOC has grown from $380,000 in sales in 2008 to $1.76 million in 2013, but the Cook sisters are always striving to make things cleaner and more efficient.

“We’re not looking to eliminate areas because they’re rural,” Marada says, “but are asking: How can we build a cluster of farms in an area? It’s about increasing activity across the miles that the food travels and working with more suppliers in each region.”

In addition to the distribution portion of the business, the Cooks launched a food processing arm called Northern Girl in 2011 and bought Fiddler’s Green Farm in 2013, a mail order company selling organic stone-ground cereals and baking mixes sourced from COMOC suppliers Aurora Mills and Morgan’s Mills.

In 2012, Chris Hallweaver, co-founder of Maine Kombucha Company and a mentor to the Cook sisters, moved from Yarmouth to Caribou to take on management of Northern Girl. With the help of a $300,000 state grant and a range of creative financing from individual investors, Northern Girl’s tagline ‘Bounty from the County’ represents the mission of processing beets, broccoli, potatoes, rutabaga, turnip, and carrots for farmers in the County to sell to other markets through COMOC; again, always refining those train tracks.

“We work with both sides of the equation to get to something that’s a match,”Marada says. “We’re setting a standard and helping people rise to that standard.”

THE AGGREGATOR/MULTI-FARM CSA/FOOD HUB MODEL

Food Hub
Backyard Farms
The Pickup Cafe
The Pickup Cafe

As with any movement, new ideas breed like rabbits and generate numerous offspring. Just ask Bonnie Rukin of Slow Money Maine (SMM) and she’ll rattle off a dozen or so food-related efforts in the works, many receiving assistance from SMM and Maine Farmland Trust (MFT). Community efforts in Bowdoinham, Eastport, and Topsham, and more in Washington and Aroostook counties are all in various stages of facilitating the processing, aggregation, and sale of local grain, seafood, meat, and vegetables.

The buzzword ‘food hub’ is generally used to describe such efforts—defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as “a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.”

One prime example in Maine is the Somerset Grist Mill, which opened its doors in 2012 as home to the Maine Grains’ stone mill, as well as Skowhegan Farmers’ Market, and the Pickup Cafe and CSA—all in downtown Skowhegan’s renovated jailhouse. Grains are sourced from Maine farms and ground by stone in the mill. The cafe, which utilizes food from over 40 local producers, is open Friday and Saturday evening for dinners and Saturday and Sunday morning for brunches, and serves wood-fired pizza on summer Wednesdays at CSA pick-up time.

The new hub is the celebrated result of five years of heavy lifting by co-owners Amber Lambke, executive director of Maine Grain Alliance, and Michael Scholz, baker and founder of Albion Bread Farm, with the financial support of the Somerset Economic Development Corporation and Skowhegan Savings Bank. SMM also helped raise part of the $1.6 million dollars in start-up costs and provided legal and technical assistance. “Maine is quite distinctive in having this kind of base and support to make this happen,” says Rukin.

My sister, Clara Coleman, a farm consultant and founder of Four Season Farm Consulting, first told me about the creation of the Unity Food Hub because she’s part of an MFT proposal to help participating farms develop year-round food production capabilities with the addition of moveable modular tunnels and other high tunnel structures.

As I later learned, this was just one limb of an extensive business plan developed by MFT to build a food hub in an abandoned grammar school for farms and consumers within a 15-mile radius of Unity, which is about 40 minutes from the Somerset Grist Mill.

The goal here, says MFT’s John Piotti, “is to create a tool for others in the state—a model to emulate. We’ve put a lot of effort into our business plan, which we freely share, and we’ll be operating the hub as an open book—so anyone interested in this stuff can learn.”

Currently in the renovation stage, the hub is scheduled to open under MFT management in January 2015, with loading docks, cool storage in the basement, a cleaning and packing area, a meeting place for multi-farm CSA pick ups, and a commercial kitchen for events and possibly catering. MFT is investing the $1.3 million into the building, but the hub will operate as a separate for-profit business, paying rent back to MFT. “We’re helping to recreate infrastructure for the local food community,” Piotti says, “but it’s got to conform to business realities to be successful.”

And that’s really the point here, overall. The evolution of local food systems is about meeting the needs of the customer, farmer, and community with smart business plans and clever innovations, all in the effort to make Maine’s food distribution train track as efficient as possible.

To support local farmers, Legislature should stick with food hubs

Posted April 29, 2014, at 12:13 p.m.
Last modified April 29, 2014, at 2:08 p.m.

Last week, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed LD 1431, a bill that could help small farms gain new markets and move more local farm products into Maine schools. The bill passed the Legislature with overwhelming support — and for good reason. It responds directly to both great need and great opportunity. Lawmakers will have a chance to override LePage’s veto on Thursday.

After decades of decline, farming in Maine is growing and poised to blossom. From 2002 to 2012, the number of farms in Maine grew by 13.5 percent; from just 2007 to 2012, the value of Maine’s agricultural production increased by 24 percent.

Maine could grow far more food, feeding itself and helping to feed New England. The state boasts abundant land, plentiful water, handy access to good markets and great farmers — including many beginning farmers who want to farm here. But those fundamentals alone are not enough for agriculture here to thrive. Despite great promise, farming in Maine also faces many challenges.

One of those challenges is addressed by LD 1431, which would provide modest, yet critically needed, grants to help entrepreneurs explore the feasibility of so-called “food hubs.” A food hub pools products from multiple farms. This is often the only practical way that small farms can sell their products wholesale.

To understand the importance of food hubs, it’s necessary to understand what’s happened in Maine agriculture in the last 15 years. During this period, Maine has seen rapid growth in smaller, diversified farms that sell directly through farmers markets, farm stands and community-supported agriculture programs. Some of these farms now want to expand modestly, to increase efficiency and be able to sell at least some products wholesale.

That’s good news if we are serious about getting more Mainers to eat locally — because the majority of consumers are going to get most of their food from supermarkets and institutions (entities that principally buy wholesale), not from direct retail venues like farmers markets.

One reason small farms cannot easily enter wholesale markets on their own is that the federal rules governing farm products that flow to supermarkets or institutions are becoming increasingly complex and burdensome. Another reason is that many wholesale buyers will simply not work with small farms.

Food hubs create opportunities for farms that would not otherwise exist. Food hubs also create new opportunities for consumers because they can move more local farm products to where people actually get their food. LD 1431 focuses in particular on helping get more local food into Maine’s public schools.

All food hubs are not created equal. In a sense, every distributor or processor operating within the global food system could be viewed as a food hub, in that it pools products from multiple farms. But as the term is generally used, it refers to operations that are specifically designed in service to local farms. In fact, LD 1431 only provides support to food hubs where the principal benefits will flow back to participating farmers, where no existing farm will be hurt and where there is a demonstrated benefit to Maine’s economy that surpasses the state’s investment.

It’s a well-structured bill. I applaud its sponsor, Sen. Chris Johnson, and all 13 members of the Agriculture Committee, who worked together to create a solid initiative that fully deserved the overwhelming bipartisan support the Legislature gave it.

In his veto, LePage said that this bill is not needed, suggesting that if food hubs make sense, the marketplace will create them on their own. But anyone who knows the history of farming in Maine knows that the marketplace, more often than not, does not create value for the farmers. Just ask the dairy farmers, who are often paid less than their cost of production, or the Aroostook potato farmers, whose margins today are a fraction of what they were a generation ago.

A few pioneering entrepreneurs have created new food hubs that serve local farms without any state support. But that is simply a sign that opportunity exists; it shouldn’t be seen as an indication that the state has no role to play. To date, the development of new food hubs has been modest and uneven — exactly what one would expect, given the unknown terrain and the fact that no business that is designed primarily to serve farms is going to make anyone rich. By supporting feasibility work and business planning, as LD 1431 would do, Maine can make a smart investment in the future.

Simply put, food hubs are needed if we want to see farming in Maine continue to grow. With LD 1431, Maine has a chance to take an important step to support local farms and get better food to consumers — notably schoolchildren. It’s the right thing to do.

John Piotti is president and CEO of Maine Farmland Trust.