Tag Archives: Four Season Farming

FOUR-SEASON FARMING

Sustainable Agriculture’s Growing Edge

BY KIMBERLY RIDLEY          PHOTOGRAPHS BY GRETA RYBUS

By November, most vegetable growers in Maine have put their fields to bed and headed indoors to catch up on paperwork and repairs or take a break.  A handful of farmers around the state, however, continue through winter, growing a bounty of fresh spinach and salad greens, chard and kale and other cold-hardy crops in high tunnel greenhouses—often without using a drop of fossil fuel for heat. Not so long ago, there were only a handful of people who thought this was possible.

“When we started, everyone said it was impossible,” says Eliot Coleman, laughing. “Well, it wasn’t.” Coleman, who has written extensively on organic gardening, pioneered ingenious ways to grow cold-hardy vegetables in the frigid Maine winter by using plastic-covered high tunnel greenhouses heated only by the sun. His approach in a nutshell: grow only cold-hardy crops, plant them in succession in late summer through early fall, and protect them with an inner layer of floating row cover. In 1995, Coleman and his wife—fellow gardening guru Barbara Damrosch—began using these techniques to grow winter crops commercially at Four Season Farm on Cape Rosier, based on years of research and experimentation in their home greenhouse. They’ve been at it ever since, and Coleman has shared his secrets in meticulous detail in his books, including The Winter Harvest Handbook—inspiring farmers around the country and sowing the seeds of a revolution.

No one knows precisely how many farms are doing winter production in Maine—estimates run from about a dozen to twenty—but the flowering of this revolution is evident at winter farmers markets around the state. The Maine Federation of Farmers Markets now lists 32 winter markets, a growing number of which are featuring fresh spinach, greens, and other greenhouse crops alongside storage crops such as winter squash, potatoes, and onions.

Four-season farming is still new here and there are plenty of challenges: short days and frigid temperatures, mastering the intricate temporal choreography of using moveable high tunnels, marketing, and the sheer physical rigors of farming in winter, to name a few. But checking in with farmers growing crops in winter offers an intriguing glimpse of the possibilities. Welcome to the growing edge of sustainable agriculture in Maine.

A Hundred Percent Sun-Powered:  Two Farmers and Six Rivers

Kelsey Herrington and Dominic Pascarelli discovered their shared passion for farming as graduate students at Clark University. Pascarelli helped organize theuniversity’s composting system and mentored youth in an urban gardening program, and Herrington studied sustainable meat production on a local farm. After earning their master’s degrees in environmental science and policy, they apprenticed at a farm in Vermont and then Paul and Sandy Arnold’s Pleasant Valley Farm in Upstate New York, where they learned four-season farming, and got “hooked” right away.

Looking to start a year-round organic farm of their own, they began farming on land Pascarelli’s parents own in Durham in 2011 and relocated their Two Farmers Farm to ten acres of leased land in Scarborough in 2013. Smack dab between Route One and the Scarborough Marsh, they grow more than fifty certified organic crops on about 2.5 acres, including three 96-foot-long solar high tunnels filled with flourishing winter greens.

“We learned how to do winter farming in a system that didn’t use supplemental heat, and that’s the system we’re comfortable with and know how to use successfully,” Herrington says. “We don’t add heat because we don’t think we need it.”

“Some people might say, ‘you’re crazy, just add heat,’” Pascarelli adds. “But what we’ve heard from some growers is that heating a greenhouse is a mixed bag. Some of your crops like extra heat, but so do some diseases and pests.”

A blustery afternoon in late fall finds Herrington and Pascarelli buttoning up tunnels bursting with luxuriant beds of rainbow chard, lettuce, mustard greens, and other cold-hardy crops. They’ll harvest them weekly through most of the winter to sell at farmers markets in Saco, Brunswick and southern New Hampshire, and a few restaurants in Greater Portland.

“It might seem like we’re giving up our break for the year by farming in winter, but our goal is to sell 48 to 50 weeks a year so we don’t have to cram earning all of our income into 25 or 30 weeks,” Pascarelli says. “We’re trying to avoid the extreme stress of July through September. We haven’t quite achieved that, but we did a lot better than last year.”

Two Farmers’ dazzling winter beds make what they do look deceptively easy, but, of course, it isn’t. Winter crops in unheated tunnels must be covered every cold night or they’ll freeze, and uncovered to maximize light and stimulate growth later in the winter when the days lengthen. Then there is harvesting—on one’s knees for hours cutting tiny leaves with a knife in finger-stinging cold, not to mention meticulous washing and packaging. On top of the intense labor of farming are the challenges of running any small business: marketing, sales, budgeting, accounting, and myriad other tasks.

Herrington and Pascarelli intend to keep Two Farmers small to earn a stainable living for themselves and their employees (currently two part-timers). “Our vision is to have a business that can fairly support us and our employees without us ever having to work off the farm,” Herrington says. She adds that unstainability also means“time off, enough money for some sort of recreation,and a business that’s not excessively stressful.”

The two farmers are quick to point out that they had help in getting started. Affordable grants from Slow Money Maine assisted with start-up costs for the tunnels. Pascarelli’s contractor father and a friend helped build the tunnels, his mother helps wash and pack produce, and the original farmer who connected them with the landowner did the heavy tractor work. Other farmers pitched in as well. New Leaf Farm in Durham grew their first seedlings, and Six River Farm founders Nate Drummond and Gabrielle Gosselin of Bowdoinham mentored Herrington and Pascarelli through MOFGA’s Journeyperson Program, which pairs new farmers with established ones.

Drummond and Gosselin apprenticed a few years before Herrington and Pascarelli at Pleasant Valley, where the Arnolds introduced the young farmers. Through Maine Farmland Trust’s FarmLink Program, which connects prospective farmers with available land, Drummond and Gosselin leased 25 acres of land in Bowdoinham, where they started Six River Farm in 2007. They began winter farming in 2010, and now grow about a dozen winter crops in ten unheated tunnels totaling 21,120 square feet, or just under a half-acre. These crops represent about a third of their winter offerings, which also include storage crops such as potatoes, cabbage and winter squash.

Drummond says winter farming accounts for about 20 percent of Six River’s income, but the benefits go beyond dollars and cents. “Winter farming is great for us. It keeps our loyal farmers market customers in Brunswick supplied with fresh produce through the winter. Overall, it doesn’t represent a huge percentage of our total sales, but the cash flow through the winter is nice. And the customer retention really sets up our summer and fall farmers markets.”

Winter farming also helps Six River retain employees—all seven of whom are staying on to work at the farm this year. “All of our farm crew lives locally, and work in the winter—when there are few other employment options—is important to them,” Drummond says. He adds that the opportunity to work year-round means that many crew members stay at Six River for several years. “It’s invaluable to have an experienced, hard-working crew when the farm reaches its busiest season in the summer,” Drummond says.

Dominic Pascarelli of Two Farmer Farm in Scarborough harvests kale in a winter hoop house heated only by the sun. Kelsey Herrington, Pascarelli's partner at Two Farmers and in life, makes notes at a desk improvised from a tailgate. Two Farmers sells organic spinach and other greens at winter farmers markets in southern maine and New Hampshire.
Farm workers at Six River Farm in Bowdoinham plow snow.

“It might seem like we’re giving up our break for the year by farming in winter, but our goal is to sell 48 to 50 weeks a year so we don’t have to cram earning all of our income into 25 or 30 weeks..”

DOMINIC PASCARELLI, TWO FARMERS FARM

Turning Up the Heat a Notch

While the farmers at Six River and Two Farmers raise all of their winter crops in high tunnels warmed only by the sun, other Maine growers add supplemental heat to boost winter production. Using conventional and alternative fuels and heating systems, they are constantly experimenting, evolving techniques and growing the potential of year-round farming in Maine.

Lisa and Ralph Turner started Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport in 1997 with surplus produce from their home garden and greenhouse, where they were inspired to grow cold-hardy crops after reading one of Eliot Coleman’s books. They now manage 15 acres, including 12 acres of organic vegetables and six hoop houses, with total winter production covering about a third of an acre. The Turners have about 250 members in their summer CSA and about 110 members in their twice-a-month winter CSA, and they also sell to local restaurants and retail outlets. The bounty of their farm inspired Lisa to write The Eat Local Cookbook:  Seasonal Recipes from a Maine Farm.

On a cloudy December afternoon, Lisa Turner tromps across her snowy  driveway in flowered rubber boots and rolls up the metal door to a greenhouse. Follow her inside and you find yourself transported to spring. Verdant rows of mesclun and scallions, two of the winter crops the Turners grow, glow in the afternoon light, along with arugula, lettuce, bok choi, hakurei turnips, radishes, baby spinach and kale and cilantro. Redolent of fresh earth and plant life, the air is moist and much warmer than outdoors.

The Turners decided to use supplemental heat to promote faster growth and raise more crops in less space at Laughing Stock, where winter growing generates about one sixth of the farm income. Ralph, a mechanical engineer, pioneered a technique to heat Laughing Stock’s greenhouses with used cooking oil and animal fat that he collected from Freeport restaurants. For about ten years, the Turners used this fuel for about 80 percent of their greenhouse heating needs, with the other 20 percent coming from propane.

Federal subsidies on biodiesel for transportation, however, have driven up the cost of used cooking oil, resulting in their farm losing between $15,000 and $20,000 per year, according to Lisa Turner. “We didn’t have that money to lose, so we had to increase the business by finding more land and hiring more employees to cover it,” says Turner, a forthright woman in her fifties. The  Turners now heat their greenhouses with about 25 percent used cooking oil and 75 percent propane, but that could change. “We’re keeping all our options open for heating,” she says. “It’s an ever-changing market, which the price changes in heating oil this winter proves.”

A bumblebee pings against the plastic walls of the greenhouse and a fine, light snow begins to fall outside. Lisa Turner reflects on the ups and downs of growing Laughing Stock Farm, which employs two year-round and six seasonal workers. The Turners clearly are succeeding: they received the 2014 Commissioner’s Distinguished Service Award from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “The puzzle of how to do this and make a living is actually fun,” she says.

lettuce and kale seedlings thrive in a winter hoop house.

Into the Future

Laughing Stock Farm was among the stops on a 2014 Maine Farm Bureau tour of year-round growers, along with Olivia’s Garden, a hydroponic outfit in New Gloucester, and Cozy Acres Greenhouses in North Yarmouth. Cozy Acres co-owner Jeff Marstaller is happy to show visitors his brainchild: a new “zero-emissions” greenhouse heated with geothermal energy and powered by solar electricity.

Marstaller decided he wanted to burn less propane and add a sustainable greenhouse to the wholesale seedling nursery he and his wife Marianne started

in 1995. His research and project planning netted more than $80,000 in grants from a combination of Maine’s Farms for the Future Program, the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The 18-month project was completed in December, 2013: a 96 x 30 polycarbonate and acrylic greenhouse heated by a 10-ton geothermal system powered with 102 solar panels. In its first year of operation, the solar panels generated about 39,000 kilowatt hours of electricity—less than the system used—and the geothermal heating system kept temperatures above freezing on the coldest nights, and hit 55 to 65 degrees during the day.

The Marstallers grew lettuce to test their new system and have since switched to organic microgreens, which have a short growing cycle that lets them stay ahead of aphids. On a December afternoon, the only sound in the greenhouse is thesnip of scissors as the Marstellers harvest fresh microgreens—a mix of tiny beet, arugula, and lettuce seedlings. They sell to a handful of local restaurants and retailers and hope to develop a larger local market for their baby greens, which meld earthy-tangy-sweet-flavors. In addition to using their new greenhouse to grow microgreens ten months of the year, they will also use it for some of their wholesale seedling business in spring.

While the final price tag for the project is admittedly high—more than $200,000—Marstaller says that the grants and tax savings and credits help offset more than 50 percent of costs. He thinks the new greenhouse will add value to the Cozy Acres brand and his property. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the only heated yearround greenhouse this far north that is totally powered with zero-emission sources,” he says.

Jeff Marstaller of Cozy Acres Greenhouses in North Yarmouth weighs microgreens, a mix of tiny beet, lettuce and arugula seedlings, for delivery to Portland area restaurants.
Potted flowers for the wholesale market and microgreens ready for harvest flourish at Cozy Acres.
Gabrielle Gosselin and daughter Alice inspect newly planted flats at Six River Farm

Growing New Solutions

More than 20 years after harvesting his first winter crops, Eliot Coleman is still refining and innovating four-season farming techniques, as are a growing number of farmers, university researchers, seed companies, greenhouse manufacturers, and others. “There are so many improvements we can make,” Coleman says.  “We just need to keep our eyes open and see who might be doing something interesting.”

One of the many interesting things Coleman is doing is experimenting with ways to keep high tunnels warmer on the coldest nights without using costly supplemental heat. This year, he’ll be testing Solawrap, a greenhouse plastic that resembles bubble wrap and is a better insulator than sheet plastic. Used in Europe for 30 years, it’s newly available in the U.S. and Coleman will evaluate how well it performs in Maine’s frigid winters. At the same time, he will test a new system to insulate the north wall of a greenhouse with vertical plastic tubes of water heated by the sun.

High tunnels are springing up all over the state, some through a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service cost-sharing program, but growing winter crops in them is still a tricky business. Through Four Season Farm Consulting, Clara Coleman—Eliot Coleman’s daughter—aims to help a new generation of year-round farmers succeed. In one project, she is partnering with Maine Farmland Trust to provide free consulting services to farmers associated with the new Unity Food Hub, slated to open this spring. The goal, she says, “is to have many of the farmers supplying the hub with fresh produce year-round.

”Coleman, who moved back to Maine after running her own successful year-round organic vegetable farm in Colorado, is among observers who see significant potential for the growth of four-season farming in her home state. She notes growing demand from institutions such as hospital and schools, as well as larger grocers and nearby markets in Boston, all of which would allow year-round farmers  to expand into markets beyond Maine.

It remains to be seen how year-round farming will grow and evolve in Maine, but there are abundant good reasons for pursuing it, from crop failures due to droughts and floods in farming areas out West, to fluctuating fuel costs, to food safety, to supporting Maine’s local farmers, to the vast difference in flavor and quality between local produce and vegetables shipped thousands of miles. And, of course, it’s also common sense.

“If more fresh produce can be grown here in Maine during the winter months, then we don’t have to rely on costly imports from across the country,” Clara Coleman says. “We can produce and sell more of our own products locally and employ more people locally, all of which contributes to food security.”

To that end, many Maine innovators continue to grow the roots of the year-round farming revolution.  “It’s like any new thing,” Eliot Coleman says. “The more you look into it, the more you can do.”

Read the full 2015 maine farms

Maine Farms is an annual journal created especially for Maine Farmland Trust members.

Last spring, we took a leap of faith, publishing the inaugural issue of maine farms. We shipped copies to every Maine Farmland Trust member, and then waited, holding our breath. To our great relief, this experiment was met with a flood of praise.

 

Of the many notes, emails, and phone calls that we received, the ones that really stood out were from farmers and food champions who are the inspirations behind our work. Three examples:

“A superlative effort inside and out, right down to the heavy card stock cover and perfect-binding.”

jim gerritsen, wood prairie farm

“In recent visits with farmers and exchanges with others, I’ve sensed a general ‘buzz’ about the periodical, and I am excited about sharing it further to ‘ground’ people to food and farm issues in Maine.”

bonnie rukin, slow money maine

“I am so impressed with this publication…the links to art, the content, the bringing together of diverse farming groups, and of course, a vision.”

john krueger, mofga board member

This year’s journal offers important new stories about Maine’s farmers and food community—from the tricky business of reclaiming farmland, to spring’s fleeting bounty, to the farmers on the frontlines of four-season innovation, to a sneak peek of a new food access photo exhibit.

Putting maine farms together is no simple task. We count ourselves lucky to be working with a sharp editor, a highly-creative design team, and talented contributors—who all go above and beyond because they believe wholeheartedly in MFT’s mission. We extend our sincere thanks to everyone who makes this journal possible—including you, our readers.

John Piotti, President & CEO
Ellen Sabina, Outreach Director

four season farming

Four Season Farming Workshop: Maximizing Productivity with Clara Coleman and Jed Beach

As a follow up to the hands-on Four Season Farming workshop from October 2015, Maine Farmland Trust is excited to hold a FREE workshop on the business of season extension and growing winter-hearty vegetable crops, thanks to support from the Unity Food Hub and the USDA’s Local Foods Promotion Program grant.  Clara Coleman, of Four-Season Farm Consulting will present on the five key elements that lay a foundation for maximizing productivity with four season farming. The five key elements include:

  1. the underlying inspiration & motivation to four season farming;
  2. understanding & applying the fundamentals of four season farming;
  3. effective four season farm infrastructure & tools;
  4. business savvy & marketing for four season farming; and
  5. resources & support available for four season farming.

Jed Beach of FarmSmart will present a budgeting tool that farmers can use for estimating four season farming profitability during the Business Savvy portion of the presentation.

Adam Lemieux,  Product Manager of Tools & Supplies for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, will be present to showcase some of the four season farming tools offered by Johhny’s.  He and Clara will also be raffling off some items as well, including a couple of Eliot Coleman books, signed by the author.

Commercial farmers (with any level of experience) will benefit most; all are welcome.

The workshop is free, but you must register by April 8th!

For more information, please contact Mike Gold, mgold@mainefarmnlandtrust.org, (207) 338-6575.

Registration is closed. Want to know when the next workshop will be? Sign up for our monthly eNews:

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2016 Washington County Food Summit: Land and Sea

Farmers, fishermen, harvesters and consumers– join us at Healthy Acadia’s second Washington County Food Summit organized by the Washington County Community Food Council. This is an opportunity for producers/harvesters/gatherers of food to come together in order to network, address infrastructure gaps and share successes and challenges. The full-day event brings together people from our region and beyond who interested in healthy vibrant food systems. By strengthening our food system, more producers and harvesters are able to sustain their businesses and more residents have access to healthy food at affordable prices.

Full agenda and registration is available online here.
For more information or to register by phone, contact Regina Grabrovac at Machias’ Healthy Acadia office at 255- 3741

When:

Snow Date: March 19. Cancellation notice will be announced on WLBZ by 5am on the day of the event.

Where: Washington Academy – 66 High Street East Machias, ME 04630 – View Map

 

The 2016 Washington County Food Summit is supported by funding from Maine Community Foundation. Our sponsors include Downeast Salmon Federation, The First, Look’s Gourmet/Bar Harbor Foods, Maine Farmland Trust, Sunrise County Economic Council and Washington County Council of Governments, Wymans of Maine.

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.

Four Season Farming Workshop

Are you a commercial grower interested in season extension using plastic greenhouses? Then join us at our Four Season Farming workshop at the Point Lookout Farm in Northport on October 20th.

Clara Coleman and the Point Lookout farmers will provide a tour of their farm focusing on their four season farming practices including their movable greenhouse. Workshop participants will get a demonstration on moving the greenhouse from its summer/fall crop onto a new plot for winter growing. Furthermore, attendees will have the opportunity to learn about additional MFT four season farming events and services.

 


Agenda

9:30-10:00       Coffee Social (Ducktrap Room in Hedge’s Hall)

10:00-10:30     Welcome & Introductions

10:30-10:50     Overview of Four Season Farming

10:50-11:00      Movable Greenhouses

11:00-12:00     Farm Tour & Move Greenhouse #1

12:00-1:00       Lunch

1:00-3:00        Move Greenhouse #2

3:00-3:30       Wrap Up & Evaluation

This event will meet at Hedges Hall, in the Ducktrap room, rain or shine. Be sure to dress for the outdoors. You can find directions to Point Lookout here.


Registration closed