AROOSTOOK COUNTY - The growing season has ended and the potato harvest is nearly complete, but agriculture is still a hot topic for economic development officials.
In September, the Economic Development Council of Maine held its quarterly conference, which focused on "Maine's Food Basket: Strategic Options for Growth."
Aroostook Partnership for Progress (APP) President Bob Dorsey was asked to participate in the conference, mainly due to the Partnerships work over the past year in diversified agriculture and his participation as a member of the Maine Food Strategy Steering Committee.
"There is a growing statewide interest in the value of local foods and the realization that diversified agriculture is an important element in growing the economy of Aroostook and Maine," said Dorsey.
Paul Cyr captured this image of the SAD 1 School Farm earlier this month.
The conference featured segments on Maine in the Food Business, moderated by Dorsey, and Economic Opportunities in Maine. Chris Hallweaver, of Northern Girl in Aroostook County, also participated in the Maine in the Food Business discussion.
"I discussed the emerging trends in Maine and New England," Dorsey said. "Aroostook County has excess capacity for produce production, but I also highlighted the opportunities and challenges of using that capacity."
Within the past few weeks, Hallweaver and Sam Blackstone of Caribou requested APP help spearhead a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) pilot project in the Caribou area to test the feasibility of this approach that has had growing success in southern Maine.
"A CSA is a program whereby folks sign up and pay in advance in the spring of the year, usually for weekly food delivery throughout the summer growing season," said Dorsey. "For example, there might be a $200 or a $400 program whereby the producer would make weekly deliveries of boxes of fresh vegetables/berries etc. to a specific location."
Dorsey added CSAs promote local farmers, allow customers easy access to fresh, healthy foods and allows for some influx of capital to farmers in the spring when they must fund seed, fertilizer, equipment costs, etc.
Dorsey has had discussions with organizations like Pines Health Services and Cary Medical Center, which have shown interest in supporting a CSA pilot project.
"Ultimately it would be great to see multiple CSAs around The County to help our agriculture economy, but it is prudent to test the concept as a first step, which we believe this pilot project is a perfect approach," Dorsey added.
Another positive sign for diversified agriculture is the growth of the two food co-ops in Aroostook.
"The Houlton Co-op is now featuring local products from about 30 local producers just in Aroostook," said Meg York Scott of The County Co-op and Farm Store. "We will be expanding our inventory to include more Maine products from distributors such as Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative and Associated Buyers with bulk products, local meats, etc. Everything in our store right now is 100 percent local, produced within 100 miles. We are also hosting a farm-to-table dinner in November using all local food sources on the menu. Many more interesting and exciting events featuring local artists, musicians, comedians, authors, etc are on the horizon along with the expansion of the store."
The Market Street Co-op in Fort Kent is growing, evidenced by the caf opening with a full drink menu, soups and baked goods.
Co-op founder Stacy Martin said they can still use more produce suppliers in the St. John Valley. She added the CSA concept is also being considered in the Valley.
In 2013, APP identified diversified agriculture as an area of potential growth during the Mobilize Northern Maine asset based planning process.