|Direct marketing at farmers’ markets and farm stands is the primary way to sell local, seasonal, organic foods in Maine – as Tom Harms of Wolf Pine Farm did at the Common Ground Fair farmers’ market. To further meet the demand for year-round local foods, we need more storage, processing and handling facilities, more transportation systems, and food hubs. English photo.|
By Cheryl Wixson
The management of our food system – how we grow, package, transport and distribute our food – influences more than just our next meal. The way we produce our food has radically changed in the past 50 years, and decisions being made in food production and agriculture are intricately connected to the public health, development, environmental quality and economic vitality of our communities. The current industrial food system alters our soil and water with pesticides and weed killers, changes the nature of the plants and animals we eat through genetic engineering, and damages the ocean floor and alters ecosystems by dragging with mile-long fishing nets.
In Maine, local, organic agriculture is a bright spot, creating more jobs per farm and leveraging $91.6 million in economic impact in the state. (“Maine’s Organic Farms – An Impact Report,” at www.mofga.org) If we were to create a more regional food system, what would it look like and what could be the economic impact?
The Northeast Sustainable Agricultural Working Group (NESAWG), a regional network of member organizations (including MOFGA) working to create a more sustainable and secure regional food system, identifies an ideal regional food system as a “system in which as much food as possible to meet the population’s food needs is produced, processed, distributed and purchased at multiple levels and scales within the region, resulting in maximum resilience, minimum importation, and significant economic and social return to all stakeholders in the region.” (“It Takes a Region: Exploring a Regional Food Systems Approach,” by Kathryn Ruhf and Kate Clancy, www.nefood.org, Sept. 2010)
In my organic marketing work and in developing the Maine Local Twenty (20 foods that Maine can produce for its citizens to enjoy all year), I researched Maine’s capacity to produce these foods; the market penetration; and barriers to processing, storing, distributing and marketing these foods.
The good news is that Maine has the land base and capacity to provide its 1.3 million residents with a balanced nutritional diet. The table below shows, in the first two columns, USDA guidelines for the percentage of its recommended 2,000 daily calories for adults that should come from each food group; and in the second two columns, the percent of each food group met by Maine’s production, if all the food grown and harvested in Maine were used to feed our 1.3 million residents.
|USDA Recommended||%||Maine Production||%||Notes|
|Cereals (grains)||30||Cereals (grains)||23||3% of production is for humans, 20% for livestock|
|Fruits, veggies||15||Potatoes||60||tablestock, seed and processing (chips and french fries)|
|Other produce||1||cabbage, carrots, garlic, greens, onions, broccoli, other roots, tomatoes, squash, pumpkins|
|Lean protein||12||Lean protein||6||seafood 2% (lobster, shrimp, clams), eggs 2%, other meats 2%|
|Lipids (fats)||20||Lipids (fats)||20+|
|Sweets||8||Sweets||1||maple syrup 0.75%, honey 0.25%|
This analysis shows that Maine farms produce enough food in gross calories to feed our population.
At the same time, market analysis indicates that Maine consumers want more Maine food.
Nationally and locally, the market for local, organic foods is strong and growing. Nationally, the organic industry (which includes processing) grew 19 percent annually from 1997 to 2008, and the organic agriculture sector (organic farming) grew by 8 percent in 2008. (“Organic Farming for Health and Prosperity,” Organic Farming Research Foundation, Sept. 2011; https://ofrf.org/publications/OrganicFarmingforHealthandProsperity.pdf).
In Maine, the number of organic farms grew at a rate of more than 300 percent from 1997 to 2008, says “Maine’s Organic Farms – An Impact Report.” The Organic Farming Research Foundation estimates that the United States will need to triple its number of organic farms by 2015 to meet projected market demand.
The challenge is getting the food to the consumer. Direct marketing to consumers through produce sales at farmers’ markets and farm stands remains the primary way to sell local, seasonal, organic foods. This is a finite, seasonal market, and from November to April the consumer has limited options. Also, the demand for product in wholesale and institutional markets such as schools and hospitals cannot be met with current production and distribution systems.
When large-scale systems, such as the industrial food system, have flaws, they create opportunities for local systems. Key components in developing a regional food system include producing a volume and variety of foods to meet the dietary needs and preferences of the population, having a wide variety of farm scales and market outlets to meet food demands, having attributes of both commodity and local systems, connecting with local, national and global systems, and encouraging decentralization wherever possible.
To meet the market demand for year-round organic foods, Maine needs to develop additional storage for crops such as roots and apples, and infrastructure such as handling and transportation systems. We need food hubs that create volume and consistency for wholesale buyers.
Regional slaughterhouses will expand markets for processed meats, providing farmers with the financial incentive to grow grains as cover crops that improve soil health and quality and feed livestock. More local markets need to be developed for foods such as apples, potatoes and blueberries that go out of state while the same foods from other regions are imported into the state.
Food processing, IQF (individually quick frozen) stir-fry veggie mixes, canned tomato sauces, pumpkin pie filling and other freezing and canning of seasonal products offer year-round marketing opportunities, they increase market penetration, and they create jobs. More importantly, processing grade B products, such as blueberries into juice, cut root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes, and chopped cabbage for slaw for the institutional market, increase revenue streams and create jobs.
Value-added food processing facilities in Belfast, Bangor and northern Aroostook County are being brought on-line and could create more than 200 jobs while helping fill market demand for year-round, local, organic foods. Business plans for slaughterhouses in western and northern Maine are being developed. A collaborative effort in Washington County is studying the feasibility of a wild blueberry juice facility.
A hallmark of a regionally focused food system is that economic returns stay in the region. Making that happen requires collaboration among communities, public policy makers, farmers, educators, businesses, entrepreneurs and consumers. Legislation such as the Local Farm, Food and Jobs Act proposed by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree that prioritizes local and regional food systems in the 2012 Farm Bill is critical.
Can we build a vibrant Maine food system? The short answer is yes, one bite at a time.
Cheryl Wixson is MOFGA’s organic marketing consultant. She and her husband recently started a value-added food company, destined to put “More Maine food on Maine plates.” She welcomes your input and comments at [email protected].