This post is somewhat longer than my usual. It is an essay I’ve been working on for awhile now. I think of it as my TED talk should I ever be invited to deliver one. Let me know what you think.
I grew up in a small town in Maine in the 1960’s. My mother was a farm girl from a nearby dairy farming community. As a teenager she had worked at the local canning factory in her hometown. Nearly every town with a stream that could produce hydropower had a canning factory.
My mother was a great believer in good food. This is how I ate as a child. Every year my parents put a side of beef in the freezer. A grass-fed steer from a local dairy farm. Slaughtered at the local food locker. Best beef I ever ate. And we ate it frequently because as a single income family with four growing children a large percentage of the family budget was spent on food. By buying their beef this way my parents could feed us ribeye for the same price as hamburger. We had a milkman who delivered. An egg lady who delivered. My mom said she bought from her because she had a husband who wouldn’t work and she needed the money to feed her own kids. My godfather got us hand-churned butter from a woman in her 90’s who lived in his town. It was bright yellow and salty, creamy, melty delicious. We had a huge garden every year and my mother canned and froze a lot of fresh veggies during the summer, made pickles, canned applesauce and apple butter from our neighbors trees. They were summer folks and long gone by the time the apples on their ancient tree were ready to harvest. We ate very well in my childhood home.
The country around us, along with being dairy country, was also the last bastion of the poultry industry in Maine. Every year in the shire-town of our county they held the week long Broiler Festival. A celebration of the farmers growing and the plants processing broiler chickens in our county. As a 5 year old I was the “gift girl” at the Miss Broiler Pageant. I met my first politician there. John Reid the Governor of Maine at the time. 20 years later I was the last occupational health nurse and safety officer at the last poultry processing plant in Maine. The industry was moving south where it was warmer and the labor was cheaper. My county’s economy was devastated.
At approximately the same time the poultry industry was dying in Maine a couple called the Nearings, Helen and Scott, I’m sure you’ve heard of them, moved to a small farm out on a peninsula on the coast and started homesteading. Scott wrote a book called “Living the Good Life” which became a run away hit with the 60’s generation and lead a lot of folks to move back to the land. These back-to-the-landers started farming and homesteading using organic methods. Soon they asking the cooperative extension agents to help them improve their methods and yields. One of these agents, Charlie Gould, happens to be the father of a friend of mine. He told me years later that he had all these “dirty hippies” asking him about organic methods so he decided he needed to learn how the organic system worked. From this humble beginning, after a few meetings lead by Charlie and attended by Scott, Helen, Eliot Coleman and many others sprang the beginnings of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association or MOFGA. And the rest, as they say, is history. Having the largest and oldest organic farming association in our state leads to many advantages. We are the only state in the country where the average age of farmers is falling thanks to the apprenticeship and journey person programs that MOFGA runs. We also have the highest per capita number of female farm owners. I don’t know what to attribute that to except that the millennials are pretty gender neutral in most things this aspect included.
In the meanwhile the chicken barns were empty and deteriorating. But we have found some uses for them. One became the home for Fedco Seeds. A worker owned seed, tree, perennials, bulbs and farm supply company that has been expanding at a reasonable rate for 30 years now. A local company serving the seed, equipment and input needs of the revitalized farming culture in Maine. Other empty chicken barns, and there were lots of them, became warehouses or self storage units. One became an antiques mall and yet another became the largest used bookstore in the state.
So the work continued and the farms came back to life and the farmers grew more and more food that they needed to get to market. The holes in the local food infrastructure began to show. Since the 1960’s the local food locker had closed. There are currently only three USDA slaughter facilities in the state. Some farmers drive as much as three hours one way to take their stock to be slaughtered in a way that the government will then allow them to sell wholesale or retail in the public marketplace. The local canning plant closed int he 1950’s and as I said the poultry processing plant was gone. So we had a gap, we had farmers who wanted to grow the food and eaters who wanted to eat it but we needed to rebuild the processing and distribution system. We needed more than just CSAs and Farmers Markets.
We have over the last 10 to 20 years been slowly rebuilding the local food infrastructure. A thing that is made less difficult by the fact that we are only a generation, and sometimes less, away from a rural infrastructure that functioned quite well. My organization , Food for Maine’s Future/Local Food RULES, is one of the smaller non-profits guiding and aiding this rebuilding. Along with MOFGA, Maine Farmland Trust and a few others we are trying to keep open land in farming and farmers on the land. Some of the other components that have had to be reinvented are distribution. We are fortunate to have Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative another worker cooperative that runs several truck routes around the state picking up produce from the farms and distributing it to wholesalers and retailers around the state and New England. Food hubs are opening up around the state where farmers can aggregate their crops and sell to wholesale and retail markets. The Maine Federation of Farmers Markets is a thriving organization that supports markets for farmers around the state who wish to sell directly to customers.
Other pieces of the puzzle include the access to infrastructure needed to create value added products. Or, on the other hand, protection from onerous regulatory burdens that prohibit the processing of food on the farm for direct customer sales. The granges around the state are going a great job with the first piece. Several, formerly underutilized, Grange Halls around the state have installed licensed kitchens and rent them out on an hourly basis to local folks who want to make a product that they can sell at retail outlets. My friend Julie just recently gushed to me about how much easier it is to make her Happy Honey in the Halcyon Grange kitchen then it was to try to do it in her own cramped home kitchen. In other communities decommissioned schools are being brought back to life as community centers and the kitchens are being licensed and rented out to local folks for food production.
In 2006 we were having one of our Mud-season Dinners and I stood with a group of young farmers bemoaning the recently introduced animal identification law. A set of USDA regulations that was forcing all farmers large and small to keep a paper trail for every animal they ever owned and to spend money tagging or tattooing those animals. One small goat farmer plaintively asked “What are we going to do?” and my friend Tim Libby, a fine small farmer who feeds thousands of disadvantaged folks with his Veggies for All program, turned to her and said “We’re going to keep doing what we we’re doing….it’s just going to be illegal.” And that is the crux of the matter. Small farmers have been skirting the onerous regulations for years. But the more burdensome the regulations get the more likely these farmers are going to be forced to become outlaws. From this frustration along with the frustration of trying to get those regulations changed at the state level came the movement to pass Local Food Sovereignty Ordinances in municipalities around the state.
And speaking of retail outlets the locavore movement is alive and well in Maine. Over the last two years we have doubled the number of brick and mortar food co-ops in the state. These small local businesses are especially supportive of local farmers and producers. In fact they are so successful that the big chain stores in the state are trying to imitate them by having pictures of in state farmers up around their produce aisles. A nice niche market for the slightly bigger producers.
I have already spoken about transportation but I have to tell you about one of the coolest new transportation solutions in my coastal state. MaineSails a project of the Greenhorns, which is a national organization of young farmers, recently (August 2015) had its maiden voyage carrying farm produce with fairly stable shelf life from Portland Maine to Boston Massachusetts. The produce was then transported via bike to the Public Market in Boston. This project was meant to emphasis the need to think outside the box about solutions in the food system with lower carbon footprints.
In 2006 the Brookings Institute published a study about Maine’s economic future. One of the main findings in the study was that what Maine had that was unique and marketable was its pride of place and open lands. They suggested that one way to keep those fields open was to keep it in farming.
The Maine Grain Alliance is working to restore Maine’s preeminence as the bread basket of the northeast. They have opened a mill in Skowhegan and are not only grinding grain for human consumption but have filled the need of organic livestock farmers for organic feed grains. Each year in August they sponsor the Maine Kneading Conference a multi day event that brings together bakers and grain growers from all over the state and the country.
For years during the back to the land movement many of the small farmers and homesteaders I knew were growing a small crop of marijuana as their cash crop. Recently Maine legalized the medicinal use of marijuana. Becoming “care providers” under this new law has become a nice little cottage industry for many folks around the state. On the November 2016 ballot in Maine there will be a referendum seeking to legalize recreational use of marijuana. There had been two completing referendums. One sponsored and supported by the big tobacco and other firms seeking to regulate marijuana like tobacco, gambling and alcohol and restrict the number of growers in the state to a few deep pocketed folks from away. The other seeking to keep marijuana cultivation int he hands of the small farmer and allow them to continue to use a small marijuana patch as their cash crop for the year. The small farmers won this one. Big tobacco folded their tents and slunked away in the night when they realized they could not get the required number of signatures. The people of Maine were on to them and the small farmer version of the bill won the day and will be on the ballot.
And now it comes full circle. Last year my daughter-in-law asked me to teach her to can tomatoes and make pickles. This year, for the first time she and my son had their own big garden. The other night when I called they were making gravy fries for dinner out of the all blue potatoes from their garden. Last fall, it was a very good apple year, we had a cider pressing party at my place. We pressed over 50 gallons of cider and set it to ferment so that we would have our own hard cider for the winter. We gathered the community, added value to the local apple crop, prepared for the winter, and nurtured the local food traditions. Doing the work, legal or not, to feed our family, friends and neighbors.