Farm supporters talk about local agriculture growth

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PARIS – To fertilize the movement to boost agriculture here and build a market for local food, a consortium of food and farming activists has organized a series of three public meetings around Oxford County.

“We got together late last summer and agreed that a more coordinated effort was needed to promote local agriculture and for people to become more aware of local agriculture, and to help farmers find better ways to market their products more locally,” said Mark Hews, the director of Threshold To Maine Resource Conservation and Development Area. “The idea of these community meetings came about as a way to bring farmers and consumers and everybody in between to talk about local food issues.”

Despite a number of groups working around the state on the issue for some time – Maine’s Department of Agriculture has run a long campaign with various programming and advertising campaigns like “get real. get Maine!” – much of the food Mainers buy is still produced outside the state.

But there is a growing national movement to try to convert consumers to buying locally, a push that has been helped somewhat by the desire of many to curb oil consumption during the transport of food across the country or from overseas. Others are interested in conserving farmland and supporting local economies, and another pocket stresses the reassurance derived from knowing how one’s food is grown.

Deanne Herman, a marketing manager for the Maine Department of Agriculture, said despite the bulk of food in supermarkets still being from away, much has changed during the last decade. For instance, a mammoth Whole Foods Market is opening in Portland in February with the intention of making that store its premier center for Maine-produced goods, Herman said. It is sending foragers across the state to find participating farmers.

“Ten years ago, in terms of talking about the issues of local food and supporting the local food community, it was something people hadn’t been talking about,” she continued. “They had taken agriculture in Maine for granted, and over the last few years people realized not to take it for granted.”

The first Oxford County Ag Group meeting is scheduled at 5 p.m. Feb. 12 at the Western Maine Community College on Route 26 in Paris. Organizers have appealed to local farmers and any interested consumers to attend, and have also included organizations whose work touches on agriculture and food production.

The intention of the meetings is to gather more information about how the area can promote the notion of buying from nearby farmers.

“The meetings are open to anyone who would like to attend, including school service workers,” Hews said. “We’re hoping to get regular people there – consumers, producers, we would certainly like to see food distributors, local supermarkets.”

Hews said a local foods exposition might come out of the meetings, with farmers and other producers setting up tables and stalls at a big future event, something like a mix between an agricultural fair and a business showcase.

Lauri Ackley, co-owner of Fare Share Farm in Canton, said she hopes the meetings will strengthen cooperation between farmers.

“My personal opinion is that farmers need to work together and learn that it is not competition, but creating a market and satisfying the market’s needs,” Ackley said. “It is not that consumers don’t want to support local agriculture, but we need to make it more accessible in more places with more than one farm’s goods in one place.”

Herman said one of the challenges for agriculture in Maine is the weakened distribution systems, which have been corroded over time as the economy shifted away from an agricultural one. But now, she said demand for local foods likely outstrips supply, and that farmers have many opportunities today to sell their goods, they just need to find ways to reach buyers.

“It is a great opportunity for farmers to choose their markets carefully,” she said.

The groups sponsoring the meetings are Women, Work and Community, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Healthy Oxford Hills, Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, and Threshold to Maine Resource Conservation and Development Area.

Other meetings are scheduled Feb. 27 at the Blazing Star Lodge in Rumford and March 12 at the Molly Ockett Middle School in Fryeburg.

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