LEWISTON — Farmers want more access to local credit, more places to wash, pack, store and distribute their food, and public policy that requires more local schools to buy from them. At a good price.
Restaurant and cafeteria buyers want more lightly processed local farm food (pre-cut chicken, chopped vegetables) and more traditionally off-season produce, such as lettuce in winter. At a good price.
Both findings come from a commissioned report released this week by Grow L+A, a group looking to revitalize Bates Mill No. 5. As part of that, the group has heavily explored using food as an anchor.
The report from Karp Resources out of New York discouraged, for now, pursuing a physical food hub — space dedicated to packing, processing, storing, distributing and retailing food — projecting that such a hub would operate at a nearly $400,000 annual loss.
Gabrielle Russell, who founded Grow L+A and sits on its board, said she didn’t consider the findings a blow to the overall effort.
“I think a lot of stuff in the report made sense,” Russell said. “Even though we’ve pivoted a little bit, it’s really helping us think through the process and helping us connect with other groups and leverage all our community assets to work together to find the best solution and something that makes sense from a business perspective.”
The Karp report found that the building wasn’t ideal to support a food hub and that not enough food is grown locally.
“Two factors dominate this assessment: farmers’ lack of access to land and capital, and a degree of lack of interest or belief that a market is there should they expand their operations,” according to the report.
Shanna Cox, vice president of Grow L+A, said the “pivot” is to now support the food economy by getting others into the building who are already doing some of that work.
“We’re still focusing on the local economy, still focusing on local businesses and local jobs, still focusing on local food, all of those core values still in place from where we were when we started the process of commissioning this report,” Cox said.
For the 88-page report, which was delivered to the group in March, Karp researchers interviewed 22 farmers, five buyers and 16 local stakeholders.
Among its findings:
* Androscoggin, Oxford and Sagadahoc counties, likely “the foundation for both supply and demand” for a food hub here, comprise 15 percent of Maine’s population and 15 percent of Maine’s farms, which sell a combined $85 million in farm goods per year.
* Twin Cities consumers spend $580 million on groceries each year, $4.3 million directly with local farms. Compared to the rest of the country, the latter is a big number. Nationally, 6 percent of farms sell directly to the consumer. Here, 32 percent do.
* Farmers aren’t growing or raising enough to fill a food hub year round and are reluctant to expand, if they were able, unless “they were assured of sales levels and consistency that would make it worth their efforts and investment.”
Karp estimated that a 5,000-square-foot food hub in Mill No. 5 would cost $770,000 at start-up, with ongoing monthly costs averaging $12,709. The annual operating loss was projected at $387,488.
The report lauded Grow L+A’s Food Hub Task Force for its efforts so far and encouraged it to grow a broader base of support, to get more involved in issues such as land use and to take on a few pilot projects.
Grow L+A is hosting a series of invitation-only planning sessions about the report and its plans for the mill starting Sept. 4, culminating in a public forum on Sept. 16 at 5:30 p.m. at the Franco Center.
Cox said she hopes people read the report and the group’s cover letter for more of its take-aways from the research.
“Really, the focus of the meeting as a whole is to engage the community and start to clarify the role of Grow L+A, the focus and redevelopment of the mill, where that’s at and to find out where the community’s energy lies around those recommendations,” she said.