DIXFIELD – Two local farmers have launched an ambitious project to capitalize on the agricultural heritage of the River Valley area and to help assure that local people eat locally grown foods.

Annette Marin, owner of No View Farm in Rumford, and Lauri Ackley, owner of Fare Share Farm in Canton, together with a recently formed board of directors, plan to turn the former opera house on Main Street in Dixfield into a food cooperative. It would be complete with a cafe and bakery and Internet cafe, a small business incubator to provide food-related entrepreneurs with a place to develop their businesses, and an educational place to teach people how to grow, cook and eat healthy foods.

“We want a multitude of things to happen around this building,” Ackley said.

The new multiservice enterprise is called the Opera House Healthy Community Connections and is in the process of becoming incorporated.

With three floors, the 1893 opera house has plenty of room for projects, including a stage for performances and two kitchens to serve both the cafe’s and the food-related businesses that will develop products at the site.

The women have been working with state agencies, private and nonprofit businesses and others on the project for more than a year.

They’ve also enlisted the help of Sen. Bruce Bryant, D-Dixfield, who sits on the state’s Agricultural, Conservation and Forestry Committee, and local lawyer Elizabeth Ray.

Ray sits on the Friends of the Opera House board and is providing free legal work to the group. Bryant is working to secure a $30,000 state grant earmarked for developing agricultural businesses in the River Valley.

Ackley has not estimated the total cost for the project. She said she expects the project to be phased in over time.

She said a dozen or so people have committed to paying the $60 fee for becoming a part of the cooperative. Money will not be collected until the proper paperwork governing the cooperative has been completed, which she said should come within two or three weeks.

Anyone who wishes to become a member is welcome to phone Ackley at 597-2746 or Marin at 364-7085.

Marin said the two are working with the River Valley Growth Council on the project. The organization is also the fiscal sponsor of the cooperative. If grant money comes through, the funds will be funneled through the council, then to the cooperative. Opera House Healthy Community Connections can also use the council’s nonprofit status until it has gained its own, said Ackley.

Maine farms produce only 20 percent of the food eaten by people here, but Ackley and Marin hope to change that, at least in the River Valley, by putting farmers in touch with others and people in touch with those who produce food.

They said the project will likely take in farmers from a 50-mile radius.

“This is a big movement nationally. We need to get on board,” said Ackley.

The Friends of the Opera House will take care of the building, enforce policies and help funnel grants to the business. Several members already sit on the Friends board. Once the project is more firmly established, additional members will be appointed. A second board to govern the cooperative will likely be established within the next couple of weeks, said Ackley.

Other projects planned by the group include a food pantry featuring healthy, locally grown foods, distribution for farm produce, arts and performances, and alternative healing services.

The caf and bakery will be the first things ready to open to the public. A grand opening is tentatively scheduled for June 21.