NORWAY – Sending people to farms to check out where their eggs, cheese and cucumbers come from is the Norway food co-op’s latest strategy to link buyers with growers, a relationship some food and farm experts are emphasizing as vital to regional economic health and physical well-being.

The Fare Share Market on Main Street is offering a farm tour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. People with their own transportation can buy a ticket that will get them a map and a pass to six area farms, where they can meet the personalities behind the homemade labels.

“We have a goal to be more and more local, it’s how communities survive,” Claire Gelinas, the co-op’s manager, said. The co-op, which traditionally has pushed organically grown food, is now doing more business with nearby producers regardless of whether they qualify as certifiably organic.

“You can’t call it an organic process if it comes from 3,000 miles away,” Gelinas said about food that would pass recognized organic standards and is loaded onto a truck in California to be transported here.

Providing basil from someone’s small garden or selling eggs from a chicken farm in Sumner not only offers another market for nearby growers, but also helps the co-op fill a niche. With pressure from other competitors – like Hannaford Supermarket in Oxford, which this summer opened a natural food section – the co-op is developing means of promoting its business while supporting its philosophy.

“We always found it important,” the co-op’s board Chairwoman Marty Elkin said, referring to the co-op’s intention of putting local food on the shelves. “It is one of the things we can offer that they can’t. It is nothing new, we’ve always had this philosophy and value system.”

But Gelanis in the past year has increased the number of neighboring farms and gardens associated with the co-op, estimating that about 20 sell products to the store. And she has lowered the profit margin of local food by 5 percent to encourage price-sensitive shoppers.

She said, too, that she is reaching out to more farms to get them on board.

Jeannette Baldridge, who co-owns LolliePapa Farm in West Paris with her husband Don, said the recent E.coli scare connected with organic California spinach has reinforced people’s calling for local vegetables. Their farm is one of the six on the tour.

“Our mission is to educate people about buying local food,” Baldridge said. “And this spinach thing has driven that point home – how important it is to know where your food comes from.”

A state agricultural worker said supporting farms sustains the regional economy, on top of satisfying a growing desire for local food.

“Supporting the farm will help the viability of the farm, and will support the local economy and particularly the local farming economy,” said Deanne Herman, a marketing manager for Maine’s Department of Agriculture.

Herman said some consumers prefer to eat locally produced food for health reasons, and others out of a concern for the energy expenditures made in cross-country treks from far-off farms to Maine grocery stores.

Others buy from neighborhood farmers to help preserve a dwindling farming culture and the land that supports it.

“Maine used to be an agricultural state, but we are rapidly losing farm land, especially in the southern part of the state where development is encroaching,” Herman said. “A lot of the prime farm land in Maine is being covered over in asphalt. We want to be able to drive into the country and buy local food.”

The six farms participating in the tour are A Wrinkle in Thyme Farm in Sumner, Deerwood Garden Farm in Waterford, Inch by Inch Farm in Greenwood, LolliePapa Farm in West Paris, Moose Pond Arts and Ecology in Otisfield, and Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner.

The tickets for adults over 15 cost $15. For co-op members, the price is $10.

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