FORT KENT — There is a conversation starting in Maine about how the state can help feed itself and the rest of the world and organizers are inviting everyone to the table.

“We are trying to get together different groups and businesses with interests in food systems to start talking,” Tanya Swain, co-director of the Maine Food Strategy, said. “We want to get the conversation started on shared priorities as a state.”

Based at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, the Maine Food Strategy is taking a close look at the health and economic benefits of locally produced food from both the Maine consumer and distribution perspectives.

According to Swain, Maine is in a good position to start growing the state’s economy around food, agriculture and fisheries.

“There is already so much activity around us right now,” Swain said. “What is happening in Maine is really reflective of a national trend in locally produced food.”

According to Swain, there are thousands of small farm operations in Maine, many of which bring in less than $10,000 annually.

“There is a lot of interest in what those farms are producing,” she said. “How do we maximize their economic opportunities?”

In May Swain’s group released the results of a consumer survey conducted last fall that she said shows Mainers have a clear preference for Maine food and seafood.

It also showed a third of those who responded hunt, gather or grow at least some of what they eat and more would like to, if they had access to land and other resources.

“This is giving us a starting place and information for people to react to,” Swain said. “So now we can go out to the different stakeholders and ask them how does this sync with what you think needs to happen?”

Earlier this month some of those stakeholders met in Caribou at a meeting organized by the Maine Food Strategy group.

“Looking at the food economy you need to look at both sides of the coin,” Ben Sprague, chairman of the Bangor City Council, said. “You need to help building the supply side by helping the farmers with logistics and getting their goods to market and working on the demand side so there is the demand for local food all over the state.”

Spending time in northern Maine, he said, gave Sprague a new perspective.

“It got me to thinking that we need to shrink the state,” he said. “I realized what is happening in Aroostook County effects Bangor and vice versa and there is the potential for Bangor to be at the center of these conversations about buying local and Maine becoming the breadbasket to feed New England and even beyond.”

Bob Dorsey, president of Aroostook Partnership for Progress, agrees.

“Here in northern Maine there is a huge economic development component,” Dorsey said. “We have 3 million acres of trees and almost a million acres of usable soil for agriculture.”

Those resources, Dorsey said, mean Aroostook County is ready to meet the increasing demands for locally grown food.

“Aroostook County needs to be involved,” Dorsey said. “We have underused acreage [and] new farmers moving here and we have the potential to be involved in this food strategy conversation.”

Bangor and central Maine need to be involved, too, Sprague said.

“It is a benefit for Bangor to be at the table,” he said. “We have a lot of restaurants, farmers markets and good potential to work with these producers and farmers.”

All the resources are there and ready to start meeting those needs, according to Stacy Martin, manager of the Market Street Co-op in Fort Kent. Before the Maine Food Strategy they had few ways to connect.

“Maine is such a big state with distributors and producers spread out,” she said. “There is a need to build the initiatives and infrastructures to bring them all together.”

Even in Aroostook County, Martin said, while there are a number of small farms selling local produce and food, they often operate in isolation.

“There are plenty of us up here, but we often don’t know each other,” she said. “With initiatives like the Maine Food Strategy we can meet face to face and learn who is doing what.”

By including every aspect of food production and distribution in the conversation, Martin feels the Maine Food Strategy is on the right track.

“They are really trying to include such a broad perspective of all those involved in food production [and] not just one special sector,” she said.

“The intent of the food strategy is to look at challenges and get different conversations going with different perspectives,” Swain said. “We are trying to involve as many people as possible.”

Produce and food coming out of northern Maine already has a good reputation in the southern part of the state and Dorsey sees no reason that branding can’t be expanded.

“We need to start connecting the network of producers to markets and distributors,” he said. “There is a lot of room for entrepreneurs and this is the kind of economic growth that is sustainable and can make a real difference down the road.”

As far as Sprague is concerned, capitalizing on Maine’s reputation for quality locally produced food makes sense on a number of levels.

“It’s good for the economy, it’s good from a healthy living perspective and it’s really good from every standpoint,” he said. “I think people are really open to this.”

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