MACHIAS, Maine — Sarah Gabrielson unpacks the brown paper bag and the “oohs” and “aahs” begin.
“Look at the color on those eggplants,” she says, grabbing for a fresh bean and eating it raw. The bag is full: yellow beans, tomatoes, Swiss chard, kale, potatoes, blueberries, yellow and green squash. She already has put the gallons of fresh milk and some artisan goat cheese in her refrigerator.
Every Thursday bags full of fresh food are delivered right to her kitchen door by the farmer who grows it because she belongs to one of several area buying clubs.
Similar clubs of people banding together and purchasing from local farmers are springing up all over the state, from Portland to island communities off Mount Desert Island to Calais on the Canadian border. They are thriving in Bath, Augusta, Auburn and Brooksville. Machias alone has three vital, growing buying clubs — two that buy directly from Maine farmers.
“This is down-to-earth marketing, directly between farmers and new consumers,” John Harker of the Maine Department of Agriculture said Monday. Harker recently obtained a $55,000 federal grant to support developing buying clubs in Maine. “Buying clubs are a great way to get quality food at a reasonable price, usually less than the grocery store or farmers market, and in a convenient fashion.”
Rather than sit back and wait for the farmers — who are so busy growing and producing they often don’t have the time for marketing — to come to them, club members bring their orders directly to the farms. The idea is similar to the cooperatives that sprang up in the 1970s, but technology has made it even easier.
Gabrielson runs one club with 40 people on its e-mail list. “Each week about 15 people participate,” she said. “We began this last summer when several of us discovered we were driving out, separately, to Tide Mill Farm in Edmunds. ‘Why are we all doing this?’ we thought.”
Gabrielson volunteered to be the coordinator and each week she e-mails a list of available items — fresh organic produce, milk, cheese, meat and herbs — to each member. But because this is rural Washington County, some members don’t have a telephone — much less Internet service. Those members come to Gabrielson’s home and place their orders.
Gabrielson passes the orders on to Carly del Signore at Tide Mill Farm, whose farm holds a farmers market, sells to co-ops and natural food stores, and supplies four Down East buying clubs.
Kim Roos and her husband, Don, recently began supplying one of the Machias clubs with goat cheese and soap from their 16-goat dairy in Jonesboro.
“I think the clubs are a very good marketing tool,” Roos said. “The farmers markets all end in October and basically dry up when the tourists leave. We are hoping the club members will help carry us through the winter.”
Gabrielson said the prices are not wholesale. “There is not enough volume for the farmers,” she said. But the gas and time savings of not having to travel are significant. Each Thursday de Signore delivers the fresh goods to Gabrielson’s home for members to pick up, each paying a $1 drop-off fee. In exchange for coordinating the club, Gabrielson is paid in fresh food.
“I love supporting Carly and her farm. The food is wonderful,” Gabrielson said. “I also get food credit and am able to provide my family with good, local food.” An at-home mom of two young children, Gabrielson treasures the relationships that have grown from the club. “One woman lives in the senior citizen living complex and walks here every Thursday,” she said. “These kind[s] of connections are invaluable.”
Inez Lombardo lives a short walk from Gabrielson. “I love getting my veggies from Tide Mill. Since I don’t have a car, I really appreciate that Carly brings freshly picked produce or meats and milk into town. Buying clubs are a more efficient way to distribute what is grown or produced locally. Buying locally strengthens our local economy and I like that my dollars are supporting local farmers.”
A buying club can be as simple or as comprehensive as the members want to make it, Jim Cook of Crown O’Maine Organic Cooperative said. Cook serves a number of clubs from Aroostook County to Portland.
Usually a few friends, neighbors, co-workers or school-mates get together to buy and split up a few cases of food in a member’s kitchen or garage, he said.
Harker said the cooperatives of the 1970s disappeared because everyone shared in the administration, and when the co-ops grew quickly and expanded into cooperative stores, people often balked at the extra work. Buying clubs cut down on administrative duties and usually have just one or two organizers, making them much more manageable, he said.
“With the grant we just received, we have three goals,” Harker said, “to build farmer awareness, start new clubs through education, and increase online ordering systems.”
Elizabeth Sprague, small-business coordinator for Washington County’s Down East Business Alliance, said that from an economic point of view “buying clubs work really well for producers, stabilizing their markets somewhat. Clubs are a win-win for both consumers and farmers.”
John Harker will hold a workshop on buying clubs at the January 2009 Maine Agricultural Trades Show, and there will be a regional meeting in November in Fairfield, with the Western Mountains Alliance as host. For more information contact Tanya Swain at 778-3885.