Food alliance plows new ground Down East

Posted July 20, 2009, at 9:16 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Nearly 60 members of the Washington County Food Alliance, a farming cooperative, have banded together over the past six months to solve issues such as marketing, transportation, bulk purchases and branding.

Down East farmers who must send their products round-trip to licensed meat-processing facilities as far away as Auburn or Charleston incur expenses that can push the cost of meat locally to $5 or $6 a pound, Nate Pennell of the Washington County Food Alliance said Monday.

“That prices it out of the range of the everyday consumer,” Pennell said.

But according to Pennell, a custom slaughterhouse in Alexander is willing to expand and become an inspected facility, a move that could triple the amount of locally grown meat available to Down East consumers.

It also would triple the amount local farmers could grow.

“I raised meat rabbits for the wholesale market years ago but stopped because of three dry summers in a row,” said 0

Robin Follette of Seasons Eatings Farm in Talmadge. “Our well could keep the rabbits watered or clean but not both without going dry. Now that we no longer have water issues I’d like to get back into raising rabbits, but this time as packaged meat rather than live rabbits sold to the processor. I have knowledge and experience and could hit the ground running if I had access to a slaughterhouse to process the animals.”

Inez Lombardo, an alliance member, said such a facility would indeed be cost-effective. The slaughter facility in Alexander that is interested in expanding is already processing 85,000 pounds of meat as a custom butcher now.

Some members of the Washington County Food Alliance have expressed the feeling that the state views placing a state inspector Down East as financially unfeasible. But officials say it is the state’s budget crunch that is holding things up.

Ned Porter, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture, said Monday that his office was committed to working with the group to bring an inspector Down East. He said a site visit to the facility operated by Clayton Blake has been scheduled and a plan to bring the slaughterhouse up to state standards will be created.

The problem lies in funding, Porter explained.

“We have no people and no money,” he said. The staffers of the state Meat Inspection Program are “maxed out” he said, serving already licensed facilities.

Porter said that once the facility is upgraded, the department will work through the legislative process to fund additional inspectors. “There are other facilities around the state that also want to become state-certified,” he said.

Pennell said the alliance is researching grants and other funding to assist the slaughterhouse in expanding and upgrading.

“This type of a facility helps not just our livestock producers,” he said. “The more animals we have, the more manure that is available for the vegetable growers.”

Pennell said it has been fascinating to watch the alliance grow. “To have this many people working together is amazing,” he said. “They are a committed, hardworking bunch, and they have already identified a number of challenges.”

He said the group began last March to address marketing and group purchases, then the barriers to marketing. “Some of these farmers have farm stands, farmers markets, and some market through Web sites or buying clubs.”

But there was no cohesiveness. “There wasn’t even a list of farms in Washington County,” Lombardo said. “By working together, we can talk about systems, instead of each farmer creating their own system. When we can bring everyone together, there is great efficiency. Instead of each farmer trying to find storage, for example, the entire group can find storage together and have greater leverage because of the numbers.”

Along with siting an inspected slaughter facility, Pennell said, other issues the alliance is tackling include transportation of products in and out of the county, livestock transportation, warehousing and storage of products, and labor.

“This year has been a work in progress,” Pennell said.

Lombardo said that although farmers from Gouldsboro to Talmadge are working with the alliance, she has been having difficulty reaching farmers in the western part of the county and urges them to contact Pennell at 255-4659.

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