ROCKLAND, Maine — As the nation’s eaters grow more and more concerned about where their food comes from, experts say Maine is poised to be a leader in the movement away from industrial farming and toward fresh and local fare.
“People say we’re backwards in Maine. I think we’re very progressive,” said Melissa Kelly, executive chef and co-owner of Rockland restaurant Primo. “The solution seems so simple and so difficult, all at the same time. [We should] focus on old ways and old traditions, take the time to eat locally, and do what your great-grandmother did.”
Kelly and other panelists spoke Sunday afternoon to an avid audience of more than 50 people at the Strand Theatre in downtown Rockland after a showing of the new documentary “Food, Inc.,” which asks how much consumers really know about the food they buy at supermarkets and serve to their families.
Maine consumers often have a choice that might not be available everywhere in the country, thanks to its many small farms, growing numbers of farmers markets and lobster and fishing industries, local experts said.
But the movie paints an unappetizing picture of a profit-driven America where both industrial farmworkers and the animals they kill lead difficult and brutal lives.
There is another way, according to the filmmakers, who give screen time to smaller farms where cows eat the grass that is their natural fodder instead of the corn that isn’t, and where farmers respect the seasons, the animals and their customers.
Just like Port Clyde fisherman Glen Libby.
“You can substitute farming for fishing for most of that movie,” Libby said during the panel discussion.
Libby is spearheading Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a community-supported fishery now in its second year. His customers buy fish that were swimming in the Gulf of Maine just hours before, Libby boasts, and he and the other members of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Cooperative get a fairer wage than if they had treated their catch “like a commodity.”
This is helping the fishermen, who are part of the last fleet of groundfishermen between Portland and Canada, to become better stewards of their industry — and, it is hoped, keep fishing in Maine from going belly-up.
“We’re not catching so many small fish now. We’re trying to do what the lobstermen do,” Libby said. “This is an attempt to do something. We’re going to lose our fishermen, unless we do something.”
The lobstermen are worried about losing their livelihoods, too, said audience member Ryan Post of Rockland, who engaged in a lively discussion with panelists.
“We all know that farmers of the land are struggling,” Post said. “But I’ve got to tell you, farmers of the sea are struggling, too.”
Post said that he is encouraged by midcoast entrepreneur Linda Bean’s recent efforts to brand and market Maine lobster.
“Talk about organic — Glen’s fish and my lobster — that’s knowing where your food is coming from,” Post said.
Panelists and some in the audience urged people to pay attention to HR 2749, a federal food security bill that they said could make doing business a lot harder for smaller farmers.
“You have to contact your local representatives and fight for what you believe in, because if you don’t, your voice isn’t being heard,” Kelly said.