FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — It’s a beautiful day in the heart of Aroostook County’s potato country. Blue skies span forever over acres of plowed and planted fields.
Hill after hill, the dark brown rows extend to the horizon, broken only by thin strips of woods dividing fields and, unexpectedly, a 2,250-head herd of cattle.
Welcome to the largest beef cattle feedlot in the Northeast.
About eight miles away, at the former Loring Air Force Base, workers turn over one of the products of those cows — windrow after windrow of manure that’s slowly turning into premium compost. Most of the finished product is destined for the Coast of Maine Organic Products’ mixing and bagging facility outside of Machias, where it will be turned into high-end compost sold in almost 800 retail outlets throughout the Northeast.
And just a bit south, in Mars Hill, employees at a state-of-the art food processing plant take in Aroostook spuds and turn out high-end mashed potatoes, destined for restaurants including Applebee’s, Ninety Nine Restaurants, O’Charley’s, Logan’s Roadhouse and Bonefish Grills.
The operations are part of the Pineland Farms’ Food Group, one of the Libra Foundation’s three main economic philanthropy programs. While Libra is well-known in The County for its continued investment in the Maine Winter Sports Center, the foundation also has lesser-known, but substantial, agriculture investments in Aroostook.
Libra practices “economic philanthropy” throughout the state, with ventures ranging at times from real estate to manufacturing, agriculture to tourism — all with a focus on developing sustainable businesses or sectors, and then turning them over to the private sector or communities.
Libra was founded in 1989 by Elizabeth Noyce, the ex-wife of Intel co-founder Robert Noyce. Elizabeth Noyce had returned to Maine where she had summered, with a multi-million fortune from the divorce. She began investing in Maine charities, and then more frequently in businesses. She died in 1996, and her will left roughly $225 million to Libra to continue the work.
In 2009, Libra listed total liabilities and net assets of $164.7 million.
“They like the idea of investing in Maine, in jobs,” said William Haggett, chairman and CEO of both Naturally Potatoes in Mars Hill and the Natural Meats operations. “Northern Maine has been a special interest; they like the idea of investing up here.
The northern Maine operations employ more than 100 people directly, and support many other area jobs, from truckers to area farmers, contractors to agriculture supply salesmen. The general idea is to take raw materials, add value to them and ship a more-finished product.
“I think northern Maine can build on the value-added businesses that are natural,” said William Haggett, who was a longtime president of Bath Iron Works. “The County’s economy can be sustainable long-term, if the value-add is done right.”
In the case of beef, it means raising them — without the use of antibiotics or artificial growth hormones — until they weigh about 1,300 pounds and then shipping them off for slaughter for the natural foods market. The manure is carefully tended, turned over repeatedly, allowing it to bake in the hot sun and reduce down to a perfect compost base. The 40 million pounds of potatoes bought annually from Aroostook farmers are processed into different mashed recipes, mainly for restaurants, but increasingly for retail sales.
“Any time you have a value-added proposition, instead of shipping [potatoes] someplace else to have them processed, it adds value all the way around,” said Timothy Hobbins, director of development and grower relations at the Maine Potato Board. “To the industry it’s a huge deal. Even through the volume might not be what some other large processors are, every little bit helps.”
Pineland’s cattle operations began in 2005, when the Libra program acquired the southern Maine-based Wolfe’s Neck Cattle operations. Libra is one of four investors in the business. Soon after the acquisition, Pineland began looking for opportunities to expand.
Pineland officials knew the town of Fort Fairfield had a 200-acre area that it had initially set up as a composting site for potato culls. The plan never really took off, and was mostly unused for a half-dozen years. Pineland began leasing the property and building it out with massive covered barns and sheds that could house the cattle that weren’t out grazing. Pineland is now buying the property outright from the town.
Black and rust-colored cattle mingle around outside, and inside several large barns. They aren’t exposed to antibiotics or artificial growth hormones, nor do they eat feed that contains cattle parts. The beef are raised and marketed under “natural” guidelines.
In a typical year, the cattle will consume about 330,000 bushels of barley, their main feed. That’s more than half the barley produced in Maine each year.
A lot of that barley comes from Smiths Farm in Presque Isle, said Greg Smith, a co-owner.
“Any customer is an important customer,” said Smith. “They’ve taken a lot of barley here in the last few years, and they’re growing.”
Barley is grown as a rotation crop by many farmers; Smiths’ main crop is broccoli, and barley is grown in off years. Pineland’s operations are a good outlet for many barley farmers, said Smith, because grain that can’t be used for the brewing market due to wet weather can still go to cattle.
Pineland supplements the barley with hay and with byproduct from McCain’s local potato processing plant, said Haggett. That amounts to thousands of bales of hay a year, bales of straw and tons of sawdust for bedding, too — all sourced locally.
“We’re consistently spreading money around the farmers in this part of Maine,” said Haggett.
The Fort Fairfield farm “backgrounds” cattle at several other Aroostook farms, as well. The local farms raise the cattle to a certain weight, and they then get finished at the Fort Fairfield farm, where they are raised until they reach about 1,300 pounds. At that point, they are shipped to Pennsylvania for slaughter. According to Haggett, Pineland currently has about 1,000 cattle at three backgrounders in the area.
Jacob Guimond of Guimond Farms in Fort Kent said he normally gets cows for Pineland in November at about 600 pounds and raises them to about 800 pounds, sending them to Fort Fairfield in March. He raised 71 for Pineland this year, and wants to get the numbers up to 100. He also sells them about 120 cows a year, Guimond said.
Before Pineland started operating in the county, he shipped cattle to southern Maine, and as far away as Pennsylvania and Kansas, said Guimond.
“With fuel prices being the way they are — it’s nice to have someone close,” said Guimond.
Libra has sought to invest in businesses that need extra help to become sustainable — for reasons of geography, or to develop a market or supply chain that’s necessary for success.
“Our vision tends to be longer-term than most companies can afford to be,” said Haggett.
Pineland Farms Natural Meats also has cattle operations in the mid-Atlantic, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and the company sells meat locally in those locations. The company is opening a cattle feedlot in New York this year, as well, that will supplant the Fort Fairfield operation as the largest in the Northeast.
The beef operations are profitable, but also benefit from investments as needed by Libra. For instance, right now, Dwain Plant, supervisor of the farm’s composting operations, wants a bigger front-end loader so he can be more productive as he turns over the manure at the old Loring base. That’s an $80,000-plus investment that Libra is considering making for the operations.
The operation at Loring is impressive. The sizable herd of cattle produces an equally sizable amount of manure — about 300 tons a week goes to the base. On concrete paddocks where the country’s top bombers were tied down and stored, Plant turns over long windrows of manure, slowly cooking the mixture to between 130 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pineland leases two hangars on the old base for storage of finished compost. It’s an innovative use for the redeveloped base, which was the economic heart of northern Aroostook County until the Pentagon closed Loring in 1994. Today Plant lives in the former base commander’s house in Limestone.
The manure operations are integrated into the beef business, and started about a year after the Fort Fairfield farm began. The goal was to sell the compost to farmers to use on their fields, but that hasn’t panned out. Some organic farmers are using the compost, but the bulk goes to Coast of Maine Organic Products.
Cameron Bonsey, director of marketing for Coast of Maine, said most of the compost from Pineland is used in his company’s Schoodic Cow Manure Compost. Coast of Maine products are distributed in 775 retail outlets throughout the Northeast, he said.
Pineland and Coast of Maine benefit from doing business with each other, he said.
“It just solidifies the buy-local feel,” said Bonsey.
The product from Limestone is very consistent, making it easy to use in Coast of Maine’s compost recipes, said Bonsey. The fact that an organic product is coming out of the shuttered air base is a success story in itself, suggested Bonsey.
“That section of the facility would be doing nothing,” noted Bonsey. “Right now it’s being used for a sustainable, organic product — what’s better than that?”
It’s the Libra Foundation’s second time at bat when it comes to Naturally Potatoes.
A group of farmers started the business in the late 1990s, putting together capital and loans and grants to build a $15 million, state-of-the-art potato processing plant in Mars Hill.
“We were waiting for someone to save us, when we decided to save ourselves,” said Rodney McCrum, president and chief operating officer of Naturally Potatoes, and one of the original stakeholders.
But sales were slow after the business opened, and the company was in financial trouble. Libra became an investor in the company from 2000 to 2005, helping to grow the market. The business grew substantially, with sales increasing 40 percent per year during that time. In 2005, the business was approached by Basic American Foods, a large West Coast company that specialized in dehydrated potatoes.
Basic American wanted to buy Naturally Potatoes to diversify its market, said Haggett, and Libra and the other stakeholders saw it as a good opportunity to recoup the investment while passing on the business to a company that could grow it further.
But unfortunately, sales slowed under the new company, and in 2010, after five years of owning the business, Basic American decided to sell.
McCrum and Haggett spoke and approached Libra.
“Rather than have a company sold to someone who might shut it down and lose the jobs, we put together a proposal to buy it back, get it to where it had been,” said Haggett. “Our hope is four to five years from now it will be a much larger company buying lots more potatoes up here, employing more people and being much more valuable than it is today. We figure it has tremendous potential, we know it can be very beneficial to the economy of Maine.”
Sales have returned to previous levels, and the company is modestly profitable, said Haggett.
The company sells to restaurants and food service companies around the country, and to cafeterias including those at Disneyland and Disney World, said McCrum. The restaurant business continues to grow. Jere Michelson, senior vice president and chief financial officer at Libra, said Naturally Potatoes is working with various national restaurant chains, including several seeking suppliers for millions of pounds of mashed potatoes.
McCrum said the previous owner had abandoned plans to get consumer-oriented products into supermarkets, and the new owners have resumed those efforts. The company’s mashed potatoes are currently offered in the Massachusetts-based Market Basket chain of groceries. And, said McCrum, the company is working with other grocery chains to get product into their stores, as well.
The company employs 90 at the 65,000-square-foot plant, and hopes to expand. The jobs range from manufacturing positions to food scientists, engineers and management.
“Our goal is to grow to buy more potatoes, which employs more people on the farms,” said McCrum. “If we grow, the area grows.”