FORT KENT, Maine — Putting locally produced food into the hands of area residents is driving the efforts to establish a St. John Valley local food cooperative.
“I do believe that people want to be able to make choices about the food they buy,” Julie Trudel, organizer of the Fort Kent Community Garden and local food advocate, said. “A local co-op adds more choices to the options available in this region.”
The idea of “Local Foods for Healthy Tables,” has received funding from the Quimby Family Foundation and generated interest not only in a co-op, but in establishing a viable farmers market in the area.
Ideally, according to Sigrid Houlette, district coordinator with St. John Valley Soil & Water Conservation, and who is working with Trudel, Local Foods for Healthy Tables would be a hybrid of a traditional food co-op and the farmers market.
“We have a short growing season up here and we are looking at the possibility of moving things indoors,” she said. “We could have something that is open year-round for the growers with a greenhouse and accessible by the public.”
Houlette said the interest is out there and she is actively seeking grant funding for a marketing study to determine how best to meet the needs of producers and consumers.
Several existing strategies have been looked at including online buying clubs and sign-up programs in which farmers deliver predetermined amounts of produce directly to customers or designated pick-up locations.
“We are in the very initial stages of all this,” Houlette said. “But there are a lot of small producers out there who have said if they had enough buyers they could expand.”
Among those producers is Gail Cyr of Snow Valley Organics in Frenchville.
Her organic farm currently has nine acres in production with green beans and several varieties of potatoes.
“My goal is to get more people interested in organic food,” Cyr said on a recent day from her fields. “And I want to have affordable organics so people can afford to feed their families healthy foods.”
Cyr referenced a recent television documentary she had viewed reporting that newborn babies come into this world testing positive for more than 200 chemicals in their bodies.
“This is directly because of what we eat on a daily basis,” she said. “That is why I choose to eat organically.”
Currently Cyr sells directly from her home and through brokers including the Crown of Maine co-op in Grand Isle.
“A local food co-op would work really well for me,” she said. “I’d also like to participate in a farmers’ market to get my produce to the public.”
Once consumers try the foods from their own backyards, they are hooked, Trudel said.
“The fresher the food, the better the flavor and nutritional value, she said. “Buying food locally also supports the local economy.”
Consumers would not be compromising on the quality of what they eat, Houlette said. “The quality is definitely there,” she said. “People in Aroostook County care about what they grow.”
Since not everyone can be farmer, or has time to garden, Houlette said the time is ripe to bring growers and consumers together.
“That’s what a co-op is all about,” she said. “Everyone has a part in this and we can all work together to make it happen.”
For Trudel, the idea behind a local food co-op is as much about community as it is about food.
“I think there is something very soulful about slowing down the pace and taking the time to choose where one’s food comes from and preparing it to share with others,” she said. “To me, it’s a part of the community that we are losing.”
Anyone interested in a St. John Valley food cooperative may contact Houlette at 834-3111, ext. 3.