BELFAST, Maine — When several Belfast City Hall employees joined a community-supported agriculture program this summer, they ultimately cooked up much more than just the fresh vegetables from Bahner Farm in nearby Belmont.
Because the city staffers enjoyed their weekly shares of farm produce so much, they brainstormed ways to help more people participate in a program that’s fruitful for both the farmers and customers, Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum said Thursday morning at a press conference at Belfast City Hall.
He and other city officials, bankers, farmers and others were launching the first of those ideas: a new, fee-free savings account program specifically designed for community-supported agriculture programs that will be used at four participating banks — Bangor Savings Bank, Camden National Bank, Damariscotta Bank and Trust and Key Bank.
“This new initiative will help the people of Belfast to eat better and also support local food,” Slocum said next to a table filled with squash, kale, carrots, onions and more. The vegetables were this week’s share from the Bahner Farm.
The city manager said he has had a great experience this summer, cooking more, trying new vegetables such as bok choy and enjoying the freshness and high quality of the produce.
“We want to share that experience with others. We have the farmers, and we have the people. We just need to introduce them to each other,” Slocum said.
When people join a community-supported agriculture program, they sign up to receive a weekly share of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses or even fish from a participating farm or supplier. Because the farmer knows in advance how much to grow or harvest, it makes planning easier, farmers Christa and Mike Bahner of Bahner Farm said. Customers pay in advance so farmers receive the money when they need it most, but sometimes people struggle with making a lump-sum payment that usually starts around $150 for a share, they said.
That’s why the savings account idea, similar to a Christmas Club savings account, could be so helpful to the Bahners as they work to double the number of their farm share families from 30 to 60 in the next couple of years.
Bankers said that customers could just add money to the dedicated savings accounts every week or periodically, thereby reducing the temptation to just spend the cash on other things.
“We’re really excited to have the savings account set up,” Christa Bahner said. “We love running the [community supported agriculture program]. It’s our favorite. And it’s incredibly important for us financially.”
The initiative to encourage community supported agriculture participation in Waldo County is jointly sponsored by the city and by Maine Farmland Trust, a Belfast-based nonprofit agency that works to protect farmland and support farmers statewide. Each person who opens a savings account for community supported agriculture will get a free membership to the organization, said Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, who also works at Maine Farmland Trust. She said she believes it may be the first such dedicated savings account initiative in the state.
“What’s exciting about CSAs is that they’re a way for local people to support their local farms. It’s grassroots driven,” she said.
Maine Farmland Trust Executive Director John Piotti said his organization is in favor of anything that supports Maine’s farmers, which are growing in numbers, although some still have the misconception that farming is dying in the state.
“The truth is, we know that’s not the case,” he said.
Over the last decade, Maine farms have jumped from 7,000 to 8,100. The state’s farmers are the fifth-youngest in the nation. And Waldo County is a good place to try innovative ideas out, he said.
“Belfast was a food town. It’s where farms meet the sea,” Piotti said. “Farms were historically part of our economy.”
Belfast Mayor Walter Ash said that the idea of helping farms find new customers is very exciting to him.
“It’s good business. It’s great for the surrounding towns,” he said. “Fresh produce, locally grown, is the way to go for Maine. I’m tickled to death that the banks are involved in this. It’s just a win-win situation for the whole community.”
Josephine Richards at Camden National Bank and other bank representatives at the event said that if customers from outside of Waldo County want to set up a savings account for community supported agriculture, they should ask their bankers about participating.
“I think we as bankers have good will to the community and want to do this,” she said. “We’re saying, ‘Awesome. Good idea.’”