VAN BUREN, Maine — A $200,000 grant from the federal Northern Border Regional Commission is providing the final funding needed to construct a $1 million vegetable processing plant to help expand markets for local farmers.
The 120-foot-by-40-foot facility will be owned by the town of Van Buren and leased to Northern Girl, LLC, a food processing company based out of Vassalboro, but with St. John Valley Roots.
“Northern Girl is a company that will produce and process Maine-grown fruits and vegetables,” said Marada Cook, one of the principles of Northern Girl.
The distribution side of the business, she said, will be handled by Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative, or “COMOC,” a business begun by Cook’s late father, James Cook, in the mid-1990s on the family’s Skylandia Organic Farm in Grand Isle.
COMOC ( http://crownofmainecoop.com/) is now run by Marada Cook, her sister Leah Cook and Chris Hallweaver and connects Maine organic food producers and consumers throughout the state.
The idea for a local processing facility for locally grown food was the brainchild of Marada Cook’s mother, Kate Cook.
“The idea just sort of sat there for five or six years [and] then the town [of Van Buren] approached my dad about an idea for a processing venture,” Marada Cook said. “They said if you are willing to lease a building, we can get funds to build it.”
James Cook passed away in 2008, before the dream of a locally based processing plant came to fruition, but his daughters and the town of Van Buren did not want that dream to fade.
“Kudos to [Van Buren], they did not hang up the hat,” Marada Cook said. “They got the grant period extended and have been really dedicated to getting this project off the ground.”
Among those leading the charge for grant funding is Dan LaPointe, Van Buren’s director of economic and community development.
“This has been a four-year project,” LaPointe said. “We did not want to give up on this project [and] we really wanted to make it happen.”
The NBRC funds will combine with funds secured through the USDA’s Rural Development loan program and local contributions.
“The pad for the building has already been constructed by the town,” LaPointe said. “The sewer and water [connections] are already on site.”
The processing plant will be located in the town’s industrial park and LaPointe anticipates construction bids to go out in the spring.
“This is a one-million-dollar project,” he said. “That includes the construction and processing machinery.”
Cook has no doubt the processing facility will have plenty of raw materials once it’s operational.
In fact, Northern Girl, LLC, is already producing value-added food products from a small test kitchen in leased space on the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone.
“We leased a kitchen in Limestone and set up production there,” Cook said. “It’s our pilot kitchen where we can run a small-scale operation while we develop markets, hash out the process and do some trial runs on the equipment.”
Cook said both Northern Girl, LLC and COMOC were at a crossroads and all involved knew decisions needed to be made.
“We have the products and we have the customers,” she said. “Do we move closer to central Maine or make that leap of faith and keep it in [Aroostook] County?”
While there may have been numerous logistical reasons to set up a processing plant in central Maine, Cook said in the end remaining true to her northern Maine roots was the best choice for the company.
“When you make the right decision things just fall into place,” she said. “We’ve found huge support in Limestone.”
Once the Van Buren facility is up and running, LaPointe said, it will employ up to 40 people.
“The town is really happy to see this coming in,” he said. “The objective here is to employ people.”
LaPointe added there are already enough small- to medium-sized growers throughout northern Maine to keep the planned facility up and running.
“The products are already here like potatoes and some beets and carrots,” Marada Cook said. “It is our hope the processing center will help drive those Aroostook County crops. It’s a different ballgame than packaging for fresh market but it’s a good opportunity for new growers.”