I yell from my car window to the slim man shaking a rug outside the back door of an unlabeled, one-story building on the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone: “Is this the old NCO Club?”
“Hi Kathryn,” he responds, confirming I have found the home of Northern Girl LLC and am about to meet its general manager, Chris Hallweaver.
I learned about Northern Girl last year during research for an article on ways the former Strategic Air Command base has been converted into the Loring Commerce Centre and have wanted to connect with Hallweaver ever since.
I park my car and I grasp his welcoming hand. He leads me through his temporary office, the bar where Air Force officers once drank and danced, describing how occasionally a former airman will wander in and look around with nostalgic tales of times past.
Our destination and the reason Northern Girl is located at the former NCO Club is the kitchen, just through the next doorway. Eventually, the company will occupy a new 5,000-square-foot facility in Van Buren, but while the building is under construction, Northern Girl is using the NCO Club kitchen to process Maine-grown broccoli, beets, carrots, potatoes and other vegetables.
“We’re blessed we found this facility,” Hallweaver said, pointing to the stainless steel tables, coolers, clean tiled walls and floors, as well as a freezer and multipurpose oven.
The aroma of garlic fills the room. Production Manager Tim Bair is loading handfuls of garlic scapes (the long, curly green stems usually cut and discarded as garlic bulbs mature) into a large dicing machine, the first step in making a garlic pesto from the pulverized garlic bits blended with olive oil. The pesto is an experiment, one of a variety of efforts at Northern Girl to make a usable product from what might be thrown away, in addition to the processing of freshly harvested vegetables from Maine fields.
Customers across Maine began receiving samples of frozen carrot coins, diced potatoes and vegetable medleys from the test kitchen in November 2011. Formally launched at an opening in Limestone in December 2011, Northern Girl fulfills a dream of Jim and Kate Cook who founded Skylandia Organic Farm in Grand Isle in the 1990s.
Their daughters, Marada and Leah Cook, formed Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative in 1995, which now distributes Maine-grown organic foods to natural food stores, restaurants, buying clubs, hospitals and schools throughout Maine and elsewhere in New England. Last year, Marada and Leah teamed up with Hallweaver to bring Northern Girl, LLC, to the marketplace.
“The premise is simple,” says the company website. “Sell the top-notch percentage of each of our farmer’s crops on the fresh market, and process the culls and surplus to feed locavores the rest of the year. It’s the kind of thinking that keeps farms in business and draws young farmers to Aroostook.”
This year, Northern Girl will receive most of its fresh produce from three Aroostook County farms: Misty Meadows in Grand Isle, Nature’s Circle in New Limerick and Thibodeau Homestead in Caribou. Products will be distributed by Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative based in Vassalboro, Native Maine Produce in Westbrook, Dole and Bailey in Woburn, Mass., and Aroostook Foods in Caribou.
“We’re a weekend operation,” Hallweaver said. “We take orders on Friday, organize on Saturday, and on Sunday we rock ’n’ roll in order to make deliveries on Monday.” They plan to add a second day of production by January 2013 and “do enough freezing to get the product out there” to a variety of markets.
In addition to serving retail outlets, the firm is working with the state to become a commodity purveyor for schools and with local food pantries to process large quantities of surplus food.
“We have a lot of support,” Hallweaver said, adding he also foresees working with the Healthy Hearts program at Cary Medical Center in Caribou and with Aroostook Meals on Wheels.
“Freezing is a big part of our future,” Hallweaver said. The NCO Club freezer can handle up to 1,000 pounds per day and he anticipates freezer capacity of 12,000 pounds per day when the business moves to the Van Buren plant next year. “In 2013 we rock ’n’ roll.”
Hallweaver sees Northern Girl as part of a broader vision for the future of locally grown food that includes grass-fed meat and grains as well as specialty vegetables.
“The single best answer to how Maine will feed Maine is Aroostook County,” he said, predicting the state eventually will be asked to feed all of New England. “We have inexpensive land, climate and water,” all assets likely to increase in value. “But we have to take care of ourselves first if we are going to feed New England. Aroostook County is a food desert.”
Originally an urban concept, “food desert” describes a place without access to good food — a need that has been addressed with farmers markets and gradual introduction of organic foods into supermarkets. Today even people in rural communities have limited access to healthy food.
Northern Girl is one step toward giving new life to the “desert” by restoring the traditional link between farm and family.
“We hope to bring opportunity to growers in Maine’s largest and most remote county,” says the company website. “We hope to keep our economy thriving through building added-value for the products of a multitude of small farms. We hope to bring delicious local options to schools, restaurants and retailers across New England. We hope to keep Maine at the forefront of the local foods movement by rebuilding Maine’s lost food processing infrastructure.”