EASTPORT, Maine — Salad lover Sally Erickson, owner of the South Street Greenhouse in Eastport, has created a bag for her produce that is environmentally friendly and keeps her produce fresh longer than storage in plastic bags.
Erickson built her greenhouse so she could have fresh, locally grown vegetables year-round. But when it came time to selling her vegetables, Erickson didn’t want to put them in plastic bags.
“I know the horrors plastic does for the environment,” Erickson said. “And the veggies tend to get slimy.”
Erickson learned that people stored vegetables in paper towels or wrapped in cloth to keep them from going bad. The original “Vejibags,” which Erickson still uses to wrap the vegetables from her greenhouse, were sewn-together from surplus washcloths and hand towels made in Pakistan that she bought at Marden’s. Erickson began selling her vegetables in the cloth bags at no extra charge, with customers returning the empty bags for reuse the next time they came to her greenhouse.
“People were reporting that greens were staying fresh for a week or so, and there was no slime,” she said.
Erickson decided to develop a cottage industry to produce organic cloth bags for vegetables that could be sold to customers across the country who wish to preserve their greens. The bags are made of 100 percent organic, dye-free American cotton by a team of local craftswomen.
“It was my idea to begin with,” Erickson said. “I got the idea coming out of the greenhouse, and then I talked to one friend about it, and then we got together a group of women and worked on the design. The design was a collaborative process.”
That group of women is known as the “Sack Sisters” and now includes Lindy Weston, Barbie Wilson, Dana Chevalier, Lauren Seeley and Patricia Caya. The group also included Gail McGlamery, who was the first woman with whom Erickson shared her idea. McGlamery has since moved to Cutler.
Wilson oversees cutting and shipping, while Seeley, Weston and Caya sew the bags. The fabric labels on the bags are printed in Eastport by Sam Wright, owner of Wharfratt Screen Printing. The bags retail for $16.
Caya has been with the project since an initial brainstorming session last July with Erickson and others. She works out of her home in a sewing studio she created in a room that overlooks Passamaquoddy Bay.
“I’m really excited about being involved,” said Caya, who moved to Eastport in 2009 after a 13-year career as an opera singer in Vienna and other parts of Europe and, more recently, as a vocalist in churches in the Washington, D.C., area. “I’m stunned that this came together so quickly. I’m now sewing about 30 bags a day, which from beginning to end takes me about 3½ hours.”
Caya and other seamstresses creating Vejibags out of their homes are paid on a per-piece basis. While they are being trained, they are paid twice minimum wage. As they become more efficient at sewing the bags, they can make considerably more, Erickson said.
“I’m doing pretty well, and the faster I go, the more I can earn,” Caya said. “Given my pace, I’m making way above minimum wage. And in this area, even finding a job that pays only minimum wage can be difficult, especially in the winter.”
Erickson says she appreciates the fact that her new business allows the women involved to work from their own homes at their own pace, as other demands on their time allow.
“I feel this is the way to do a home-based cottage industry,” Erickson said. “Nobody has to keep track of the hours and minutes, and you can take a break to put the laundry in or stir the soup and then go back to sewing.”
While Vejibag production is currently based in Eastport, Erickson’s long-term goal is to have several groups producing the bags throughout the country to provide jobs to women in other communities and to reduce shipping costs.
“To help build the economy here is wonderful, but it ought to get built in other places, too,” said Erickson, who is a retired psychotherapist.
Vejibags are currently being marketed online through a newly created website and are being sold at Good Table in Belfast and at two stores in North Carolina, where a daughter lives. Erickson also is hoping to become affiliated with a major retailer to fill wholesale orders for her storage bags.
“We just got the website up on Jan. 29, and orders started coming in as soon as we posted a link to it from Facebook,” she said. “The response has been gratifying, but not overwhelming. The orders we are receiving are coming in without us doing any advertising besides Facebook.”
More information is available on the Vejibag website, www.vejibag.com.