MACHIAS, Maine — Building on an effort throughout New England to increase local food production and promote healthier eating, farmers, producers, nutritionists and consumers gathered here Thursday to set goals and develop a strategy for Washington County.
The regional effort has a goal of having the six New England states meet the majority of their own food needs within the next 50 years.
Three dozen people put their heads together Thursday to identify Washington County’s agricultural strengths — its diversity — and its weaknesses — not enough farmers.
Tonya Swain of the Western Mountain Alliance outlined ongoing efforts to create a local food system in Maine and throughout the region. A food system includes all processes and infrastructure, from growing and harvesting to packaging and distribution.
The Maine food initiative was launched in mid-2012, Swain said.
“The difference between this and attempts in the past is that Maine now has a network of diverse consumers, farms and the assistance of the Maine Department of Agriculture,” she said. “In addition, just last year, foundations have invested more than $300,000 in agri-businesses. We have never seen that level of investment before.”
Swain said the statewide plan “will not sit on a shelf. We will implement this strategy and goals, including measurable indicators.”
Meetings such as the one in Machias on Thursday are being held across the state, Swain said, and once the individual information is gathered, a food system strategy will be created. “In the fall, we will host a series of listening session across the state, including at the Maine Agricultural Trade Show, the Farmer to Farmer Conference and other events, to further refine the strategy. We want to engage a broad sector of people.”
Maine is in a unique position compared to the rest of New England, Swain said, because its agriculture industries are varied and diverse while many other states focus on one crop — milk or maple syrup, for example. “This positions Maine to be able to feed not just itself, but all of New England,” she said.
Regina Grabovic of the Washington County Farm To School Program said the meeting was the third of five scheduled in Washington County. “We consistently hear that Washington County doesn’t have enough producers,” she said. “In the late 1800s, Washington County had 10,000 more people and yet we exported produce to the Boston market.”
As the farmers, market masters, buying club organizers and nutrition experts talked, they identified some of the impediments to a thriving local food system. These included inadequate financing, a lack of infrastructure and refrigerated storage, no mentoring programs for new farmers and the absence of a countywide support network.
Judy East of Washington County Council of Governments and the Grow Washington Aroostook program said that countywide meetings will help make those connections to move local food production forward.
Admitting that she was “preaching to the choir here,” East said the state is building on a significant trend toward local food production and consumption that has skyrocketed since the early 1990s. “We also have tripled the number of farmers’ markets between 1994 and 2009,” East said.
East said one of Washington County’s strengths is networking. In 2009, the Sunrise County Food Alliance was created, which includes 57 producers who meet monthly to deal with local and statewide issues such as marketing, pricing and labor.
Feeling good about what one eats is not the only benefit of buying locally, East said. “In Washington County alone, if every person increased their purchases of local foods by 10 percent, it would add 70 jobs and $3.5 million a year to the local economy.”
Swain said each county or regional group needs to assess what they already have for assets and strengthen emerging assets. “Ask yourselves where can you get the most bang for your buck? Where can you, your business or your farm make the greatest impact?’’
East said all the information gleaned at the Washington County sessions will be posted at www.gro-wa.org under the Healthy Communities tab.
Two more Washington County meetings are planned: 5 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, at Princeton Elementary School, and 6 p.m. Thursday, May 9, at Shead High School, Eastport.