BLUE HILL, Maine — Grange halls — those ubiquitous big white buildings that are found in almost every Maine farming town — can feel like fascinating and somewhat mysterious relicts of the past.
But in Blue Hill, a group of energetic farmers and others have big plans to make their grange a vital part of the community’s future. Those plans include building a community kitchen built to commercial standards which will serve as a small-business incubator for people who want to add value to locally grown crops, according to Halcyon Grange No. 345 Overseer John Tyler.
He said he was saddened to learn earlier this month of the closure of the much larger Coastal Farms and Foods processing facility in Belfast, which had a similar mission — if not a similar size — to the project happening in Blue Hill. The owner of that facility told the BDN in a previous report that current tenants would have to find a new home and that several million dollars of investment capital had been lost.
“The scope of the project is in keeping with what the community needs,” Tyler said Saturday. “It’s a better fit for a rural community.”
That morning, folks of all ages turned out to clean up the grange after a long winter and to work on the kitchen. Grange officials had estimated two years ago that the total building renovation would cost $150,000 — including money for a handicap-access lift, insulation and window replacement. So far, they’ve raised a third of that, and will be able to dedicate the new kitchen at next month’s Mothers’ Day brunch.
“It’s so exciting,” grange secretary Heather Retberg of Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot said. “As farmers we’re finding that a big challenge is a lack of infrastructure for value-added food in the community. You need space for that.”
She said that the kitchen, with its many-burnered stove, refrigerators, stainless steel sinks and more will provide plenty of space for people to spread out and work. It will be used for several different purposes, including the grange’s own suppers, for area entrepreneurs, for social events and for organizations that want to have educational workshops.
Something else that’s exciting to her and others is the revitalization of the local grange, which was chartered in 1898 to help advocate for farmers on issues such as rural mail delivery, cooperative grain buying and railroad transportation regulation. Grange membership nationally has been on the decline, she and others said, but over the last two years 30 people have joined the Halcyon Grange. Soon its membership will vote on whether to purchase organic grain in bulk to cut costs for poultry and animal producers.
“I had a friend stop by the farm last week. She said she never really knew what a grange did,” Retberg related. “But when we start reaching out to farmers and the local community, that will be a really visible sign of what the grange does. What farmers formed the grange to do. We’ve gotten a lot of interest. There are a lot of small farms here, a lot of cottage food producers, and just in general there are a lot of people who care about good food.”
The cottage producers who wish to use the kitchen to prepare goods for sale will be able to get individual state licenses, she said.
“The kitchen was built with that in mind,” Retberg said.
Grange member Rebecca Wentworth said that the folks at the Halcyon Grange are trying to merge some old and new ideas about farming and more.
“We’re trying to keep up the rituals,” she said. “We want to keep up a connection with the community.”
For more information about Halcyon Grange No. 345, visit the website www.halcyongrange.org.