If you are a farmer, oh, let’ s say, in Grand Isle in Aroostook County, and you are growing some superb watercress, and you are working from sunup to sundown seven days a week, how in the world do you get that watercress to the consumer who desperately wants it but lives in Belfast?
Well, along comes Jim Cook.
His truck will arrive at your farm gate, load up the watercress — or tomatoes, or spelt grain, or cheese, herbs, potatoes or apples — bring it to a Newport warehouse and redistribute it to more than 100 stores, markets and high-end restaurants across the state.
Cook, who was once an organic farmer looking for markets himself, has created a niche supplying local foods to the Maine table.
“Contrary to the belief that we must centralize, specialize and globalize to succeed, we see that, whatever else we need to do to survive in this world, we must be strong, sophisticated and savvy at home,” Cook maintains. “This means locally produced food, shelter and fuel. To have a regionally secure food supply we must have a strong farming base and strong support at home.”
Cook is the middleman — the pivot that connects high-quality, farm-fresh Maine goods with consumers who are demanding them.
Every weekend, Cook’ s trucks roll around the state, picking up potatoes in Caribou, vegetables in Dresden and Edmunds and Dixmont, apples in Unity and Fairfield, garlic and onions in Parkman. Everything is brought into cold storage in Newport — a converted marine warehouse in the town’ s industrial park — and by Monday, they are back on the road.
On Monday, the trucks head Down East. Tuesday’ s deliveries are along the midcoast, while Wednesday’ s truck heads to Portland and Portsmouth, N.H. On Friday, the trucks head west to Auburn, Turner and the Farmington area.
On board are tons and tons of food that farmers — who are so busy growing it they don’ t have time for marketing — are receiving top dollar for.
“This year, we will hit $1 million in sales,” Cook said Tuesday. “There was a real need in this state for this to happen. I get thanks all the time from customers for providing this service, but I also hear farmers saying they would go out of business if not for the delivery and marketing system. We pay good prices, and we make it work.”
Cook is a visionary who created the cooperative marketing venture called Crown O’ Maine 13 years ago.
“By taking the time to plan, our farmers are discovering that wholesale can be just as productive as retail,” Cook said. “In our first 10 years, we never had to ask farmers to increase their production. But for the past three years, the demand for local has outstripped the supply. I sold 500 pounds of garlic last year, and I could have sold 5,000 pounds.”
The business wasn’ t successful overnight.
“It took me six years just to gain the trust of my neighbors in Aroostook County,” he said. “Aroostook County farmers have been taken advantage of since World War II by anyone who thought they had a good idea. We proved our word was good, and we were a farming family.”
At first, Cook began hauling potatoes and a few other root crops across the state in a 15-passenger Ford Club Wagon. “We were meeting farmers in parking lots and exchanging the loads, standing in the rain,” he said.
But a chance conversation with a Newport mushroom farmer in late 2006 brought Cook to the central Maine location.
“Now we are fast approaching putting two to three drivers on the road each day,” he said. On weekends Cook works from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. gathering the produce from all over the state.
That time is invaluable because he gets to network with his producers face to face.
“I preach diversity,” he said, “especially up north. A guy up there can plant 50 acres of potatoes a day, so what does he want to do? Plant potatoes.”
Conversations between the farmer and Cook, and Cook and the retailers, yield information about what customers are looking for and how much could be sold. “We really have a three-way partnership: Crown O’ Maine, all our customers and all our farmers.”
Cook said that sales slow down slightly in the summer when consumers turn to local farmers’ markets, farm stands and their own gardens for produce. But the demand remains high enough — Maine consumers are demanding organic products at a rate that outpaces production — that Cook said last summer and this year, his trucks remained on the road full time for the first time.
His goal is to meet just half the demand in five years. In 10 years, he hopes to have a coordinated production and supply chain where Maine farmers are producing nearly everything Maine consumers want.
But, he said, “the market will be ahead of us for many years.”
“We have to pay our bills,” Cook said, “but I don’ t look at this from a profit and loss point of view. It is more about enjoying your work, providing and doing something of value and your role in the community. I’ m fortunate to work with farmers and consumers that are passionate about what we do. If it was just about the money, I wouldn’ t be doing this.”