BELFAST, Maine — Maine’s House delegation and federal officials on Friday toured a food production “incubator” in Belfast, and touted the business model’s potential to support the state’s growing small-farm and artisanal food industries.
Coastal Farms and Food Inc. — located inside the former Moss Inc. warehouse on U.S. Route 1 — offers cold and freezer storage space, kitchen and equipment rentals and food processing services.
During vocal testimony in front of state and federal officials, many Maine farmers and food producers over the past year have said the cost of building food production and processing facilities that meet state and federal standards is preventing their businesses from growing.
Many dairy farmers have complained that federal regulations require facilities so expensive that it makes more sense for them to sell their milk to neighbors under the counter. Produce growers last month told federal officials that new food safety rules approved in 2011 would put them out of business. Some towns have even gone so far as to pass “local food sovereignty” ordinances in an effort to escape the yoke of regulation that farmers and home kitchen operators face.
Facilities such as Coastal Farms and Food are one way to solve that problem, said Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, who toured the business with Rep. Mike Michaud and USDA Rural Development Acting Under Secretary Doug O’Brien.
Pingree, whose Nebo Lodge Restaurant and Inn on North Haven uses space at the Belfast facility for food storage, said it made perfect sense for farmers and entrepreneurs to pay for access to an incubator business.
“Why invest all that money in your own individual farm when you can come here, maybe once or twice a week, or even once a month, depending on the product, and not have to invest in all the equipment?” she said. “It’s a good idea.”
“We had a fellow come in here, he had a client who had six cows and she wanted to make cheese,” said Wayne Snyder, one of the company’s founders. “She [would have] needed to spend $300,000 on a kitchen that would produce cheese from six cows. That’s a completely uneconomic deal. It doesn’t work. She can come here and work in an approved kitchen, for a low fee. That’s huge.”
Business at the Belfast plant has been going gangbusters since it opened last year. In one room on Friday, Kate McAleer, owner of Bixby & Company, made chocolate bars that will be sold in Whole Foods markets up and down the East Coast. In another, farmer Peter Collin is processing blueberries for wine, jam and pie fillings. Elsewhere, hundreds of 1,100-pound packages are storing produce in ideal conditions to extend the shelf life.
“I’ve always said Maine could be the food basket of New England. I think that’s something facilities such as this will really make happen,” Michaud said.
Jason Bolton is a food safety specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. He helped Snyder and Coastal Farms and Food’s other founders, Jan and Dean Anderson and Tony Kelley, get their business off the ground.
It’s no secret that local food is hugely popular in Maine. The state is bucking national trends in that more farms open here each year and, also unlike other states, the average age of farmers in Maine is going down, not up.
While Coastal Farms and Food works mostly in berry processing and value-added food production, Bolton said the “incubator” model could easily be applied to dairy or even slaughtering, two other agricultural operations that require big infrastructure investments. Bolton said he expects to see more local food incubators open throughout Maine as the industry continues to grow and farmers and food producers seek larger markets.
“Facilities like that are definitely going to be one of the solutions to offsetting the costs associated with doing business, not only in Maine but throughout the U.S.,” he said. “This is the way it’s going to be done.”
Growth is the prime reason why Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen moved its operation from a home kitchen in Bangor to Coastal Farms.
This week alone, Wixson’s Kitchen processed more than two tons of Maine-grown tomatoes from farmers who had more than they could sell at the market. Wixson buys the tomatoes and distills them into an extract used for a variety of sauces.
“There’s no way we could have done that at home,” said Laurel McFarland, Wixson’s daughter, who on Friday was making a parsley puree to be used in salsa. “Just 2,000 pounds would have taken two weeks in Bangor.”
O’Brien, the USDA official who toured the Belfast plant on Friday, said the federal government is keen to foster the growth of businesses such as Coastal Farms and Food.
“We think this is one of the next places that we really need to focus on for the local food systems to grow. Demand is not really an issue anymore,” he said. “The next question is about infrastructure.”
Ron Dyer, director of quality assurance at the Maine Department of Agriculture, said he’s also keen to see the incubator business model grow, to give beginning local food entrepreneurs the room to test the market without spending a lot of money up front.
“It’s exactly what these are for,” he said. “It’s a way for small farmers or a home business to develop their products, pilot it, and see what the market can handle.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.