VAN BUREN, Maine — When Leah Cook and her family moved to the St. John Valley 15 years ago and took up organic gardening and raising animals on their Grand Isle farm, she said more than one resident dismissed them as “hippy farmers.”
Years later, Leah and her sister Marada Cook have taken all they learned on that family farm, applied 21st century technology and business practices and created Northern Girl to sell local produce to niche markets around New England and along the Atlantic seaboard.
Northern Girl started in October 2011 with four employees, a small facility and a test kitchen in the old NCO club on the former Loring Air Force Base.
“The Limestone facility was really R&D (research and development) for us. That is where we learned production and supply and figured out what we are good at,” Chris Hallweaver, Northern Girl plant manager, said. “What we are really good at is beets.”
Based in Van Buren, the business is processing, freezing and shipping beets in addition to carrots, potatoes and a “root medley vegetable” in 24-ounce bags.
Beets and potato wedges are going to Whole Foods markets for use in their prepared food delis around New England and the Atlantic region.
A number of corporate and school cafeterias in Maine are receiving the beets, potatoes, carrot sticks and root-vegetable medleys.
A 24-ounce bag of Northern Girl produce is retailing for around $5, according to Hallweaver.
Last week Leah Cook, vice president of Northern Girl, said she and her sister, the company president, had been planning for years to set up a processing operation in the Van Buren area.
Last summer, they finally made the move to a brand new building they are leasing from the town built specifically with Northern Girl in mind with funding from United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development.
Then, a $230,000 loan from the Maine Community Foundation and Fair Food Fund allowed the Cook sisters to equip their plant with up-to-date processing equipment.
“By helping scale production, the loan to Northern Girl has a ripple effect that will spur job creation in rural Maine, provide additional revenue for farmers and increase consumer access to local, sustainably produced food,” Meredith Jones, Maine Community Foundation president and CEO, said.
The business has 20 full- and part-time employees who spend most of their time in the facility’s spotless and cavernous processing room peeling, slicing, par-boiling, freezing and packaging produce supplied by local farmers.
Like all those beets, for instance.
“There is really a growing demand for our beets,” Cook said. “They are becoming a very trendy vegetable that has a nice, unique flavor and can be eaten fresh on salads, cooked or roasted like a potato.”
Northern Maine, she said, is a perfect place for a beet crop.
“They grow well in our climate,” she said. “Our soils feed into giving them a great flavor.”
Some of those beets are coming from just down the road at LaJoie Growers LLC.
“It’s great to see our farm’s produce processed locally,” farm owner Jay LaJoie said. “With them being so close, I can literally just bring the product down the street on a fresh scale.”
When in full production, Northern Girl processes and ships up to 2,000 pounds of beets per week.
Last week, beets were taking a back seat to a production run of locally grown russet potato wedges with nearly 8,000 pounds going out the door every day.
Cook and Hallweaver declined to comment on the company’s payroll or go into specifics on sales trends over the years, but they did say those numbers have gone up.
“At Loring, we could only freeze 1,500 pounds of potatoes in a day,” Hallweaver said. “Now we are at 8,000 pounds a day with the new russet wedge line in Van Buren, so things have gone up tremendously.”
The bulk of the Fair Food loan went to improving the capacity and efficiency of the potato and beet processing at Northern Girl, he said.
“The $230,000 loan really allowed us to ramp up our production,” Cook said. “It’s allowing us to get the right equipment for freezing the product more efficiently.”
The freezing process, she said, can create a real bottleneck in production.
The funding allowed the company to purchase and install a blast freezer the size of a shipping container that runs at a steady 25 degrees below zero.
Hallweaver said the large capacity is a big reason the bottleneck no longer exists.
“It all has to do with size,” he said. “We can’t make money at 1,500 pounds of potatoes a day, so that is why we went to this new facility and equipment that can handle the 8,000 pounds a day we are doing now.”
During the potato run, Cook explained, the russets are dumped on a conveyor belt, where employees inspect them for imperfections and remove any that don’t make the grade.
From there, they are run through a slicer and turned into wedges, par-baked, placed in the blast freezer, then packaged under the Northern Girl brand.
“After they’ve been processed like this, they can be baked for 20 minutes and are good to go,” Cook said. “And they are really moist and delicious.”
For Cook, there would be no quality Northern Girl product without the quality local crops.
“It most definitely matters that we are using locally produced foods,” she said. “We know our local farmers are facing so much competition on the global market, and we want to be able to provide them with a local option.”
When farmers find themselves dealing with markets far from home, she said they can lose control and are more subject to shifts in the global economy.
“We are able to work directly with the growers,” Cook said. “We can tell each other what we need, and that is a much more efficient business model. I would rather be paying our neighbors so they can make a living.”
Working directly with the local farmers means quicker reactions to any changes in the marketplace, Cook said, adding there is also a willingness on the part of the growers to try new crops if it can be done on a smaller scale with a guaranteed market.
“We are exploring having a farmer do baby beets,” she said. “If he can, we are hoping we can do something with the beet tops and greens. He seems willing to give that a try.”
For farmer Lajoie, that means he has a market for his smaller beets that his larger, high-volume customers do not want.
“This has allowed me to expand my market,” he said. “[The folks at Northern Girl] are great to work with, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with them on new, value added products.”
In addition to the beets, Lajoie’s diversified farm also supplies Northern Girl with several varieties of potatoes and carrots.
This is the second year Lajoie has worked with Northern Girl, and he said his sales to the local processor doubled in those two years.
The presence of Northern Girl means farmers have more options, Cook said.
“Farming is a high-risk game all the time,” she said. “But at Northern Girl, we can create opportunities that allow local growers to diversify and help put together farm plans on a scale that works in Aroostook County.”
Looking around her 4,800-square-foot Van Buren facility and watching employees banter back and forth as they work to the rock music piped onto the floor, Cook has a wide grin.
“We grew up the hippies on the farm,” she said. “We’re not the crazy fringe element anymore. Now what we are doing is seen as sensible and sustainable.”