May 21, 2019
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How 3 Maine women are building their own farm distribution network

Christa Bahner, Adrienne Lee and Colleen Hanlon-Smith have a lot in common.

They’re all women, they’re all farmers, and they all sold a lot of their produce through a local wholesale distributor, the Unity Food Hub. So when the Unity Food Hub stopped doing food distribution at the end of 2017, the three found themselves in something of a pickle.

“It was a market avenue for us,” Lee, of New Beat Farm and Belladonna Floral, both in Knox, said of the Unity Food Hub.

They didn’t want to just let that avenue go, so they decided to create a new one on their own to help themselves and other farmers get their produce to more customers. That new business is called the Daybreak Growers Alliance, and it is up and running already.

Right now, the alliance is focusing on building a highly customizable and flexible community-supported agriculture, or CSA, network that will include between 30 and 35 farms. It will serve customers around Belfast, Waterville, Portland and, later in the summer, Bar Harbor.

But they are not going to stop there. Lee, Bahner and Hanlon-Smith also have plans to organize as a wholesale distributor, meaning that they will help get more produce from more farms to more people.

“Ultimately, the long-term trajectory is to make a more sustainable long-term model,” Lee said, adding that for many farmers, it’s not possible to grow their businesses by selling produce in the traditional ways, such as at farmers markets or through smaller CSAs.

“In Maine, a lot of the easy, direct-to-consumer models, those are either really competitive or hard to get into,” she said. “Through collaborating, I think we’ll be able to have more success.”

Bahner, who co-owns Bahner Farm in Belmont, agreed.

“I’m excited to be working with other farms, instead of competing against them,” Bahner said. “That’s just a good feeling.”

For Hanlon-Smith, who formerly worked as operations manager at the Unity Food Hub and who now co-owns Locust Grove orchard in Albion, one thing she particularly loves about the Daybreak Growers Alliance is how its tweaking the CSA model.

“It’s a hybrid of the benefits of a traditional CSA for a farmer and flexibility for the customer,” she said.

Traditionally, a CSA customer will pay a farmer for a farm share before the growing season starts, and in exchange, receive a box of vegetables every week. What’s in the box depends on what was harvested that week, not necessarily on what the customer likes or, in some cases, what they have even heard of before — a strategy that can lead to people feeling overwhelmed by unfamiliar or undesired vegetables.

But the growers alliance is doing something new with its CSA plan. Customers can customize their boxes, so that if they happen to love carrots or loathe kohlrabi, they won’t be disappointed.

If they are having guests and need more produce one week, that can be managed with the click of a mouse on their computer screen, and if they are going on vacation, they can easily put their CSA on hold. There are also different types of CSA shares, including an “Eat Your Greens” special, which features three or four types of greens in each box, a meat share and a fruit share, which focuses on fresh local fruits such as rhubarb, blueberries, raspberries and peaches.

Customers also can select share add-ons that include flowers, eggs, artisan cheese, yogurt and bread.

The farmers think that this kind of customization should lead to more customer satisfaction and a bigger market for participating farms. And that, to them, is what the Daybreak Growers Alliance is all about.

“I’m excited this year to be able to get local food to a broader swath of the Maine population,” Lee said. “I think there’s people that would normally be shopping at a standard supermarket, and this would be a way to allow more Mainers to eat local food.”

For more information about the Daybreak Growers Alliance, go to www.daybreakgrowersalliance.com.

 



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