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Before last week, Jen Levin had been distributing haddock, redfish, hake and other seafood to esteemed restaurants along the Maine coast.
But now that state officials have mandated the closure of restaurants for dine-in service, the demand for fresh fish from restaurants has all but dried up. Now, Levin hawks her fresh fish from a van in a parking lot on Commercial Street, along Portland’s wharf.
“With so many people already going without a paycheck, we hated the idea of not buying from our fishermen partners who don’t get paid without someone buying their fish,” Levin said.
Maine farmers and fishermen who have derived a substantial part of their income selling wholesale to restaurants are quickly pivoting toward new methods of selling their products directly to customers now that the spread of the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, has ended most restaurant sales for the foreseeable future. They’re processing payments online and in advance, and setting up pick-up stations for customers at farmer’s markets and in parking lots.
And though they recognize that there’s plenty of concern and a lot of unknowns, some harbor a wary excitement about what the shift might mean for the local food movement’s future.
Beth Schiller, who runs Dandelion Spring Farm in Bowdoinham, is trying to look at this moment as a “positive pivot point” for how Mainers get their food in the future.
Before March 13, half of Schiller’s business had come directly from Portland restaurants, including Fore Street, Scales and Drifters Wife. When restaurants began to limit dine-in service to stop the spread of the coronavirus, all of them canceled their orders and her revenue from restaurants sank to literally nothing.
Schiller knew that her customers would understand the shift, so she quickly pivoted. Dandelion Spring Farm has started a weekly share that she sells directly to consumers with a home delivery option. She pre-ordered new boxes, and plans to run things the way she did back when she sold more food directly to customers through a CSA program.
“I feel like there are so many farms that are on the point of being able to scale up and be even more of an economic driver in our community for the long term,” Schiller said.
Levin is in the same boat. Hugo’s, Elda and EVO are some of the eateries that have sourced fish for their menus from Gulf of Maine Sashimi, the sustainable wholesale fish operation Levin started through the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Before last week, the operation had sold to roughly 20 restaurants from Yarmouth to Kennebunk, she said. But just two of her customers — one in Portland and another in Boston — have bought fish from her for their takeout menus.
With those sales all but vanished, Levin has set up a section of her website where customers can place orders for fish directly, paying via check or Venmo and picking them up at designated windows and locations in Portland and Topsham.
Levin has been working with Maine fishermen for a little more than 15 years. Before making Gulf of Maine Sashimi her full-time gig last summer, she managed the Sustainable Seafood program at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute for 10 years, trying to enhance the visibility and value of Maine’s sustainable seafood supply and “keep boats on the water.”
Schiller and Levin are two local food producers in an industry scrambling to find a new system, one that can keep Mainers fed and provide sustainable incomes for themselves and their employees.
It will be a struggle, but for them and others, direct and hyperlocal sales may be an encouraging foundation for how that system will work in the future.
“The silver lining of this so far is that we’ve been able to witness our community coming together in a pretty amazing way,” Schiller said.
Other farms and fishing operations have followed suit. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has compiled a directory of farms offering direct-to-consumer service, and has partnered with dozens of statewide food organizations, including Cultivating Community and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, to form the Beginning Farmer Resource Network of Maine, tracking the local food movement’s evolving response to the challenges of the coronavirus.
Smaller regional organizations, such as the Merrymeeting Food Council near Schiller’s Dandelion Spring Farm, also have begun compiling resources of farms offering direct pick-up for people who want to avoid getting their food at the large supermarkets.
“Our primary message for farmers right now is to not scale back on planting,” said Harriet Van Vleck of the Merrymeeting Food Council, who added that before the outbreak, Maine had the seventh highest rate of food insecurity in the nation.
The spread of the coronavirus has already reshaped the Maine food system. Now with so many people paying attention, they say new networks are bound to form.
“This is a time when farms could either go down hard, or we could commit to them and bolster them,” Schiller said. “There’s a huge opportunity to see what local food is really like.”
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