August 2, 2010

A real farmers’ market in Starks

STARKS -- One organization is returning a former grange hall to its original use: To be a center for farmers and those who support what they produce.

click image to enlarge

Volunteer Arlene Walker prepares food items to be cooked in a wood- fired oven as people anxiously wait duing an open house at a former grange in Starks on Wednesday. The Maine Alternative Agriculture Association has turned the closed grange hall into a beautiful new space for collecting and processing local farm products.

Staff photo by David Leaming

Interested in helping or joining the Maine Alternative Agriculture Association? Call Paula Day at 612-9149.

More than 60 people visited the Maine Alternative Agriculture Association's open house at its new facility on Route 43 this past week to see how the old hall has changed.

Paid for by a $199,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, the recently-handicap-accessible building has refrigerator-, freezer- and root-vegetable-storage space to ultimately become a collection and distribution center for up to 40 tons of locally-grown vegetables, fruits and other products.

Renovated over the past two years, it has a new kitchen, wiring, plumbing, bathroom, doors, windows and paint job.

"Food is the basis of health, or ill-health, and it starts on a farm," said Paula Day, one of the main organizers of the endeavor. "I would like to see people recognize where their food comes from."

While the project has not formally begun -- the former grange needed to be refurbished first -- the plan is for the nonprofit-business to contract with Maine farmers who are devoted to soil management, Day said. She anticipates starting with 10 or 12 farmers and growing from there.

The grange building will hold their products until they can be sold to what are called food clubs. Those food clubs still need to form, Day said, and will ideally consist of about 100 members in the Augusta, Waterville and Midcoast area.

Also known as buying clubs, they are composed of community members who purchase bulk orders of locally-grown products. Because the group buys at wholesale prices, it is affordable for the individual members, said Melissa White Pillsbury, organic marketing coordinator for Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

There are buying clubs all over Maine, such as in Farmington, Mount Desert Island and Portland, and their numbers are growing.

"My impression is that they're increasing as the interest in local food increases," Pillsbury said. "I think people are interested in figuring out more ways of gaining access to local foods year-round, and buying clubs are one way to do that."

Virginia Manuel, USDA Rural Development State Director, called the rural enterprise "visionary." It falls in line with the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" national initiative, she said, which encourages the growth of local foods and the local purchase of those foods.

"People want to know where it's from and what they're eating," she said.

Rosemary Winslow, intergovernmental liaison for U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, said the congressman needs to see what is happening in Starks.

"He needs to understand it and see it," she said. "It's amazing what locals are doing to make a difference in the rest of the state."

Though there is no set date for when the collection and distribution of products will begin, Day said her next step is to hire an artisan bread maker to start a bread-baking operation at the renovated facility.

It is possible that bread could be made from Ernie Hilton's 35-year-old sourdough starter. Hilton, whose daughter is the eighth generation to live on at least a portion of his farm in Starks, made sourdough for the open house last week. His bread was the first item to be cooked in the facility's new oven.

Starks Selectman Paul Frederic said the renovation of the former grange could serve as an example for other communities.

"We need to think about new uses and new ideas to rebuild not only rural Starks but rural Maine and rural U.S.," he said. "You have to try new ideas. This is a new idea that has a lot of potential."

Marada Cook is director of Crown O' Maine Organic Cooperative in Vassalboro, a similar business to the one Day is forming. The year-round, $1 million company sells to 30 buying clubs, 30 retail stores and between 30 and 50 restaurants, depending on the season, Cook said; it draws from farms across the state.

Day's project is different, Cook said, because it revitalized a former grange to become a food hub.

"As far as, 'Do we need another Crown O' Maine out there?' There's always room for innovation in any marketplace," she said. "Providing any resource to farmers for storage of crops is a resource to the entire local foods community."

There will be challenges in starting the enterprise, however, she said. The organization will have to provide unique products to fill specific needs. And it will have to define itself, she said; it will have to determine its niche in Maine.

Erin Rhoda -- 474-9534

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