CSAs, Food Hubs, and Farm-to-School Programs Earn Maine No. 2 Spot in Locavore Index
June 8, 2015 | AJ Hughes
Maine is a great destination for locally-sourced food, as evidenced by its strong showing in the latest Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index. In 2015, the state ranked No. 2, a spot it has held since 2013.
“The purpose of the Index is to stimulate efforts across the country to use more local food in homes, restaurants, schools and institutions,” says Orly Munzing, founder and executive director of Strolling of the Heifers.
The Index uses data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture and takes into account farmers’ market sales, community supported agriculture (CSA) operations, online sales, food hubs and farm-to-school programs.
Maine boasts 92 farmers’ markets, 142 CSA’s and three food hubs, and it has robust farm-to-school programs, along with a Maine Agriculture in the Classroom curriculum.
The local focus in Maine, the most agriculture-intensive state in New England, starts with the flavor of its farms, which are numerous but often quite small. This stands in stark contrast to Midwestern states with numerous farms consisting of many acres. The Census of Agriculture shows an increase in the number of Maine farms.
“Lots of these farms are one acre or less,” says Ellis Additon, director of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
As a result (and also due to the seasonality of agriculture in a state with long, hard winters), most of the farmers in Maine have other jobs to help pay the bills.
Maine is very well-known for its delicious lobsters and other ocean-caught seafood, but aquaculture is also a burgeoning industry—it has already equaled Maine’s poultry industry in viability.
Aquaculture joins a variety of other foods produced in Maine, including potatoes, milk and cheese, and blueberries. Potatoes are the most-produced food in the state, followed by milk and farm-raised fish, respectively.
“Maine is a diverse state agriculturally, with various sizes and industries,” says Samantha Howard, Maine agriculture promotions coordinator.
Tourists are taking note of this diversity. In addition to an increase in the number of farms in the state, the latest Ag Census also shows a jump in agritourism.
This is no accident. The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry launched a Get Real, Get Maine agriculture promotions program that connects consumers to local farm products. Through its searchable web site, people can search for specific products or farms, farmers’ markets and agricultural fairs.
Maine farmers’ markets are plenty—it has close to 100.
“We’re almost saturated with them they’re so popular,” says Additon.
Numerous events also promote local Maine food and agriculture. During Maine Maple Sunday, held on the fourth Sunday in March, maple syrup producers open their operations to visitors who enjoy sugarbush tours, educational and fun activities, as well as tastings of maple syrup and other maple products.
On Open Farm Day in July, farms across the state open their doors to the public. Visitors take part in demonstrations and tours and can purchase farm-grown products.
The State of Maine Agricultural Trades Show happens every January and serves as a source of information and venue for exhibitions and meetings.
The farmers’ markets and agricultural events aren’t just attracting tourists—Maine agriculture is also a boon to the state economy. Local food and agriculture produced $763 million in sales in 2012, a 23 percent jump from its 2007 numbers. This in turn is creating more jobs.
While local foods are a small component of Maine’s overall agriculture industry, it’s an important one, says Additon.
“There’s a growing desire to eat local, especially in the southern part of the state, where residents are adamant about eating local,” he says. “It’s a rapidly growing business.”
“The movement is taking off,” says Maine Department of Agriculture director of market development Jessica Nixon, who points to an online wholesale buyers guide available to restaurants and others interested in purveying Maine-produced food.
Maine’s proximity to New York City and Boston gives farmers in the state additional markets for selling their wide variety of products, one of which is small artisanal cheeses. Additon points out that Maine ranks second nationally in artisanal cheese production, many of which are made with goat or water buffalo milk.
Because of the nature of agriculture in Maine, farmers tend to be more artisan and less commercial.
“We don’t have a corporate farm in the entire state; they’re all family farms,” says Additon, who takes pride in the fact that Maine farmers don’t engage in the practice of double-cropping (the short growing season is also prohibitive of this practice). “What we lack in size, we make for in quality.”
Groups such as Maine Farmland Trust and Eat Maine Foods strive to preserve farmland in the state and support production of even more food grown and raised in Maine.