By Erica Quin-Easter, Special to the BDN
Maine farmers grow great food. Value-added agriculture and specialty food products speak to consumers with high quality and market appeal. So how do you get your product to those who will purchase it? Whether you’re selling from a farm stand at the end of your driveway, serving retailers and restaurants in your region or shipping your product worldwide, distribution can be your greatest challenge and the greatest key to your success.
“Distribution was my first and biggest challenge,” says Cathe Morrill, owner of the State of Maine Cheese Co. “So many folks, especially as they come newly into it, they don’t really know what their target market needs from them in order to want their product.”
Restaurants and large retailers have different needs than small independent food stores and farmers markets. Morrill highlights how the “decision-tree” must govern the production and distribution process: Who is your target market? What are the needs of that market for product availability, food safety, insurance, packaging and other concerns? What does the nature of your product require; is your product shelf-stable, or does it need refrigeration? How will you package your product to avoid spoilage and breakage, minimize shipping costs, meet the needs of wholesale customers and maximize your marketing appeal and availability to consumers?
Small Business Development Center Director John Entwistle has a long history of working with Maine food producers. He notes that time, transportation, and distance pose challenges for producers to reach retail markets.
“Regional farm produce distributors help to address that issue, allowing farms to reduce their costs because it is shared by a number of suppliers,” Entwistle says.
The nature of the agricultural cycle, however, creates difficulties in the business model. “A challenge that remains for the distributor involves the mismatch between the market’s demand for a constant supply and the reality of a seasonal local supply,” Entwistle reports.
With the highest gas prices in Maine, the longest winters and the greatest distance from New England population centers, Aroostook County out of necessity has become a hot spot for innovation to encourage local production and consumption and solve distribution problems. Three initiatives exemplify the area’s can-do attitude: Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative, Northern Girl and Valley Roots.
Crown O’Maine was founded in 1995 to distribute locally grown produce across Maine. Pickups span the state of Maine and deliveries stretch from northern Aroostook to New Hampshire and Massachusetts. More recently, Marada and Leah Cook, daughters of Crown O’Maine founders Jim and Kate Cook, joined forces with Chris Hallweaver to create Northern Girl, LLC. The new business was born on a simple premise: sell the top notch percentage of farmer’s crops on the fresh market and process the surplus to feed local consumers the rest of the year. With production already in place and a shared-use kitchen and business incubator in progress at Loring Development Authority in Limestone, Northern Girl will move to Van Buren when construction of its $450,000 food processing plant is complete. Local supporter Renee Felini notes how the cooperative environment encourages individual entrepreneurism: “You want to have that feeling that ‘I did this.’” With shared facilities and cooperative distribution, entrepreneurs retain ownership of their product and their production while benefiting from community and economy of scale. Felini concludes, “You have that supportive environment. You’re not alone.”
Local initiatives abound in Aroostook County and other agricultural areas of Maine. Sigrid Houlette, district coordinator for the St. John Valley Soil and Water Conservation District, is working with other area organizers in Fort Kent to start Valley Roots, a producer and local product cooperative. “I believe that being able to source our foods and other products as close to home as possible is the healthiest option for all, businesses and consumers alike,” she notes.
Paula Day, president of the Maine Alternative Agriculture Association, notes that the biggest challenge is local demand. “Distributors [entrepreneurs] happen whenever there is a market to be supplied,” she says. The first distribution challenge is educating consumers about the superior quality, value and benefits of locally produced food.
Day notes that while Maine producers who rely on national and international markets frequently are held up as distribution success stories, “To me, the best success stories are those that put locally produced food into the kitchens of Maine consumers.” Those public relations models include farmers markets, food clubs, community-supported agriculture memberships, retailers of Maine products and high-quality gourmet restaurants that make their professional reputations based on their use of local products.
Cathe Morrill sums up where Maine stands in the “buy local” movement and in producing quality food products for regional, national and international trade: “Maine has a reputation for quality as ‘the place of make.’ It’s a great place to live, work, grow, produce, and enjoy.”
The strength of local food producers, distributors, retailers and consumers in Maine is a spark for our economy and a boon for businesses at all points of the food chain.