Local producers gather to discuss business
ST. JOHN VALLEY– Perhaps a sign of growth to come, about 20 representatives from different funding organizations and private individuals participated in a tour over the course of two days through approximately six farms and agriculturally-related businesses in Aroostook County.
The tour included a question-and-answer session during dinner at the Lakeview Restaurant in St. Agatha on Oct 2, where four local producers spoke about their experiences and responded to questions from the audience. The panel included Wayne Marquis from Marquis Farms in Van Buren, who wholesales organic foods to large chain stores such as Wal-Mart; Jay Lajoie from Lajoie Farms in Van Buren who are known for their blue potatoes which they sell to Terra Chips and for their participation in the upcoming Valley movie “Blue Potato”; Joe Bouchard from Bouchard Farms in Fort Kent, also famous locally for their ploye mix and buckwheat flour; and Richard James from Lucerne Farms in Fort Fairfield, who grow alfalfa and produce horse feed sold nationally.
Representatives and individuals interested in supporting agriculture in The County or in helping to bring attention to certain aspects of food security, such as the necessity of access to these products for all, made up most of the audience members, but that group also included local growers and guests.
Samuel Kaymen, the founder and creator of the highly successful Stonyfield Yogurt, was in the audience that night. Kaymen has a particular interest in investment opportunities “that encourage and support organic agriculture,” he said.
He said he believes the agricultural business potential in Aroostook County to be “immense,” and emphasized the potential for grain production in this area.
Echoing a comment a representative from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association made during a workshop held in Fort Kent last year, he said, “There’s a tremendous opportunity here to see Aroostook County feeding New England.”
Kaymen is currently considering investing in Lakeshore Farms in St. Agatha, that Dave Ouellette owns, a fourth-generation farmer who grows organic barley and oats.
He praised the connection that people in this area have to a historical farming knowledge base, as evidenced by the number of multiple-generation farms that exist.
“You go much south of here and nobody knows anything,” he said.
He said that his perspective as an outsider to this area allows him to see things from a broader perspective, and said, “When you’re in the forest, you can’t even see the trees. It’s important for people in Aroostook County to have the input of someone from away.”
Slow Money Maine’s steering committee members Bonnie Rukin, Linzee Weld, and Eleanor Kinney were also present. Linzee acted as a moderator for the panel and Rukin and Kinney participated as audience members.
Kinney described the investment opportunities that Slow Money Maine hopes to nurture as springing up during a time when “the traditional banking system is not serving a lot of farmers.” Slow Money Maine facilitates the connections that help producers looking for capital and investors looking for “an alternative to Wall Street and the oil industry.”
She said, “For us, it’s a huge opportunity because we get to do something meaningful with our investments. I consider sustainable farmers to be social entrepreneurs. It’s a whole movement we need to grow… to take our resources and put it back into our communities and our states. We come up here and we bring patient capital… both to the benefit of the farmers and to the benefit of ourselves.”
Kaymen said, “We want an economy based on agriculture… in a sustainable way that’s non-toxic. The toxins in our food systems are what is causing all the disease and health problems we have and we need to reverse that.”
Kinney added, describing what the investors hope to achieve, “It’s a healing process for our people and our land… and it’s economically revitalizing. We are trying to grow jobs and benefit communities.”
Andrea Perry, who was present as the representative for the Broadreach Fund and as an individual investor involved with Slow Money Maine, said her primary interest is ensuring access to healthy foods, labor issues, nutritional issues, and not just the production of food crops itself.
She described the theme of the panel discussion as being “farms that have figured innovative ways to brand and market their products.”
Rukin is the founder and coordinator of Slow Money Maine. She said that Slow Money Maine is not, in fact, an “organization” at all. Instead, it is a network of people – people united by a common interest in helping to create and enhance local foods production and distribution and access.
She said, “One of the exciting parts is having a shared frame of reference on a visual and human level.”
She repeated something that Tate McPherson, a local food systems-stakeholder with a plan to develop a grain elevator with the capacity to store and process both organic and conventional grains, said: “Developing viable food systems in Maine is about developing relationships.”
Rukin said it’s important to exchange the knowledge that will help people understand how they can assist each other before the financial transactions are made.
About McPherson, she said, “His depth and breadth of experience and his ability to articulate the needs of all of the players in this food system… made it so real and credible and inspired people… to be part of it in ways they haven’t figured out yet.”
Another member of Slow Money Maine present that evening was Chris Hallweaver, who, along with his wife Betsy, are partners with Leah and Marada Cook, sisters who founded Northern Girl, a local food producer company currently based out of Limestone. Hallweaver said plans are in the works to move the kitchen to a new location in Van Buren.