The Portland Food Co-op
The Portland Food Coop (PFC) opened its doors at 290 Congress Street in December 2014 as a with member-owned business dedicated to supporting the local economy, building the local food movement, and providing families with healthy, affordable food. In its first year of operations, PFC vastly exceeded financial projections—realizing over $3.3 million in sales, including more than $1 million from food and goods grown and produced in Maine.
It’s hard to believe that not so long ago, this vibrant community storefront was still just a vision shared by a few hundred member-owners who needed to raise $1.6 million and more than triple their member-ownership to make the bricks-and-mortar store a reality.
Launched in the fall of 2013, PFC’s capital campaign gained early traction with a $60k Community Development Block Grant from the City of Portland and a $330k loan from the Cooperative Fund of New England. The big challenge was to attract at least 1,000 new member-owners (whose individual $100 shares were a significant piece of the funding pie) and inspire participation in a member-owner loan program that would account for $800k (or half of the entire fundraising goal). This called for creativity, collaboration, and a lot of grassroots networking—the kind of work Slow Money Maine does every day.
Indeed, perceiving great synergies between PFC and a multitude of local food stakeholders, SMM created an important platform for the Co-op to get its message out. At SMM’s daylong gathering in November 2013, Co-op leaders introduced PFC’s vision and goals to a large audience of people from all over the state. Later that winter, a member of SMM’s Steering Committee hosted a house party in Portland, inviting neighbors, friends, and colleagues to learn about the co-op in a more intimate setting. SMM used its newsletter to generate additional buzz for PFC, while behind the scenes, Bonnie and other SMM leaders continued to connect people to the Co-op as they do so well—one purposeful conversation at a time. Ultimately, SMM’s ability to mobilize its broad network were instrumental to PFC’s overwhelming fundraising success.
Added January 2017
Nezinscot Farm (Nezinscot is the Abenaki word for “a place to gather”)
Purposeful pioneering work is the focus of Gloria and Gregg Varney’s approach to life. The couple bought their 250-acre farm in Turner from Gregg’s parents in 1987 and became the first organic dairy in Maine in 1993.
They have been intentional in raising their five children and engaging their surrounding community while thoughtfully developing a diversified operation, which now includes 2 acres of vegetables, a retail store, bakery & cafe, fiber studio, fromagerie and charcuterie, as well as a herd of 90-125 milking cows, and smaller animals for meat and eggs.
Creative financing has taken many forms including individual and USDA grants, CSA shares, milk sales to Organic Valley, the farm store (where some employees get paid with store credit) and the sale of grains for animal feed. With a grant from a SMM participant, Gregg was able to finish his grain storage facility and is creating a certified mill to meet needs of farmers for bulk feed. Income from 150 local families in Nezinscot’s CSA helps fund a butcher shop and smokehouse and has also allowed Gloria to purchase a bulk tank for her cheese operation. USDA grants have supported improvements in water systems for the farm’s pastureland.
A more unusual income stream has come from mutually satisfying relationships with students and professors at Bates College. Students spend two days a week on the farm as part of a class about purposeful work and life.They participate in farm activities, relevant discussions, and in the culminating event of a farm-to-table dinner, paying Nezinscot for this distinctive educational opportunity.
Gloria is currently excited about the potential of value-added products through the farm’s fiber studio and is offering classes with artists-in-residence to engage the community. The mix of creative financing and purposeful life continues!!
Added July 2016
Blue Ox Malthouse
Joel Alex verges on surpassing his own expectations of pioneering as founder of Blue Ox Malthouse. In 2013, at age 27, Joel pitched his new idea to Slow Money Maine. Since then, his inspiration, integrity and perseverance have been distinctive assets in learning more about the industry and finding a wide array of financing and technical assistance to support his enterprise.
To date, he’s received a Tech Start Grant, Seed Grant and Development Loan from Maine Technology Institute; two technical assistance (TA) grants from the Maine Grain Alliance; two R&D awards from the Libra Future Fund; an honorary grant from the Mitchell Institute; TA support through the Fair Food Fund and investments from CEI & SMM investors. Joel has also completed MCED’s Top Gun Program, attended Fair Food Fund’s Boot Camp and is a finalist for major funds in the Green Light ME contest.
Among the three SMM investors is Steve Culver who began as Joel’s mentor and is now an equity partner and CFO. Steve was able to leverage FAME’s Sed Capital Tax Program to pass on tax benefits for investors as well as register the business as a Pine Tree Development Zone to receive further tax benefits.
Using two tons of grain from Aroostook County, Joel processed his first pilot batch of malts in January 2014 at Coastal Farms & Food in Belfast. When that business failed he was able to use Northern Girl’s facility in Limestone to continue his product trials until he found a longterm lease for a Lisbon Falls facility in January 2015. The operation now plans to increase production from 300 to over 8000 pounds per batch, using a traditional floor malting system.
The company is certified by MOFGA as a dual processor of both organic and conventional grains. It is well-positioned, as the state’s firs malthouse, to meet the growth of breweries in Maine that has doubled from 36 to over 70 in the past two years!
Added Jan 2016
Cobscook Bay Resource Center
A non-profit organization, the Cobscook Bay Resource Center (CBRC) in Eastport has long focused on sustainable community development strategies for this region of Washington County. Will Hopkins, Executive Director since 1998, was eager to build the Cobscook Marketplace, a local food hub facility, with a licensed commercial kitchen, where fishermen, farmers and gardeners could process and sell local scallops and farm produce.
Beginning in 2005, at an overall cost of $150,000, CBRC began research, planning and design for the project. With a US H.U.D. grant and support from several foundations and individuals in hand, they began the first phase of construction in the summer of 2011. To raise further funds, SMM invited Will to present at one of its regular gatherings, connecting him to individuals and foundations ready to consider grant making, and assisting in writing grants.
Construction costs of $325,000 and equipment costs of $155,000 brought the total cost of the new building to $480,000. SMM helped to catalyze $200,000 of that amount over a two-year period.
The Marketplace successfully completed its first processing of scallops in early 2014.
The Cobscook Marketplace will flash-freeze scallops and process farm produce which will be sold through a marketing co-op direct to consumers, as well as to restaurants and high-end specialty stores. A shared-use kitchen program and co-packing services will help develop and produce new products, and food service technical assistance will be provided to co-op and kitchen members.
Will has been actively involved with SMM for several years and now serves on the Steering Committee, offering a direct link to the needs of fisheries in Maine and potential collaborations in Washington County.
Somerset Grist Mill
When the idea was hatched to convert a vacant county jail in downtown Skowhegan into a flour mill, project leaders turned to their local economic development agency for assistance. With resolve to support the agricultural economy in Somerset County as a viable strategy for addressing poverty, unemployment, community deterioration, poor nutrition and health, the Somerset Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) signed on as a fiscal sponsor to facilitate grants and loans from charitable foundations. A New York lawyer, new to the SMM network, donated time to outline legal guidelines for making grants to for-profit businesses in the agricultural sector, making the model replicable across the state and country. Skowhegan Savings Bank and Wholesome Wave also played pivotal funding roles and tax credits through the Finance Authority of Maine provided incentives for investors.
Slow Money Maine provided other connections to help raise 1.6 million dollars to launch the flour mill, for processing locally grown grains, and renovating the historic jailhouse to also house a farmer’s market, multi-farm CSA, local foods café, cooking and baking education classes, and other health related programs. SMM engaged individual investors and technical advisors that have assisted project leaders to raise capital, manage construction costs, and learn critical business management skills.
The Elmina B. Sewall Foundation has been a pioneer in making grants and mission-related investments to SEDC’s agricultural program to accelerate the start-up of mutually reinforcing food businesses in the Skowhegan area and meet the increased demand for local food in the region. Other Foundations have begun to follow suit and Skowhegan continues to develop its food-based economy with an array of community members.
Commonwealth Poultry Farm
Since 2010, Ryan Wilson and Gina Simmons have become the largest producers and processors of ducks in Maine. They started their business on land belonging to Ryan’s family and, with their help, the business expanded quickly. However, it was soon apparent that the enterprise was best suited to another site to meet Ryan and Gina’s business and personal needs. They then formed Common Wealth Poultry Company LLC together in 2013.
Soon after the couple presented at our Slow Money Maine gathering in January 2013, new partnership options emerged with Alice & Rufus Percy of Treble Ridge Farm. They chose to shift their intentions to Whitefield and established a lease agreement with the Percy’s for growing poultry on their farm and a seperate lease for a warehouse down the road, which they renovated into a processing facility. SMM orchestrated a creative collaboration with three individual investors and MOFGA’s loan fund to provide $47K in loans for start up costs; baby chicks and ducklings, feed and equipment.
Since last season, Ryan & Gina have doubled production while clarifying and refining business operations. In 2014 they will likely increase production to 15,000 birds (chickens, ducks and geese) and are in the process of purchasing a poultry barn. They have begun to pay themselves and are ready to hire an employee. This season’s plans include opening a retail space at the processing facility to show case value-added products including rendered duck fat, various sausages and pot pies. Their current markets are primarily restaurants, from Portland to Belfast.
More recently, when the bank denied them a line of credit, Ryan and Gina were able to discuss the situation with their SMM investors, who had received all payments to date on schedule, and were able to adjust the schedule in a mutually satisfying way. Their investors’ understanding and commitment have eased the financial burden of another seasons’ start up costs for these entrepreneurs, while allowing them freedom to focus on growing their business.
Fuzzy Udder Creamery
Jessie Dowling’s qualities of integrity, initiative, passion and perseverance have marked her recent association with SMM. Her background includes holding an MS in Food Policy, eleven years of engagement in sustainable agriculture, working as a cheese maker for five years at Appleton Creamery, and being a food activist (most recently in organizing citizen efforts requiring GMO labeling in Maine).
In 2011 she created Fuzzy Udder Creamery at a farm in Unity where she successfully made and marketed a variety of cheeses from the milk of her own sheep as well as from the milk of neighbors’ cows. Two years later, when health issues required her to relocate, Jessie was lucky enough to find a house, barn and former creamery in Whitefield, just as winter began. She applied for an FSA loan but funds were not likely to be available until later in 2014. With the creative collaboration of the property owner, Jessie’s family and two lenders through SMM, Maine Farmland Trust bought the property and will hold it until FSA funds become available.
As of March 13th, 2014, with the completion of regulatory inspections and a $10K Indiegogo campaign, Jessie is happily returning to cheese making. Goats and sheep have started to birth and the house, barn, milking parlor and cheese rooms are serving people and animals well. Look for Fuzzy Udder cheeses, including Mozzarella, Gouda, Brie and Tomme along with sheep’s milk yogurt, at Portland winter farmers’ market and check out Jessie’s web site, www.fuzzyudder.com for a full list of where you can find Fuzzy Udder products.
Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative, Northern Girl and Fiddler’s Green
Marada and Leah Cook are sisters, entrepreneurs and the dynamic leaders of several food infrastructure businesses. In 1995 their father Jim created Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative (COMOC) as a distribution company serving Aroostook County farmers, and his daughters chose to continue the business after his death in 2008. Northern Girl is a spinoff company focused on vegetable processing, with facilities in Limestone & Van Buren. The Cook sisters recently purchased Fiddler’s Green, a 20-year old mail order company, with an array of organic products from grains and hot cereal mixes to dried fruits and teas.
Since 2010, SMM’s network has provided significant connections for Marada and Leah to receive financial support from individual, Foundation and institutional investors, as well as technical assistance from varied mentors.
In the early stages of assuming full management of COMOC, with encouragement from a SMM participant, the Cooks received free business planning help from the Small Business Development Center. Kennebec Valley Council of Government served as an early SMM economic development partner and facilitated grant opportunities during the transitional period for COMOC. Another SMM participant chose to provide financial mentoring for the Cooks and went on to become not only an investor in Northern Girl but moved from Portland to Caribou to become the company’s manager. With the help of grant writers in the SMM network, Northern Girl received $300K from the Finance Authority of Maine in 2011 to cover equipment and startup costs. Additional SMM connections have helped the Cooks find loan guarantors and loans with Coastal Enterprises Inc., Fair Food Network, Rudolf Steiner Social Finance and the Coop Fund of New England to meet needs for inventory, lines of credit and working capital.
As these inspiring young women further expand, refine and enhance their businesses, Marada and Leah continue to live a family legacy reflecting not only pioneering entrepreneurship but a deep commitment to personally serving Maine growers, producers and consumers. Their caring and cooperative approaches will undoubtedly support their intentions to build community while meeting food distribution needs in Maine and the northeast region.