An organization in rural Mississippi takes fresh fruit and vegetables from 25 farms and distributes it to 152 school districts, making healthy, local food part of more than 60 million school meals last year. Another, based in Chicago, creates 10,000 meals every weekday for 90 schools, using locally grown, organic produce.
Those are just two examples of how the business of small agriculture is being transformed throughout the United States by food hubs, regional groups that aggregate, promote and sell products from small farms, exposing the farms to new markets, such as schools and supermarkets, that they might not otherwise reach by themselves.
Maine could do the same with the approval of L.D. 1431, which would provide loans and grants to support the development of food hubs, and provide guidance to schools that want to use more local food.
L.D. 1431 passed the Legislature overwhelmingly, but it was vetoed last week by Gov. Paul LePage, who said the state should not interfere in the marketplace, and should not push schools to change where they get their food.
The schools, however, are for the most part looking for help in putting local foods on their menus. More important, Maine’s agriculture industry is poised for real growth, here and throughout New England.
On May 1, the bill goes back to the Legislature, which should override the veto and help Maine take advantage of what is a significant opportunity.
That opportunity is underscored by the 2012 Census of Agriculture, released in February, which showed that Maine has more working farms than any other state in New England. From 2007 to 2012, when the number of working farms nationwide decreased by 4 percent, Maine saw a slight increase, from 8,136 to 8,174.
A lot of the growth in Maine came from small farms. According to the report, the number of farms covering 1 to 9 acres increased 15 percent, while mid-sized farms saw a decrease.
Most Maine farms would benefit from the development of food hubs, but small operations in particular could use the extra support provided by the hubs to solidify their business.
That’s what has happened elsewhere.
The Stewards of the Land food hub in rural Illinois includes about 40 small family farms, which get lower insurance rates and access to larger clients and better training in exchange for a fee.
In Mississippi, food from the 25 small and medium-sized farms in the Holmes County Food Hub has reached throughout the South to more than 300,000 students, close to twice the number of students in Maine. The hub also sells thousands of pounds of frozen greens to the state.
And in Chicago, Gourmet Gorilla has reached $4.5 million in annual sales. More than just a source of organizational power, Gourmet Gorilla involves production, as its 45 employees use the output of its regionally sourced vendors to create healthy, fresh meals in a commercial kitchen.
Those are all examples of entrepreneurs taking the initiative to maximize the efforts of local food producers. It is happening in Maine, too, such as with Coastal Farms and Foods, in Belfast, which provides small producers with storage and processing space they otherwise couldn’t afford, allowing the producers to grow their business.
But with a little help, it could be happening on a much larger scale. L.D. 1431 would provide that help, and allow Maine to fulfill the immense potential of its farms.