SKOWHEGAN — The Somerset Economic Development Corp. sees a future in which local farmers raise food for local people, providing jobs and business support while relieving poverty and improving nutrition in rural Maine.

And it all starts with grain — bread as good food — says corporation President Peter Schultz, owner of Dirigo Stitching in Skowhegan.

The corporation unanimously approved an Agricultural Development Plan, calling for the restoration of grain production in central Maine and expanding Skowhegan’s role as a regional food hub.

Schultz said the nonprofit corporation has agreed to act as the fiscal sponsor for the food hub. It will be the clearing house for all future state, federal, private and foundation grants to be used for grain production, grist milling, trucking, baking and sales.

“This is a big deal because this is local — raising food that you don’t have to transport across the country. We eat it right here; raise grains to make bread, and people have jobs doing it,” Schultz said. “The skills are already here, the land and resources are here. This can make a big difference here, using the farmland productively, making the soils healthier, giving people healthier food to eat and creating jobs.”

Shultz said the current form of agriculture is not sustainable because it is based upon petroleum products: pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers.

“The food that you have in (supermarkets) isn’t necessarily the most nutritious, or the most flavorful,” he said. “They tend to be crops that are raised for appearance and transportation ease — they can be grown anywhere in the world. Nutrition and taste are not the foremost factors.

“I think there’s a very good chance of a renaissance in the agricultural community of Somerset County, based upon this. This used to be a major grain producing area; Somerset County was the bread basket for Boston.”

Amber Lambke’s Somerset Grist Mill in the former downtown jail is to be the center of the food hub, along with the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market in the mill’s parking lot.

“The most important and exciting thing about the SEDC being involved is that SEDC is stepping out to support agriculture as an issue of economic development,” Lambke said. “That’s new for them; it’s incredibly important to this area and has terrific potential with the popularity of local foods right now.”

The plan for the 14,000-square-foot grist mill also includes stone ovens for baking, a retail store to sell bread and locally raised fruits, vegetables, meat, cheeses and possibly a restaurant.

“A food hub is an increasingly used term nationwide to describe the co-location of complimentary businesses that address local food distribution — and sometimes health and wellness,” Lambke said. “We also are addressing low-income access to local food.”

Lambke said philanthropic organizations are showing interest in farms and food ventures. The corporation’s role in the food hub will allow these charitable organizations to contribute to the various programs because corporation is a non-profit, she said.

Lambke said incentives including state electronic benefits transfer cards, also known as EBT cards, and SNAP, supplemental nutrition assistance program, previously called food stamps, will get more people to buy wholesome foods. Those programs aim to encourage low-income families to come to the farmers’ market for food by offering two-for-one discounts on fresh food.

Somerset Heart Health also is a partner in the food hub, she said, because that group addresses obesity problems in children and tries to get local food into local schools.

Lambke said grant money also is in place for a multifarm community supported agriculture program, in which farms sell shares in the spring of their projected yield.

“SEDC’s work here is important because nationally there is a lot of discussion going on about food deserts,” Lambke said. “A food desert is a place where we ask — where is that rural family going to go get fresh, locally produced food and how are they going to get there if they don’t have a car. In some communities that’s taking the form of mobile markets or programs that deliver.”

Skowhegan attorney and former state Sen. Peter Mills said he has long supported the concept of buying food that is produced locally. Mills, interim director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, said he assisted in writing the resolution adopted by the corporation.

“There are a number of foundations interested in promoting local agriculture in distressed areas, like Skowhegan,” Mills said. “It has to do with the Kneading Conference, the farmers market and the attempt to create a grist mill and expanding the opportunities for growing grain on land that is currently growing corn and hay or being bush-hogged.”

Mills said foundations such as that of Roxanne Quimby and the Sewall Foundation would be interested in supporting the slow food movement locally in Maine.

“The slow food movement, as I understand it, is to promote locally grown food and ways of making it available, economically for consumption locally — to get food directly from the farm to the table,” he said. “It keeps money circulating in Somerset County, instead flowing it out to the Midwest and California. It’s ideal work for (corporation director) Jim Batey and the SEDC to be engaged in; it’s kind of thing they should be promoting.”

The corporation is funded publicly through taxation under the auspices of the county commissioners and through private donations from such entities as Skowhegan Savings Bank, Cianbro Corp., Waste Management Inc. and various hospitals.

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