STARKS — The group that wants a former Grange hall on Route 43 to one day be a local food hub is one big project away from opening, according to the group’s president.

The Maine Alternative Agriculture Association wants the building to one day be a collection point for local farm products that can then be distributed to central Maine food clubs.

It also wants to create a bakery and kitchen there for preparing local farm products, and it hopes to eventually open a small rural restaurant featuring Maine foods.

The association’s last large project is a well and filtering system, said Paula Day, president of the nonprofit group, which has worked for nearly three years to refurbish the historic building.

The $10,000 to $15,000 water system is necessary to get a license for the commercial kitchen. Then the building can open for retail sales of coffee and bakery products and to classes about cooking, freezing and canning fresh food.

“That’s the last big step before we can open up at least minimally,” Day said.

The alternative agriculture association held an open house about a year and a half ago after it completed major renovations with the help of a $199,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The group built a new kitchen and bathroom, insulated, painted, and installed new floors, plumbing, wiring, doors and windows. It’s also now handicapped accessible. And it has root-vegetable-storage space to become a collection and distribution center for up to 40 tons of locally grown vegetables, fruits and other products.

The unfortunate part about the open house was that people wanted the food hub open immediately, Day said. A lot of work had been done, but more was needed.

“We haven’t gone away. We’re still working on it. It’s just going more slowly,” she said.

Since the open house in July 2010, the organization has installed an eight-by-24 foot walk-in cooler, put a slate roof on the wood-fired brick oven outside, built partitions in the basement for root crop storage and completed lighting in what will be the dining room.

The Plum Creek Foundation recently awarded the project a $2,500 grant, which will be used to install sinks in the kitchen and for other interior work.

Day said the Heart of Maine Resource Conservation and Development Area accepted the grant on behalf of the Maine Alternative Agriculture Association. It acts as a fiscal sponsor for organizations that do not have the federal tax status needed to receive funding from private foundations.

The Starks project has also benefited from a grant from the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education for planning purposes and outreach to farmers. The plan is to partner with Maine farmers who are devoted to soil management because nutrient-dense soil produces nutrient-dense plants, Day said.

“We want this to be a local foods hub. We want to bring in agriculture products from area farmers that are superior in their taste, their quality, their farming standards,” she said.

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]

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