Growing our Food Economy

Maine is in the midst of a local food renaissance, which is evidenced by more new farms with new and beginning farmers, with expanded markets and increased output. Maine is one of only a handful of states where the total number of farms in operation is on the rise rather than on the decline, and the growth in young farmers here is faster than any other state in the country.  Restaurants are featuring local food up and down the coast, and small-scale food production is increasing.

Despite this incredible growth and success within the Maine food economy, many farm and food businesses face significant challenges to become socially, financially and ecologically sustainable. Many farmers’ markets have plateaued in growth and farmers often have to piece together many markets to stabilize their sales in ways that may not be financially and personally sustainable. Far too many farms are not breaking-even and are dependent on large doses of non-farm income. The small scale of many farms in Maine is both key to the food system’s success (because it permits high quality production, ecological stewardship, and face-to-face interactions between farmers and consumers) and can be costly and inefficient in key ways.

Agricultural cooperatives can allow Maine farmers to maintain the individuality and small scale that is critical to success, while facilitating cost efficiencies that can lead to more farms and farmers, healthier and more sustainable profits, greater access to healthy food for middle- and low-income consumers, and a more resilient food system.

Cooperatives can also help small, mid-sized and larger farms reach more markets, including institutional markets here in Maine and outside our borders.

Dairy cooperatives have been a core component of our dairy industry and Cabot Creamery and Organic Valley, two producer-owned cooperatives, have both contributed to the stabilization of the industry in the face of volatile prices and decreasing processing capacity.

Worker-owned farms can help new farmers more easily start their operations and own their own land by pooling capital and expertise. The development of more worker-owned farms in Maine could help to stabilize the industry while transferring farms to the next generation of farmers. Recently, New Roots Cooperative Farm was started in Lewiston, where four Somali Bantu refugee farmer-owners have come together to share land, infrastructure, and marketing.

Cooperatives have provided a significant role in building our lobster industry, with 19 lobster co-ops up and down the coast of Maine helping individual lobstermen to have a dock and system to bring their products to market. Traditionally, fishermen have organized informal or formal cooperatives to assist them in gaining access to markets, and now there is interest in the emerging aquaculture industry to explore ways to use cooperatives to benefit their businesses.

Cooperatives are also found in Maine’s food production, restaurants, grocery stores, distribution and seeds, all vital components of our food system. Some of these businesses are worker-owned cooperatives while others are owned by consumers, producers or a combination of stakeholders.

Our consumer grocery store cooperatives in Maine have been long-time champions of local farms, helping provide a market for many farms before local and organic became common household concepts. The newer stores that have opened, including the Portland Food Co-op, Marsh River and Eat Local Eastport, have focused on supporting purchasing from a wide range of Maine producers, expanding markets for people throughout Maine. Our largest local food distributor in the state, Crown O’Maine Organic Cooperative, is worker-owned, a conversion from an existing sole-proprietorship.

Many independent grocery stores in the state are members of Associated Grocers of New England, a 70-year-old business cooperative that is owned by the grocery stores themselves. Fedco Seeds, a worker and consumer cooperative, started out of a similar cooperative distribution company in the 1970s and now survives as a leading provider of seeds, trees, bulbs and other garden products to Maine’s gardeners and farmers.

Worker cooperatives, such as Local Sprouts Cooperative in Portland, are helping their workers gain better pay and work conditions in the food industry, which is notorious for low pay and abusive work conditions. Farmers are also able to receive better prices and more consistent markets both through agricultural and consumer cooperatives.

Within all these facets of the food system, aging owners present similar challenges to those in other industries. 400,000 acres of farmland in Maine will soon change hands due to the age of farmland owners. New data coming out of American Farmland Trust shows that 92% of Maine farmers over the age of 65 do not have identified successors, underlining the risk that much of our State’s farmland could transition out of farming use as it goes through generational transfer, potentially threatening the future of Maine’s food security. Similarly, many of our rural grocery stores face uncertain futures as their owners near retirement age. Conversion of our farms, grocery stores and other elements of our food supply chain to worker-owned businesses, will help to preserve much-needed employment and access to food, while increasing the economic opportunity for the workers in these businesses.

New Roots Cooperative Farmer, Mohamed Abukar. Photo by Greta Rybus, courtesy of Cultivating Community.

We see growth potential in the food economy when businesses are rooted and connected through cooperative ownership. Cooperatives can expand their impact by helping to rebuild our food infrastructure, secure existing farms and food businesses, and connect together existing food businesses. Cooperatives have long played a role in providing infrastructure such as processing and distribution to food producers, and in the next decade multi-stakeholder efforts can bring together private and public entities to create new processing capacity, slaughtering facilities, cold storage and distribution. Additionally, existing facilities and infrastructure could be used more efficiently and fully through cooperative agreements and structures.

With many Maine farms and rural grocery stores expected to change hands in the next 10-20 years, we need to act now to secure these core components of our food infrastructure before they disappear and more of our communities become food deserts, farmland is developed and the jobs are lost. Worker cooperatives can provide an effective way for these existing business owners to sell to their workers and stabilize and secure these businesses for the future (read our profiles of Rock City Roasters and the Island Employee Cooperative). Cooperatives can also assist individual producers in the food system - whether a fisherman on the coast, an artisan food producer in Portland or a farmer in Aroostook - to reach markets, access support services, and procure inputs at more affordable and stable prices. By working together, the food system could overcome economic challenges and provide food to more people in Maine and the region, thus creating more jobs and economic security for those in the industry.