Even the most idealistic conversation about Maine’s ability to sustain itself with local foods runs into the icy roadblock of winter. Supermarket chains, including the ones that actively seek out local foods to sell, want reliable supply all year-round. Supporters of the idea say to meet that demand, Maine farmers would need large-scale greenhouses, which most can’t afford to fund on their own.
And few banks or lenders would be willing to make the investment to help them build that infrastructure. Between the costs of heating the greenhouses and the potential for not finding a market, it’s too risky.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Tony Kieffer, managing partner with MaineAsia LLC, which has been working on the dilemma with the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society and a coalition of agriculture, energy, industry and academic institutions around the state.
But the group has reason to be optimistic; a $497,280 grant from the Maine Technology Institute announced Thursday will help fund four energy-efficient solar projects throughout the state, each intended to demonstrate that Maine agriculture doesn’t have to shut down in the winter. Two of the projects to be funded by the grant are affiliated with state academic institutions. In Fairfield, Kennebec Valley Community College will use their part of the grant to fund a part-time manager for a high-efficiency solar-powered greenhouse on its new Alfond campus, where students are studying sustainable energy, sustainable agriculture and starting this fall, culinary arts specifically oriented to farm-to-table cuisine.
“This is just amazing for us,” said KVCC president Richard Hopper. “It’s the perfect timing for us to build a photovoltaic greenhouse.” Food grown in that greenhouse will be used by students in the cooking program and feeding others, on campus and beyond. He hopes some will go to food kitchens. The new campus already has 76 laying hens, 10 pigs and five beef cattle. He still must find the resources to erect the structure. “This is going to fund one year of someone who can make sure we get it right,” he said.
The University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute in Orono is building a carbon-negative solar-powered structure to house its Arctic research equipment (they call it the Extreme Environment Education and Research Building). Nothing will be grown there, but how it generates its own power will provide data for future projects. It could be the model for future solar-heated barns for livestock or warehouses for storing potatoes.
In New Gloucester, Olivia’s Garden, already one of Maine’s year-round agriculture success stories, will use the technology for an aquaponic greenhouse with integrated photovoltaics; they’ll grow fish alongside vegetables and herbs, like the hydroponic lettuce and basil the company is known for. Buxton’s Little River Farm, which already grows flowers for Whole Foods in Portland, will put in a greenhouse that may allow it to expand sales to Whole Foods in other parts of New England, as well as vegetables.
“Growing in-ground organic produce at Little River Farm and to be able to do that year round?” Kieffer said. “That is sort of the Holy Grail … What we’re trying to do is take away the risk of the energy prices.”
And also to lower the risk to chains like Hannaford and Shaw’s by providing them with a steady stream of Maine-grown vegetables and produce, one that doesn’t shut down in November and – it is hoped – will be cheaper for the consumer.
“We’re after the triple bottom line,” said Mark Hews, the executive director of the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society. “Profitable farms, healthy ecosystems and we want to see strong communities.”
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: