Marada Cook is on a morning sales call. And not just any sales call; she’s at IDEXX Laboratories, meeting with food services director Kim Cassella for the first time. Cook is the public face of Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative, a distributor of Maine grown, harvested and/or value-added foods. The combination of a fierce intelligence, an ease with language and an almost nonchalantly forthright nature – as if she might not be capable of even a politic fib – has made her a dream panelist for various conversations about Maine’s food future.

But she’s also a saleswoman. The prospect of selling local food to the diagnostics technology company is business. Big business; Cassella feeds 2,500 people in Westbrook on a daily basis.

Cook listens intently as Cassella probes. Cassella loves local. Her customers at IDEXX also love local. When they start filing in for lunch, maybe they’ll have a “Knox” (County) sandwich or a piece of redfish from the Gulf of Maine. IDEXX employees drink free Carrabassett Coffee, roasted at the foot of Sugarloaf, all day long, which beat out other coffees in a company-wide taste test.

Given that both IDEXX and Crown O’ Maine are native to the state and share a feel-good vibe (the first company was founded on innovations in the pet care business, the second on small-time organic family farming) it seems like an ideal match, even if one company is very big and the other still relatively small. A rarity in the corporate world, IDEXX doesn’t contract its food needs to a broadline distributor (a distributor that would deliver virtually everything a company or institution needs). Cassella is a food service director who works with Sysco, NorthCenter and Native Maine. She picks, she chooses. There’s an opening for Crown O’ Maine. And that opening could serve as a portal for small and mid-sized Maine farmers into new markets with reliable customers – the hard-to-come by opportunity that many farmers and the broader state agricultural economy need in order to grow. In just a few short years under the leadership of Marada Cook and her sister Leah, Crown O’Maine has built its reputation on developing this kind of connection.

But Cassella needs to keep her food costs down. She needs consistency. If she did order produce from Crown O’ Maine to serve at IDEXX, what condition would it be in?

“I can’t pay someone for three hours to wash kale,” Cassella says.

Cook has a dramatic puff of almost red hair; it’s not messy so much as it is freewheeling. Those are probably her dressy clogs she’s wearing. She’s not corporate (although if Modern Farmer wanted to do a style piece on inadvertently chic Maine agricultural mavens, they’d be begging to photograph the Cook sisters). This is probably why she answers with such easy equanimity: Fresh basil from Maine wouldn’t be washed. It doesn’t hold up. Neither do sweet potatoes, an unusual crop for Maine. But “the greens always come washed.” No extra work needed.

Cassella goes on with her questions. Will she be told what town everything comes from? (Yes. And if it’s a root vegetable, unless it’s a sweet potato, it’s going to be from The County.) Is Crown O’ Maine properly insured? The $5 million insurance policy with idemnity, check. What about price?

“My pricing is going to be higher,” Cook says, carefully. “We’re paying the farmer what they need to be sustainable.”

But with volume comes discounts, she says. And she’ll steer Cassella to the products she knows she can deliver. “We wouldn’t sell you local raspberries,” Cook tells her. “I can never get enough of them.”

Then she hands over the hefty samples she’s brought with her, a 5-pound bag filled with cubed beets and another of root vegetables ready for roasting, both from Northern Girl, the processing company Marada and Leah started in 2011. And finally, the 20-page pricing list for Crown O’ Maine. Cassella does a double take as she starts to turn the pages; there’s a lot more here than beets.

Over big bowls of chicken broth loaded with vegetables and ancient grains, Cassella turns the pages, occasionally looking up to grill Cook about items. She’s intrigued by the shark and wants specifics, like how small a dice she might get on those Northern Girl beets. They talk tofu; Crown O’ Maine distributes Heiwa tofu from Belfast. It’s good stuff, the company is poised to get bigger and Cook assures Cassella the supply is reliable and definitely not “run of the mill.”

“Can you get me blue potatoes?”

“I can,” Cook tells her. “It wouldn’t be hard to do!”

THE COOK MYTHOLOGY

There’s no ink on a deal when Cook leaves IDEXX, but it looks encouraging. The mood at the beginning of this cold call was by no means chilly. Cassella definitely knew who Marada Cook was. But maybe there was some skepticism. Cassella might not have realized the breadth of the business (Crown O’ Maine distributes vegetables, meats, seafood and value-added products from 200 plus Maine farmers and harvesters). She certainly raised an eyebrow when Cook told her Whole Foods takes 1,200 pounds of that roasting medley and 400 pounds of those beets a week and listened attentively when Cook pointed out that she’d be making her first delivery to Mercy Hospital the next day.

But Crown O’ Maine is bathed in such a romantic Maine agricultural mythology – everything from hippie parents to home schooling and home births – that maybe some people expect Cook to be pulling produce out of the back of her old Volvo station wagon with the roots still attached.

In the parking lot after the sales call, Cook stands behind the bumper of that Volvo and sketches out the family history that gave birth to that mythology.

Her father James (Jim) Cook and mother Kathryn (Kate) Simonds met when they were students at the University of Colorado Boulder. They dated, broke up and then reconnected after both had transferred to the University of Maine, bumping into each other in a hallway in Orono. She was a Maine native, he was from Long Island. After college he sold cars for a living, but wanted to farm. They started their family with one set of identical twins, Marada and her sister Rivera, then two years later had Leah, followed by a second set of identical twins (boys this time) Land and Skylar a year later. In the 1990s, they moved to Aroostook County, to a 500-acre farm in Grand Isle and started growing potatoes and carrots from their own Skylandia Organic Farms.

Jim and Kate built a cooperative with other farmers, including Jim and Megan Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm. Some things about it worked, other things did not, but always the children were by their sides, working in the potato barn, going on sales calls, doing demonstrations in health food stores throughout New England. Six-foot-6 and bearded, Jim Cook was the image of a farmer. Or Grizzly Adams. He was on the road three weeks out of the month and people responded to this giant farmer with the big personality and passion for good food.

At home, Kate was feeding the children and overseeing the quality of the product in the potato barn. “She was stalwart,” said Mike Gold, Maine Farmland Trust’s farm marketing manager. He first worked with the Cooks early in his career, in the 1990s, and remembers Kate as making sure everyone was drinking enough water and staying warm. “It was dark and cold in that barn, and she kept the morale going.”

In 2008, Gold went back to work with Jim Cook again, helping him with what had evolved into Crown O’ Maine but was functioning as essentially a one-man shop (the Cooks had split up). Cook had been living with diabetes and was now facing esophageal cancer; he needed more reinforcements. So he called in Marada, who had graduated from Hampshire College in Massachusetts and was thinking about farming in Maine, asking her to come help him with sales meetings. She had one small child (born at home) and another on the way (also to be born at home, as was her third child with mechanic Ryan Redmond) and freely admits she knew barely anything about business. She was starting to think she didn’t know much about farming either. But when her father died from complications of the cancer – a blood clot – a few months later, she understood enough about the books to know he owed people money.

She decided to settle those debts. And once she did, she just kept on going.

Before she departs the IDEXX parking lot in Westbrook, she gives a Cook family caution. “Don’t forget Leah,” she says. Her younger sister, 30, shies away from the limelight, but she’s been a full partner since about a year after their father’s death. Just how full a partner Leah is will be clear after a visit to their leased warehouse, Marada Cook promises.

MY SISTER’S SISTER

Crown O’ Maine’s street address is 960 Main St. in North Vassalboro but there’s no obvious indicator, no sign telling you that you’ve arrived. The best bet is an old brick building, the only thing around that seems big enough to be a warehouse. The sign out front says it’s the Kennebec Bean Company, although that went out of business five or six years ago. At least when you get to the door in the rear, there’s a Maine license plate marked with the letters COMOC nailed to the wall next to it. Eureka.

Leah Cook explains they just haven’t gotten around to putting up a sign. But everyone who needs to find them seems to manage to do so.

She also says there’s a reason Marada does the speaking engagements.

“Marada could do retail,” Leah says. “I would always rather just decamp to my warehouse.”

If a Crown O’ Maine truck needs jumpstarting in the middle of the night, it’s Leah who does it. “No one can stack a pallet like I can,” she says.

She shows off the various coolers, freezers and production rooms the Cook sisters built inside the old woolen factory turned beanery, all with panels the family scored from an old Native Maine warehouse (Jim Cook was friendly with one of Native Maine’s owners, who offered him a chance to strip an old warehouse when Native Maine moved to its Westbrook facility. Free stuff? They jumped at the chance).

“We’re not afraid to make the solutions that we need,” Leah Cook says.

Or go looking for new products that will work for the stores, restaurants and institutions Crown O’ Maine serves. If they sense a need in the marketplace for something they think someone in Maine can grow, make and package, like say, organic popcorn, they approach farmers, or ask MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association) for help finding potential vendors. By way of example, Leah scoops a bag of apple chips out of a box, the latest value-added product from Apple Acres Farm in Hiram. “This is new,” she said. “It’s pretty basic but it’s being done well. And it’s something people want.”

Another room houses the equipment for Fiddlers Green, an organic stone mill that used to operate in Belfast, until the Cook sisters bought it and brought the operation into the Crown O’ Maine fold. The walls of the mill room came from Native Maine as well. Tucked away in another corner are more leftover Native Maine cooler panels; the Cooks never know when they might need to build something else. The panels have come with them on three warehouse moves. “We’re hoarders,” Leah Cook says. “It was such a gift.”

So was working with her father, watching him connect the dots between the farmers he knew from Aroostook County and potential customers in health food stores in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. One of the Cook children would usually accompany him. Leah picked up new skills, like braiding the edges of calzones or becoming conversant in GMOs, while waiting for her father on sales calls and deliveries. “We may be young but we’ve been working a long time,” she said.

As an adult, after graduating from Reed College, she joined him for a while as a Crown O’ Maine driver, looping around the state doing pickups and dropoffs. She left to do the Peace Corps in Suriname in 2008, just six months before his death. When she jumped into the business after returning from South America, it was a “crucible.”

But Crown O’ Maine’s sales nearly doubled in 2009, going from $380,000 to $750,000 in annual sales. Credit goes to the Cook family as a whole, Mike Gold of Maine Farmland Trust said. “When Marada was able to step up, and then get her sister involved, it created a new energy, a young energy,” he said. “I think the community really responded to that energy. People recognized what a pioneer Jim had been and what they had just been through, and there was an outpouring of support that helped take the company to the next level.”

“They’re providing an essential piece to Maine farmers,” said Samantha Howard, an agricultural promotions coordinator with Maine Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation. “Growing up Aroostook County, I think they know the struggles that farmers face.”

Now they have 17 employees, including themselves, a recently hired chief financial officer and five drivers (two full-time, three part-time) who make about 100 stops on their truck routes around the state every week. Crown O’ Maine has the major potential to keep growing, especially with the more central Maine location in North Vassalboro, Gold said. Every week they get calls from people with new Maine products to sell. They fill a niche for the farmer who has outgrown the farmers market, the CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and is perhaps ready to go deeper into wholesale without becoming a salesperson themselves.

Yet Crown O’ Maine is still small enough, and personal enough, to cater to, say, that two people on Swan’s Island running buyer’s clubs, or someone who wants to be met on the ferry in Rockland to unload goods onto a truck so fast they can turn around and go home again on the boat’s return voyage. And they’re community minded enough to say yes when Catholic Charities needs someone (like Northern Girl) to quickly process and freeze six pallets of donated cauliflower so that the needy will have local vegetables in the dead of winter.

Jim Cook had laid the groundwork for a business that was just beginning to take off at the time of his death. His vision, Leah Cook says, was always about the long haul.

“If our family had been crossing the prairie with a land schooner, he would have been the one to say, ‘See that smudge on the horizon? That’s where we are going.'” Their mother was more practical. “My mom would be the one saying ‘Jim, do you know if there is water between here and there? Is there anywhere we can sleep on our way?'”

If he was a bear sometimes, the man who could cock an irritated eyebrow at his kids and make them wilt, their mom Kate, who lives in Maryland now, selling furniture and doing interior design, was “our own personal Mary Poppins,” Leah Cook said.

So does the same thing happen between the two sisters? Who would lead the way across the figurative prairie now?

“If Marada and I are on a prairie schooner?” Leah Cook thinks about this for a minute. “She says, ‘I think that is what we want to do, what do you think?’ And I’m like, ‘Isn’t that a mirage out there?’ And she’ll say something really interesting that she happens to know about a mirage, and we’ll talk about it, then we’ll go forward. It’s a really good balance. Just naturally.”