March 12, 2010

Access to local food sprouting on Web

BETH QUIMBY

— By

Staff Writer

Maine farmers, fishermen and others are working to create a new delivery system to connect customers with locally produced food and agricultural products.

The idea is to set up an online grocery store that would take orders for the wide range of produce, fish, meat, poultry, dairy and other agricultural products produced around the state. A warehousing and distribution system would be part of the venture, which may also include a retail store and commercial kitchen for food processing.

''It is time to move the marketing for Maine's local foods into the 21st century,'' said Stacy Brenner of Broadturn Farm in Scarborough.

Dubbed the Maine Street Marketplace, the delivery system is the latest initiative by Maine farmers to meet the growing demand for locally grown food, fueled by concerns over global warming, high energy prices and food safety.

Brenner and Penny Jordan, co-owner of Jordan's Farm in Cape Elizabeth, are leading the initiative, along with the Greater Portland Council of Governments, the Cape Farm Alliance, Threshold to Maine Resource Conservation and Development, and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County.

More than 140 people have registered for a session to plan the network. It will be held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Glickman Library at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

''Our goal is to bring people together and connect the dots,'' Jordan said.

As demand for locally produced food has grown in the past decade, farmers' markets have opened around the state. During the height of the growing season, Cumberland County has at least 10 farmers' markets, and York County has at least six.

Other farms operate farm stands or sell shares of their upcoming crops to customers, known as community-supported agriculture ventures. Fishermen have started community-supported fisheries projects that allow customers to buy shares of their daily catch.

In addition, groups such as Portland's Food Now Buying Club, which purchases locally grown organic foods in bulk for its members, are gaining fans in Maine. Winter farmers' markets also have begun to spring up.

But many of those efforts are inefficient, Brenner said, and people around the state have trouble accessing the full range of Maine-produced food.

Community-supported agriculture ventures typically require customers to drive to the farm to pick up their produce. The demand for community-supported agriculture far outstrips supply in southern Maine, and there is no way for those customers to access produce from farms in other areas in the state that may be looking for customers.

Also, not all consumers or farmers find farmers' markets convenient, Brenner said. ''A farmer in Aroostook County cannot drive down for the Portland farmers' market.''

Brenner said the initial goal is to have the online ordering site and warehouse and distribution network ready for the 2010 growing season. That will require setting up a Web site that makes ordering Maine-produced food as easy as buying a book from Amazon.com, she said.

The delivery network will rely on Global Positioning System technology. Brenner said her group has been researching how networks work in other states and countries, and the group will be looking for grants and other sources of funding.

Registration information for Tuesday's planning session is available from Colleen Hoyt of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension at 780-4205.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

bquimby@pressherald.com

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