March 12, 2010

Something fishy going on

Entering The

— hil Gray of Harpswell heads out on the water a couple of days a week to harvest wild Maine mussels.

They have a particularly good flavor, he says, and local restaurants have been hungry for them. He's also had some luck selling them at the Brunswick farmers' markets, including the winter market at Fort Andross.

''I was selling them last summer for the first time at the Crytstal Springs farmers' market in Brunswick,'' Gray said, ''and it was the first time they had any seafood and lobsters, and it went really well. People were really enthused about buying mussels direct from the harvester.''

But Gray is still doing a small volume -- he sells under 1,000 pounds of mussels a week -- so he's decided to try to tap into the Portland market.

On Feb. 8, Gray will be one of the first seafood harvesters to have a table at the annual community-supported agriculture fair at First Parish Church on Congress Street. He'll be selling his mussels for $2 a pound, with a three-pound minimum.

The CSA fair started in Portland just three years ago, and it's always been successful. But this year, it is undergoing something of a growth spurt, adding seven sites to last year's four. And for the first time, vendors will sign people up for shares of lobster and seafood at some of the sites, including Portland.

Other newcomers include a Washington couple who want to sell home-grown tilapia (a freshwater fish) and a group of refugee and immigrant farmers who are raising and selling the foods native to their home countries on a Lisbon farm.


Community-supported agriculture is a way for consumers to become more familiar with locally harvested, seasonal foods, and for farmers to develop personal and financial relationships with customers. Farmers at the CSA fairs on Feb. 8 will have contracts that allow people to buy a share of their farm's harvest up front.

By entering the partnership, the shareholder assumes some of the farmers' financial risk -- if the weather destroys a crop, the farmer's not the only one who loses -- but also shares in the reward of getting fresh, local foods at an affordable price.

Fishermen, the farmers of the sea, have caught on to the idea in the past year or so by offering shares of their catch through organizations such as Port Clyde Fresh Catch. So far, there have been fledgling CSFs -- community-supported fisheries -- in Maine for shrimp, lobster and groundfish.

A byproduct of the CSA/CSF arrangement is that communities grow a relationship with their local boats or farms and become invested in their success.

''I think that's really an important ingredient,'' said Anne D. Burt of the Maine Council of Churches, one of the organizers of the Feb. 8 fair. ''It changes the food system from it being a faceless food system to it being something far more personal and neighbor-to-neighbor.''

Beth Richardson of Slow Food Portland, another organizer of the CSA fair, said that as of last week she had around 70 farmers and fishermen signed up for fair locations from Ellsworth to Saco. The fairs have grown in part because the farmers that have undertaken CSAs in a serious way ''have done really well, and that word is definitely out there.''

But the demand for local foods by consumers is also ''unbelievably strong right now,'' Richardson said. ''We ended up with some of these locations and some of the additional farms by people hearing about it, contacting me and saying, 'Here are my favorite farms, have you asked them to join? I want to buy from them.' ''


It's been something of a struggle to get fishermen to commit to the fairs, but the fact that any are coming at all is a giant leap forward. As of last week, organizers were expecting lobster and mussel shares to be offered in Portland, lobster and shrimp in Brunswick, and mussels in Newcastle. Seafood shares were also expected to be available in Belfast, Orono and maybe Saco and Ellsworth.

''It's taken a little while for the concept of community-supported fisheries to get off the ground, and the nature of the food is really the reason for that,'' explained Jennifer Plummer, CSF coordinator for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance.

''It's different than moving produce, because there's so many regulations around it. It's taking fishermen a while to embrace the concept, and also to change the way they do business so that they can also become that face-to-face customer service person.''

Fisherman have to show their shareholders how to clean their fish, and help them figure out just what they're going to do with five pounds of shrimp every week. ''It's very different from bringing in 1,000 pounds of product to the auction and dropping it off and leaving,'' Plummer said. ''It's not the right fit for everybody.''

Gina Leduc of Freeport and her husband, lobsterman Jim Kuntz, started Maine's first lobster CSF last summer and are planning to be at the Brunswick fair Feb. 8, but are still trying to figure out the details of the deal they will be offering shareholders. Their situation is a good example of how difficult it can be to organize a fishery share.

Leduc said last summer's lobster CSF wasn't profitable for them. Gas prices were high, and their shareholders were fickle. They wanted to ''save up'' their lobsters for special occasions or for weekends when they were expecting visitors.

Pricing the shares was one of the biggest issues. Many of the couple's dozen shareholders signed up when lobster was selling for about $13 a pound. Leduc and her husband decided to sell their lobsters for $8.50 a pound, a real deal for both them and their customers.

''But then as the season went on and the market crashed, people were angry,'' Leduc said.

Those customers didn't understand how a CSA or CSF works. Sharing the risk is just as much a part of the contract as sharing the reward. Leduc chalked it all up to a learning experience.


Burt said organizers are planning to distribute a survey at the Feb. 8 fairs to gauge customers' interest in buying seafood, what kind of seafood they're interested in, and so on. She said it's a way to get more fishermen interested in CSFs by showing them that there's a market for their catches. The details can be worked out later.

Other additions to the CSA fairs this year include Cynthia Rosen and John Stewart, who have sold vegetable shares for the past few years from their farm in Washington. This year, they hope to add home-grown tilapia to the mix.

The couple already has experience raising and selling rainbow trout in their indoor aquaculture operation. They had to end that because of problems with the hatcheries, so now they are turning to tilapia.

They need 10 shareholders to commit to buying the fish at $5 a pound in order to get started, and expect their first ''crop'' will be ready by next fall. Their shareholders would receive fish through the winter.

Fresh Start Farms, a collective of refugee and immigrant farmers who already offer single- and family-sized shares to some workplaces in Portland, will be attending the fairs in Portland and Brunswick this year. The farmers are mostly from Somalia and Sudan, and grow lots of greens that are popular in their culture on a farm in Lisbon.

''They grow black-eyed peas, and they harvest the leaves,'' said Mary Ellen Chadd, training and marketing director for the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project, the organization behind Fresh Start Farms. ''Then they cook them like spinach.''

The farmers also grow mustard greens, squash blossoms, watermelon, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, green beans, okra, and an okra-like vegetable called molakia.

The challenge for their shareholders is being open to something different, because they never know what will turn up in their weekly boxes of produce. A newsletter offers ethnic recipes that use the vegetables, Chadd said, ''and we do some cooking events that we invite CSA members to.''

''I think most of our customers are curious about trying to form a relationship with a farmer who might no speak English,'' Chadd said. ''Maybe they're customers that have done some traveling and are up for surprises in their box.''

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or:

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Additional Photos

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Gordon Chibroski

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Gordon Chibroski

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Gordon Chibroski

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