May 1, 2013

New in the frozen food section

A processing facility opening this summer in Topsham will provide farmers all over southern Maine with another market for their fresh produce.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Tod Yankee, left, and Jamien Richardson talk with Kathy and Pete Karonis at the Karonises’ Fairwinds Farm in Topsham. The farmers plan to sell some of their crops to Maine Harvest Co., a new enterprise being started by Richardson and Yankee in the former Navy Commissary in Topsham.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Tod Yankee, left, and Jamien Richardson visit with Kathy and Pete Karonis in a greenhouse at the Karonises’ Fairwinds Farm. Yankee and Richardson’s Maine Harvest Co. will provide “us, the farmer, an opportunity to market some of our seasonal produce throughout the whole season,” said Pete Karonis.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

The produce that goes to budget-conscious institutional kitchens can be sold at a lower cost because it's not first quality. Every year, farmers have some green beans, for example, that are a bit blemished or misshapen, but not rotten or decayed. They've simply lost their eye appeal to the consumer, who is always searching for perfection. These veggies typically end up in compost or as pig food.

Richardson and Yankee want to take those less-than-perfect beans and cut them into shorts or French them.

They'll capture the normally lost value of not-so-perfect strawberries by turning them into strawberry smoothie mix for school lunch programs, college dining facilities, hotels and other large institutional kitchens.

Richardson and Yankee have about 30 farms interested in selling to them, and 12 have already signed letters of intent to provide fruits and vegetables for the company's first season.

"We want to do 500,000 pounds this year, working up to 1.3 million by year three," Richardson said.

They'll begin in July and August with green beans, tomatoes and edamame, and transition to squash and pumpkin in the fall.

SPANNING SIX COUNTIES

Eventually, MHC hopes to do business with farms in six counties -- Cumberland, York, Sagadahoc, Androscoggin, Kennebec and Lincoln.

The company doesn't anticipate having its own equipment in place until September, so for the summer they are working out an arrangement with Northern Girl, a similar business in Aroostook County, to take their produce. That way, they won't miss the entire growing season.

Richardson says she and Yankee have no interest in competing with Northern Girl, which processes mostly root vegetables and broccoli. On the contrary, they would like to be able to do things like send Northern Girl its surplus crops for processing, and vice versa.

"We don't want to put other people out of business," she said. "We want to create opportunity where it was not there before, and establish an industry working group within the state of Maine where we can share best practices and we can share equipment."

Christopher Hallweaver, general manager of Northern Girl, said that if Maine is serious about making local foods more available, it will need dozens of similar value-added food processors around the state.

"If we're going to feed Maine local food," he said, "then we need lots of Northern Girls. We need lots of Maine Harvests."

Mark Lapping, a distinguished university professor at the Muskie School of Public Service who is an expert in food-systems planning and policy, said this kind of arrangement where food processors share facilities has been happening a lot in Vermont. He says the idea of it happening here in Maine is "exciting."

"This is really smart stuff," he said.

There are almost 500 commercial food processors in the state, Lapping said, which sounds like a lot, but most of them are home processors.

"The number sounds pretty robust, but in fact they tend to be small, and that's because we've seen over the years an erosion of processing infrastructure in the state," Lapping said.

That means Maine is losing the jobs and money that these facilities bring with them.

MHC anticipates hiring five or six full-time employees and eight to 12 seasonal workers to start.

"The town's very interested in seeing this," said John Shattuck, development director for the town of Topsham, who said he is "wicked excited" about MHC's potential to be a "significant economic development driver" in the community.

Shattuck said food-processing jobs tend to pay better than the typical job in the agricultural sector. And he sees the region's farms as an untapped economic resource, partly because local farmers currently have few options for marketing their products.

"Getting into some of the more productive farmers markets is like trying to get a cab medallion in New York," Shattuck said. "There are limited spots."

Shattuck said consumers are generally much more interested in food now than they used to be, and scary news stories about recalls have made them think more about where the products they put in their grocery baskets originated.

"They're starting to think a little bit more about where they're getting their food," Shattuck said. "Whether they think of themselves as being hip or 'buy local' foodie people or not, this is a real concern. Then you add onto that the energy component. It's getting to be less and less tenable to ship this stuff long distances from the Southern Hemisphere, from coast to coast."

 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at mgoad@pressherald.com

Twitter: MeredithGoad

 

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

A package of frozen green beans from a Maine Harvest Co. test run. MHC will buy locally grown produce from Maine farmers and package it, refrigerated or frozen, for distribution at farmers markets and stores.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

  


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