Saturday, March 8, 2014
By Avery Yale Kamila email@example.com
VAN BUREN — Sisters Marada and Leah Cook, who run the Crown O'Maine Organic Cooperative distribution company, make their living selling locally grown and raised foods, and often serve as de facto spokespeople for Maine's local food movement.
Marada, left, and Leah Cook, right, who are launching a company to process Maine-grown organic vegetables, talk to Kate Bathras, center, manager of Bathras Market in South Portland, about products from their organic food delivery service.
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
Maine Fresh seafood pies
Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer
But Marada has a confession to make: "I'm a mom, and I buy baby carrots from California every week."
It's not that she's passing by the Maine-grown baby carrots in favor of vegetables from away. She buys the California carrots because local baby carrots don't exist.
To solve this baby carrot conundrum, Marada and Leah are launching a new business called Northern Girl that will make it possible to purchase a Maine-grown version of this supermarket staple.
By fall, the pair will be running a vegetable processing plant in Van Buren, where they will initially create organic-cut potatoes, cut root vegetable medleys and frozen broccoli. The organic baby carrots, which are whittled from full-sized carrots, should hit store shelves by fall 2012.
The products will be distributed to restaurants, grocery stores and markets throughout New England.
"How many of us have had a rutabaga in the fridge forever?" Marada asked. "But a bag of peeled, cut root vegetables wouldn't last more than a week in the fridge."
The desire to make the bounty of Maine's vegetable farms more accessible is one of the motivations for this endeavor.
"We'll be able to process the vegetables into forms that get them into new audiences," Marada said. "It conquers so many obstacles."
Another motivation behind the enterprise is the desire to pay farmers a professional wage for their crops and help preserve the Aroostook County farming tradition.
"That's a big challenge," Marada admits. "But it's worth a shot. It's worth trying."
Most of the food processed by Northern Girl will come from farms in Aroostook County's St. John Valley.
Unlike the smaller farms in southern Maine that often sell direct to consumers through farm stands, farmers markets and CSAs, the farms in Aroostook County tend to encompass hundreds or thousands of acres and sell to commodity buyers who demand high volumes, low prices and contracts that can't be counted on over the long term.
The volatility of these international markets, coupled with the paltry prices, force farmers to become mega-farms, go out of business or find a niche market.
Northern Girl aims to be one such niche market. The company intends to cultivate partnerships with midsize family farmers who want to access the growing number of consumers looking to buy local food. Marada estimates that Northern Girl will eventually sign contracts with individual farms worth $30,000 to $50,000 a year.
The town of Van Buren is a significant backer of the Northern Girl project, and is using a $350,000 Rural Development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to build the processing facility. It will lease the building to Northern Girl at a favorable rate.
In addition, Northern Girl was recently awarded a $300,000 grant from the Finance Authority of Maine to allow it to buy processing equipment that will cut, peel, blanch and freeze vegetables.
To start, Northern Girl intends to process 500,000 pounds of vegetables a year and employ six people, with more coming on seasonally. Should the company be successful, the number of employees would grow.
"This fits right in with what we're trying to do up here," said Van Buren Town Manager Thomas Cannon.
He said the town is looking for other entrepreneurs who want to start food processing businesses that would support the area's agricultural base.
Based in nearby Mars Hill, Naturally Potatoes is one such food processing business, but on a much larger scale.
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Slaw-cut kelp, harvested and packaged by Ocean Approved
Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
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Three heat-and-serve products from Naturally Potatoes in Mars Hill.