For all the excitement around Maine food and the state’s farm-to-table movement, a lot is unknown about the changing agricultural economy.

What kind of policies does Maine need in order to increase the amount of locally grown foods consumed here and exported around the globe? Which economic development strategies work best for the farmers who grow apples and cucumbers and the food entrepreneurs who turn those crops into chutneys, pickles and other value-added products? How does Maine compare with other states that are mining their own Gold Rush food economies, and how can we accelerate our growth? Do we need better distribution channels? Better packaging? Or is it something else?

The answers to some of these questions may be available as early as this spring, when Harvard researchers release the findings of the Maine Food Cluster Project, an in-depth analysis of what is making Maine’s food economy tick and how it can be strengthened.

“We really don’t want to do a study for the sake of a study,” said Craig Denekas, president of the Libra Foundation, which has provided up to about $300,000 for the project through an endowment that honors the late Duane D. “Buzz” Fitzgerald, former CEO of Bath Iron Works.

“Our hope is to really articulate what it is that can be done,” Denekas continued, “and provide some ideas that might not already be on the table.”

The project is being spearheaded by the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School. The researchers are using a sophisticated Web tool that Harvard developed that can analyze government data in specific ways to look for and analyze “clusters,” or particularly powerful segments of an economy.

“Napa Valley is a wine cluster for any number of reasons, including the weather and the soil,” Denekas said, “but, in addition, there’s the interest in food and nearby Silicon Valley and all kinds of interesting things happening there that made it explode the way it did.”

The new research examines whether something similar is happening in Maine, what factors are driving it, and how to help it grow further. Denekas pointed to an “explosion of first-rate restaurants everywhere” in Maine, as well as the growth of community supported agriculture, women-owned farms and artisan food businesses. “There are some really interesting things happening,” he said.

The Maine project has a lot of intellectual firepower behind it, including Michael E. Porter, a leading global authority on strategic competitiveness. Also on the nine-member research team are John Haigh, the executive dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, and Karen Mills, a Mainer who served as head of the U.S. Small Business Administration from 2009 to 2013 and is now a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School.

In addition to number crunching, the Maine Food Cluster Project is conducting online surveys of farms and food-related businesses seeking details about which resources are critical to their success, said Betsy Biemann, director of the project and former president of the Maine Technology Institute.

The researchers will identify organizations working to support and strengthen Maine’s food clusters and will study food clusters in other parts of the country, including in Vermont and Oregon.

Tanya Swain, co-director of the Maine Food Strategy at the Muskie School of Public Service in Portland, said she sees the Harvard research as complementary to some of the work her group is trying to do, including developing a plan to strengthen both Maine’s food economy and the many organizations working to improve the state’s food system. “This can inform where we’re focusing our energy and also gives us something for people to organize around, so I think it’s very complementary,” Swain said.

A summary of the Maine Food Cluster Project’s findings and recommendations will be published this spring.

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