s-mainestreetmarketplace-021309 Farmers hope to stimulate economy via online market
PORTLAND — Mainers could have a new way to access locally grown food, if Penny Jordan and Stacy Brenner have anything to say about it.
Jordan, of Cape Elizabeth's Jordan Farm and Brenner, of Scarborough's Broadturn Farm, have taken up an idea they're calling the Maine Street Marketplace. The venture is proposed to better connect Maine consumers to Maine farms and fisheries by running an online marketplace with centralized distribution. It would leverage new technologies and old ideas to build a farming infrastructure and pipeline that increases the vitality of Maine agriculture.
While there are many growers "working tirelessly" on the effort to improve the lot of local farmers, Brenner said, Maine Street Marketplace hopes to "connect the dots."
"We don't want to put anyone out of business, we want to work together," Brenner said.
The project is modelled after work done by Jordan and the Cape Elizabeth Farm Alliance, but taken to a larger scale.
Paul McKenney, president of the Greater Portland Council of Governments and, like Jordan, a town councilor in Cape Elizabeth, said that while Jordan and Brenner's efforts will remain private-sector, government access to resources and the ability to change public policy to support the project could be invaluable.
Government work would be done based on previously developed principals to acheive sustainability, which include the protection of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries.
Of the $3 billion Maine households spend on food each year, Jordan said, Maine farmers get around $50 million – less than 3 percent of what's spent.
"If we make bold moves," Jordan said, "we can change agriculture in Maine."
In a state with underutilized farmland and the need for economic growth, Jordan said something like the Marketplace is an ideal opportunity.
"This economy is taking us back to a local economy," she said. "If we can drive food back to the local economy, we can increase economic development in the state."
Jordan and Brenner are looking to harness other initiatives and energy in the state to make that change.
At a conference last week at the University of Southern Maine, nearly 175 people from around the state came to hear about the Marketplace concept and brainstorm challenges and solutions to make it happen.
Brenner said she only expected about 75 participants, and was encouraged by the turnout.
The project, Jordan added, depends on the "brain-trust" represented by the crowded room of farmers, restaurant and market owners, fishermen, bakers, cheese makers and elected officials.
"You're the people out there doing what we're talking about," she said.
In their presentation, Brenner and Jordan expressed a hope that through the work of Maine Street Marketplace, Maine might be viewed as a leader in the local food movement.
The Marketplace model involves a centralized Web site giving consumers access to all member farms and fisheries, which would have their own sections of the site.
Producers would benefit from direct sales, but share a distribution center, the first of which would be in southern Maine. The Marketplace would also include pickup and delivery services, and might include small storefronts and farmer's markets.
"This doesn't replace what's there now," Jordan said, "it adds another dimension for consumers" looking to access local produce.
Jordan compared the project to a similar venture in Addison County, Vt., which has brought farmers together on a central Web site to sell products. The conference also included speakers Marada Cook of Crown of Maine and Tanya Swain of the Western Mountains Alliance, both of which could be used as smaller models of what Brenner and Jordan hope to achieve.
Jordan said the women hope to leverage what's happening now "to maximize this whole state from a food sourcing perspective."
Stephanie Gilbert of South Portland, at the conference representing the state Department of Agriculture, said she was "thrilled" by the Maine Street Marketplace idea, especially because it focuses on collaboration rather than reinvention.
That perspective, she said, specifically referencing the presentation made by 26-year-old Cook, "is one of a young farmer with the wisdom of learning from the successes and failures" of those who have gone before.
That, and the brain-trust Jordan spoke of, Gilbert said, is how a venture like this is going to happen.