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Washington County is rich.

Rich in land, water, soil and supportive resources according to John Piotti of Maine Farmland Trust.  Rich in farmers and growers that have passion, resilience, and a desire to build a bigger, more cooperative community according to Ken Daye of SCEC.  They have imagination as well as fight, as Sam Cheeney of Salty Dog Farm makes so clear.  Most have made great sacrifices to stay here, or to get here, a sentiment that echoed from room to room at the first Washington County Food Summit, held in East Machias last Saturday.

Those who attended have an understanding of adaptability, and are in many ways idealists and pioneers. They want to make a better life for themselves, others in the community, and this planet.  They spoke of responsibility and sustainability, affordability and accessibility.  Making a decent living doing what you love, and a keen recognition that farming is different now.  Beyond simply planting, raising and harvesting, it now requires an understanding of technology, marketing, product and brand development, legal and political savvy, processing, and distribution beyond one’s town square.

Some of those of the over 150 attending focus on produce, others on dairy, and others on raising livestock.  Still others are focusing on emerging markets such as seaweed and regionally unique garlic, grapes, wine, cheese, and other indigenous specialty foods.  Many are already providing food for schools and institutions, and SNAP acceptance was a frequently discussed topic.  Building more co-op markets and buying clubs that provide a healthier yet affordable alternative to our many supermarkets where blueberries and lobsters come from Canada and vegetables readily available here come from South America was championed. And they want their neighbors, and their neighbor’s children to be able to reap the benefits.

Despite formidable odds, they want, and work, to farm food here.

This is the brave new world of today’s local, usually family-owned and increasingly first-generation/second-career farmer. And they know they will have to dramatically rethink agriculture and aquaculture to survive.

Perhaps nowhere is this movement more personified than right here in Washington County.

At the Food Summit, made possible by numerous corporate sponsors, municipal and non-profit organizers, and an army of volunteers, the goal was to provide a fertile environment for networking and information sharing, educate and identify stakeholders in this expanding economic system, and showcase the multitude of resources that exist for those who already have a “ticket to farm”.  It was debated whether County emphasis should be put on attracting new farmers and their supportive industries or cultivating the ones that are already here.  

“The energy, involvement and engagement of Washington County growers, retailers and processors is part of very strong movement,” stated Judy East of the Washington County Council of Governments. “The Food Summit reflected and supported that. It provided a platform for magic. I know there were valuable connections made here, across these sectors.” 

Perhaps the most frequent theme among all attendees was “How do we get to the next level?”.  The summit focused on exactly that, regardless of one’s role in this landscape, so very important to the growth of Washington County.

Numerous resources were identified, including some in development such as UMM’s GIS mapping program for Maine food systems and the now available Cobscook Bay Resource Center’s commercially available kitchen, flash-freezing and processing center.

When asking, as a number of growers did, “what should I grow?”, it became clear that cross-platform communication is key.  People like Mirada Cook from Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative are the ones that have the pulse of the overall retail market and where there are gluts, and where there are gaps.

It is expected that over the next two weeks the organizations behind the Summit will present concrete next steps based on surveys, committee reviews and attendee evaluations according to Judy East.

The Summit was sponsored by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Machias Savings Bank, Bangor Savings Bank, Hannafords and Whole Life Market, Elm Street Elementary School, Quality Deer Management Association and Farm Family Insurance.  It was organized by the Washington County Council of Governments, Washington County: One Community, GROWashington-Aroostook and the Maine Farmland Trust.

More information can be found at http://www.wccog.net.

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