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Maine Feeds Maine: teleconference aims to promote growth of state's local food networks.

Sitting in a classroom in Lewiston, Maine, 20 or so people are watching a bank of four TV monitors showing three similar classrooms located all across Maine, as well as their own. Even though located up to hundreds of miles apart, everyone in each of the four classrooms sees, hears and interacts with all the others as they discuss the "Maine Feeds Maine" project, an effort to accelerate the growth of local food networks in the state.

In addition to Lewiston in southern Maine, the other teleconference participants gathered in Ellsworth on the northern "Down East" coast, in Dover-Foxcroft in the state's forested interior, and in Fort Kent on the Canadian border, 350 miles north of Lewiston. Such teleconferences are made possible by the Maine Distance Learning Project, with equipment in more than 90 secondary schools around the state and the ability to interactively link four sites at once.

The multi-site, audiovisual-linked format meant that producers could sit at "virtual roundtables" with retailers, officials, educators and allies without investing the time and expense of a long trip. In all, more than 150 people were involved in the teleconference, with many attending more than one session. In written evaluations, most participants said they benefited from the exchange of ideas.

Participants in Lewiston included senior managers from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which provided 10 million pounds of food to more than 600 Maine charities in 2007, and Lewiston Mayor John Jenkins. Also included were a few producers and a dozen organizers, advocates, educators and activists who focus on nutrition and health, sustainable agriculture, local food infrastructure, farm policy and related topics. In Ellsworth, a similar broad base of stakeholders met, while in Dover-Foxcroft Cooperative Extension educators joined in. In Fort Kent, most of the participants were producers.

Focus on local food

John Harker, marketing specialist with Maine Department of Agriculture, directed the distance learning system for all four Maine Feeds Maine discussions. He says the project should have a profound effect on the future of local food networks, and that having producers participate in discussions was a key to the success of the effort.

The project grew from stakeholder discussions with members of Cooperative Maine, a newly formed statewide group of people committed to growing the state's co-op economy, and the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI), a member of the national service co-op CooperationWorks! Since Cooperative Maine is not yet incorporated, CDI served as administrator for the project grants from Northeast Farm Credit, Farm Credit of Maine and the Maine Community Foundation. CDI staff also played key roles as project advisors and in helping to manage the database, registration and participant communications for a demanding lineup of four multiple-site events.

Cooperative spirit reigns

"Maine Feeds Maine has given people ideas and resources to follow up on and tips on where to find funding," says CDI Executive Director Jen Gutshall. "It has put them in touch with folks who are a few steps further along a path similar to the one they intend to go down. Not surprisingly, because of the generosity of people sharing all this information, knowledge, expertise, insight and hard-won wisdom, a lot of cooperative activity has sprung from these four sessions."

Gutshall says this activity includes both "small 'c' cooperatives" (those not formally organized as a cooperative, but operating much like one), and "big 'C' cooperatives" (businesses that are formally incorporated as cooperatives). "In short, the project accomplished exactly what we hoped it would--probably far more than many people thought it would," Gutshall says.

For example, a group of young farmers in Washington County in Down East Maine (where unemployment hit 10.9 percent in March 2008) who had drifted apart began meeting again. Carly DelSignore and her husband, Aaron Bell, of Edmunds, live on Tide Mill Organic Farm, which has been in the Bell family for nine generations. DelSignore credits their participation in a Maine Feeds Maine session for sparking new energy to explore cooperative ventures. She says she values co-ops not only for the economic benefits members derive from them, but as a means to build community with neighboring farm families. (For more information about the farm, visit: www.tidemillorganicfarm .com.)


Producer-oriented distribution

Maine Feeds Maine also brought Tide Mill Farm--which produces organic chicken, pork and grass-fed beef, produce, milk (sold under the Stonyfield brand), fruit and other products--together with Crown O'Maine Organic Cooperative (COMOC), a statewide distributor of local food supplied by more than 35 Maine producers. COMOC is based in the far north of the state, operating from the Grand Isle farmhouse of Jim Cook. The Cook family operated a thriving organic potato farm before starting a successful local food distribution company. COMOC travels five routes across the state year around, picking up and delivering local food to local people. "Doing a route like the [Down East] one is very resource-intensive," Cook points out. "We need more stops along the way."

Now COMOC has established a new route that links Tide Mill Farm and Washington County with existing runs further south. New buyers have come on board all around the state, in the form of restaurants, retails stores, schools and local buying clubs. The COMOC Website was recently overhauled by Tom Roberts, co-owner of Snakeroot Organic Farm, who met Jim Cook through their participation in Maine Feeds Maine. Roberts also authored a primer on "How to Start a Buying Club," which COMOC hopes will spur growth of these small-scale buying groups.

"The story of how the Crown O'Maine hooked up with Washington County and Tom Roberts is one example of how the Maine Feeds Maine discussions moved all this activity forward by connecting people who might not have found out about each other for years, or ever!" says CDI's Gutshall. CDI is now working to promote additional Maine Feeds Maine efforts in the Down East region and elsewhere. A lively program about the project aired Jan. 25, 2008, on WERU-FM community radio's "Talk of the Towns" hosted by Ron Beard, a Cooperative Extension educator who facilitated three of the Maine Feeds Maine sessions. It is archived at: tott-20080125.

By Jane Livingston


Co-op Summit slated for Indiana

The Indiana Cooperative Development Center (ICDC) is planning another Co-op Summit Conference in October. Last year's summit "really spotlighted how cooperatives empower people to improve the quality of their lives," says Debbie Trocha, ICDC's executive director. "This type of forum helps cooperatives create new business-to-business opportunities for themselves, and focuses attention on making the cooperative business realm as solid as it can possibly be. This year we plan to use all local speakers from Indiana cooperatives."


The summit will include interviews of co-op officers and members by a local radio host and a panel showcasing the diversity of the cooperative business model. A "best practices" session will be followed by a session in which co-op challenges and solutions will be discussed. The summit will conclude with local wine-and-cheese tasting.

The one out-of-state "import" on the slate is Brent Hueth from University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, who will talk about the results of research on the economic impact of cooperatives in the United States and, in particular, in Indiana. Although cooperatives contribute more than $210 billion to the nation's economy, employ more than half a million people and serve nearly 130 million members, the cooperative business model is still not widely understood--even by the millions of people who purchase goods and services from co-ops.

The Indiana Cooperative Development Center provides innovative, results-oriented and cost-effective services to cooperatives and related organizations. Visit their Website:
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Author:Livingston, Jane
Publication:Rural Cooperatives
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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