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Producer Cooperatives in Maine Food System

Producer cooperatives have had a central role in American agriculture for the past 150 years and are continuing to grow in Maine and the Northeast today.   In a producer cooperative, individual producers, such as farmers or fishermen, are owners of the cooperative, which provides services such as marketing, aggregation, distribution, and value-added processing.   Producer cooperatives can provide ways for farmers or fishermen to share equipment, land, cold storage, or labor.  The following are some new producer cooperatives that are forming in Maine, along with some existing Maine-based producer cooperatives that are expanding their operations.

In recent years, New American farmers from Africa and Central America have been farming at a few different sites around Lewiston and Portland.  Many of these farmers are associated with the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP) through Cultivating Community.  They have marketed under the brand of Fresh Start Farms and now these farmers and the Cultivating Community are exploring cooperative structures for their marketing and distribution.  The New Roots Cooperative Farm is a new producers cooperative that will share land and equipment, and will develop market access for New Americans.  The five owners of New Roots are Somali Bantu people who farmed traditionally in Somalia and have now been farming in Lisbon for around 9 years with NASAP.  Another group, the Sustainable Livelihood Relief Organization, was started from within the Somali Bantu community in Lewiston and is now working to cooperatively access land and start a farm outside of the city.  

Port Clyde Fresh Catch formed in 2007, bringing fishermen together in order to market and distribute their fish directly to consumers and to wholesale markets.  They started Maine’s first Community Support Fisheries and have continued to work to shift the fishing industry in Maine.  Port Clyde Fresh Catch joins other existing fishing cooperatives including Stonington Lobster Co-op and the Vinalhaven Fishermen’s Cooperative, both of which have been supporting fishermen on these islands for decades with shared infrastructure and market access.    

Gail Edwards has been an herbalist in Central Maine since the ‘70s with her business Blessed Maine Herb Farm.  She has now started Maine Organic Herb Growers Cooperative which is growing, processing and distributing bulk herbs, with a focus on milky oats and oat straw.  She wants the co-op to work with more growers in order to expand the herbal products she can offer to other herbalists.  

Two new local foods retail stores, the Marsh River Co-op and Eat Local Eastport, have opened up in Maine in the past year. They are organized as producer and consumer co-ops, where farmers and local community members are joined together in ownership.  This multi-stakeholder model can bring people together in ownership across the food system.

In conclusion, with the current focus on food hubs in many food system conversations, the producer cooperative is an important model of ownership to explore as a means to keep the food hub benefitting the producers.  A recent USDA study of food hubs compared different ownership models and found that producer cooperatives were, on average, more successful and had greater economic benefit for the producers.  The term “Food Hub” describes the role of aggregation, marketing, and distribution that producer cooperatives have often played in the food system for many years, thus producer cooperatives are a viable way to sustain the livelihoods of producers and create a resilient local food system.  

In our next blog post we’ll learn about some of the new consumer food cooperatives that have been starting up in Maine.

Jonah Fertig is a cooperative developer with the Cooperative Development Institute in their rural cooperative services program. He co-founded Local Sprouts Cooperative in Portland, the Machigonne Community Land Trust in Portland, the Portland Urban Agriculture Sub-Committee that is part of the Mayor’s Initiative for a Healthy and Sustainable Food System, Cooperative Fermentation, and more.

Featured Image of Portland Fish Exchange courtesy of Susan Tompkins, Rising Tide PR