Time and Tide RC&D, a seven-county nonprofit established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recently released the results of a survey of area farmers intended to gauge how many would expand production if a place to store their produce and better transportation were available.

The survey was initiated by Jan Anderson of Belfast, who, as a city councilor, championed the creation of a food storage facility in Belfast. Now out of office, Anderson said she sees the construction of a food storage facility as a high priority, but has doubts about her role in the project.

If built, Anderson said, a food storage facility could allow area farmers to expand production, diversify their farms and sell more of their goods locally, contributing to a stronger local economy and reducing the county’s carbon footprint in the process.

Seventy-one farmers completed the 10-question survey, which was circulated at five agricultural fairs during the summer of 2009, including the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine Farm Days in Clinton and the Spring Running riverfront festival in Augusta.

Among the questions asked were “What factor(s) most limit sales for your farming operation?” “Were there a market for it, would you be able to expand production?” and “Which of these factors (production, storage, marketing or processing) most limits our local food system?”

On the last question, storage was listed by more respondents than any of the other choices, by a wide margin. The availability of labor was also cited as a limiting factor.

Ron Desrosiers of Time and Tide called the findings “preliminary,” given the relatively small sample size. The 2007 Census of Agriculture lists 424 farms in Waldo County alone. The survey targeted farmers working within a 50-mile radius of Belfast — an area that, as the crow flies, includes all or most of Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox, Kennebec, Hancock and Waldo counties and portions of six others.

“It gives us some insight, but a lot of the time when you do a survey like that, it raises questions to be answered,” Desrosiers said. “Everybody wanted to know, what am I going to be paid? What’s the contract price?”

Desrosiers speculated that farmers with established markets wouldn’t be likely to expand production without some assurance that it would pay off.

“The terms would need to be pretty good,” he said.

Anderson served as Ward 4 city councilor from 2007 until 2009, when she lost her seat to former Mayor Mike Hurley. Near the end of her term, she successfully pushed for the creation of an economic development director position, for which the city is currently in the process of hiring. Her main motivation in pushing for the position, she said, was the hope that the new hire would see the broader economic benefits of locating a food storage facility in Belfast.

Anderson said she may continue to work on the project, but she expressed some concern that it would become so identified with her that the “right person” might not come forward. “They’ll continue to say, ‘That’s Jan’s project, and it’s her baby, and she’ll keep working on it,'” she said. “I would be an impediment, and that would be a mistake.”

As a farmer of 30 years, Anderson said she didn’t need a survey to tell her that the area would benefit from a storage facility, but she undertook the study on the advice that it was necessary to move the project forward.

“The restaurants are ready for it. The hospital, the schools, all of those big institutions, they all can be brought into the plan,” she said. “But it’s going to take some work by the right person,” she said, “and I don’t think I’m that person.”

Until recently, she had been of the mind that any expansion of local food production would have to come from the community, but a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly drew her attention to an alternative that surprised her.

In “The Great Grocery Smackdown,” author Corby Kummer details Walmart’s Heritage Agriculture program, in which the mega-retailer buys produce directly from small farmers within a day’s drive of the company’s warehouses. The program was started in an effort to compete for the local and organic market with Whole Foods.

“When I read about Walmart in the Atlantic Monthly, I said, that’s the idea I had, in a nutshell, and Walmart is doing it because it will be profitable for them,” Anderson said.

Anderson, who was the candidate of the Walmart opposition in the 2007 elections in which she defeated Robert Gordon, acknowledged the irony of the idea that a Walmart could save the Belfast economy.

“I’m not a big supporter of Walmart, but they won my vote on that one,” she said.