The Slow Money Maine conference held Thursday, Nov. 14, at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast gave 140 participants a chance to meet and network with some of the local players in the movement that is building a local, sustainable food system in Maine and positioning the state to become a major food producer for the whole Northeast region.

Slow Money Maine (SMM) is a statewide network organization that supports food systems and food infrastructure by helping people to invest locally and providing financial support and technical assistance to small farmers and food-infrastructure businesses.

“We’ve catalyzed $8 million over the food sector in Maine and [that figure] is growing,” said Kari Leuhman, administrative assistant for SMM. “You don’t have to be a big investor to be involved, there’s a place for everyone in the network. Even if you are just somebody who shops at farmers markets, you’re a part of Slow Money."

Fuzzy Udder Creamery

Fuzzy Udder Creamery, currently operating at South Paw Farm in Unity, was one of the businesses that benefited from support of Slow Money. SMM worked with Coastal Enterprise Inc. and the Farm Service Agency to get planning assistance and investor support for the business’s upcoming move to an expanded facility in Whitefield. Speaking at the conference, Jessie Dowling, the creamery’s owner and operator, said cheese making is on the rise in Maine because of the ease of obtaining a license here, and because of the supportive environment provided by the dairy industry, dairy inspectors and the Maine Cheese Guild, an organization that hosts open meetings and workshops for anyone interested in learning cheese-making techniques.

“People are really flocking here to be cheese makers and to preserve artisan techniques and old European styles of cheese making,” Dowling said. Dowling focuses on French and Italian style cheeses, and particularly enjoys making fresh hand-stretched mozzarella. Her cheeses can be found at the farmer’s markets in Portland, as well as various retail locations around the state. She and her six ewes and six goats will be moving to their new facility in Whitefield in December.

“I’m moving because I have the opportunity to own a property for the first time and the facility [in Whitefield] is larger, but the one thing I’m most sad about is leaving Waldo County," Dowling said during the morning break. “Unity is an amazing place to be farming.”

Belfast’s Food Hub

Another enterprise Slow Money Maine supported by finding investors, grantors and lenders and providing technical assistance is Coastal Farms and Foods Inc., which opened its doors in September 2012 at the former Moss Inc. facility in Belfast. The facility is serving as a “food hub,” for the storing, processing and distribution of locally-produced foods. Food hubs are an important part of the infrastructure needed to get small and mid-sized farms' products to markets, and are a priority for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We’re focused on increasing market opportunities that food hubs and farmers markets create,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday. “Increasing farmers markets and food hubs are integral to the department’s plans to continue to diversify income and job opportunities in rural America.” Since he was appointed in 2009, 2,800 more farmers markets and 140 more food hubs have arisen across the country.

Two tenants at the Coastal Farms and Foods gave the SMM conference participants a tour of the Belfast facility.

Heiwa Soy Beanery

Bonnie Rukin, coordinator of Slow Money Maine said of Heiwa Soy Beanery Owner Jeff Wolovitz, “Jeff was one of our earliest presenters at a SMM gathering and helped to bring awareness of the need of small producers and farmers for financial support in the absence of infrastructure businesses focused on storage and processing.”

Now, with a kitchen he leases at Coastal Farms and Foods, Wolovitz is able to process 1,000 pounds of tofu a week. His plans to increase production include adding second kettle and a second person, doubling production while making the work more fun; introducing  half-gallon bottles of soymilk which will increase his product sales by 50 percent; and developing a retail pack — he sells bulk tofu in buckets now — which he thinks will allow him to sell an additional 10,000 pounds of tofu next year.

With all these developments on the agenda, he foresees needing two and a half times the 12-13 tons of organic soybeans he went through last year. While many organic processors across the country are turning to China for their organic soybean supply because not enough is being produced in this country to meet demand, Wolovitz is determined to source all his soybeans locally. Of the 50,000 pounds of organic soybeans he has gone through in the past two years, 48,000 pounds have come from Maine and 2,000 have come from Vermont. This year he still needs to find suppliers for 4,000 to 12,000 more pounds of soybeans.

“As some of our new products come to the shelf over the next year, by 2015 we'll definitely need a lot more [soybeans]," Wolovitz said. "With the growing grain industry in Maine, I am looking to find some farmers to plant and harvest soybeans as part of a grain crop rotation.”

Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen

Another business that was able to expand operations by moving to Coastal Farms and Foods is Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen. By day, Wixson works as an organic marketing consultant for the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association (MOFGA). Through her work there, she realized that while Maine consumers enjoyed Maine food in summers, they had no way to do so all year. She was inspired to start a company that could fill that gap by freezing and processing Maine-grown foods, and distributing them through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares from November through April. From a home in Bangor with walk-in coolers in the garage, a warehouse in the living room and a 12-gallon kettle in the kitchen, her company was able to produce 10,000 units in 2012.

Since moving her operations to Coastal Farms and Foods in spring 2013, she has been able to increase production, so far this year processing 17,000 pounds of tomatoes, 20,000 pounds of apples and 3,000 pounds of cucumbers, all sourced from 51 organic Maine farmers. The move has also helped Wixson develop some efficiencies of scale. Now she has access to 20-, 40- and 100-gallon kettles, and can buy jars, sugar and maple syrup in bulk, which allowed her to reduce unit costs by 20 cents a jar.

Her vision is to develop value chains. “Everyone along the way, we pay a fair price," Wixson said. "Farmers get paid fairly, distribution gets paid fairly. We now have a crew of six — that’s six new jobs generated. But none of that is possible unless we make products the customer is willing to invest in."

The CSAs also serve as a way of gathering market data. Though monthly specials, new products can be introduced to find out which would be successful. To get the broadest range of data, the company also offers a scholarship for families who cannot afford the $300 shares. From her market research she has determined that apples, cranberries, and blueberries are the products that Maine has the best capacity to meet larger markets.

And larger markets are what she and other Maine farmers are after. “Now we have a limited distribution to the 1.3 million people in Maine, but there are 20 million people outside the state borders," Wixson said. "The good thing about my work for MOFGA is that I have a lot of farmers who want markets outside the state, so we’re all going to be working together to build this equitable, sustainable food system.”

Fair Food Network

The conference’s keynote speaker Oran Hesterman, president and CEO of the Fair Food Network, believes that access to healthy, fresh and sustainably grown food is a basic human right. He sees childhood obesity, the increased risk of coronary heart disease in low-income communities, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and the living and working conditions of farm workers all as symptoms of a broken, out-of-control food system.

“Some say that in order to solve the problem of childhood obesity or poor health in low income communities, you need to change people’s behavior with a carrot and a stick — the stick being the ban on sugared sweet and beverage purchases with food stamp money,” Hesterman said.

This spring, Maine tried to pass just such a bill, LD 1411, which would have banned the purchase of junk foods with food stamps, but the bill died in a committee in June.

Hesterman continued, “What I’m here to tell you is that you don’t need a stick, what you need is a better tasting and affordable carrot! If you provide healthy food that’s affordable and accessible, people will buy it. It’s happening.“

He described a program the Fair Food Network developed in Detroit, Mich. called “Double-Up Food Bucks” that allows people in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to use their food stamp money at farmers markets, and then receive that same amount back in benefits that can only be used on Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables. The program has been tremendously successful, putting 3 million pounds of healthy food on low income families’ tables, while at the same time channeling $5 million to local farmers since the program’s inception five years ago.

The Fair Food Network is working to scale this model up to the rest of the country through the Farm Bill. The 2008 Farm Bill allocates 80 percent of the $300-400 billion agriculture budget to SNAP. That 80 percent represented $78 billion in 2012.

“I dream about what could happen if we can take just 1 percent of that money, $780 million, and start directing it toward healthier food and into the pockets of local farmers," Hesterman said. "That’s not just a solution; it is actually a redesign of the system that solves a lot of issues at the same time.”

Hesterman said that in the bill under consideration by the Senate and House committees now there is a provision for federal dollars to match the philanthropic dollars that currently fund Double-Up Food Bucks programs. The Senate version includes up to $100 million toward extending and scaling up Double-Up programs across the country, even in Maine.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday “We’re pleased that many farmers markets are using the SNAP EBT system to enable SNAP beneficiaries to utilize their EBT cards at farmers markets. Now we have more than 3,000 additional market opportunities for SNAP beneficiaries. All these effort on behalf of …beginning farmers and ranchers does require quick passage by congress of the Food Farm and Jobs bill.”

While the Double-up Food Bucks program the Fair Food network stimulates demand, The Fair Food Fund fuels entrepreneurship in the food system by providing financing and business assistance to food enterprises that are connecting small and mid-scale local farmers with the growing demand for the local and sustainable food. Hesterman called Bill Eldridge of Moo Milk to the podium, saying “This is the first of what we hope will be many investments that we will be able to make here in Maine, to help continue to build out local and regional food system,” as he handed Eldridge a check for $200,000.

“It is with great pleasure that I accept this check from the Fair Food Fund,” Eldridge said. “This will enable us to purchase 33 cows for some of our smallest farmers in order to move them up to a sustainable level.”