Even before it officially has a roof overhead, Unity Food Hub LLC has embarked upon a number of initiatives designed to move more local farm products to customers.

Established in June by Maine Farmland Trust, when fully operational the food hub will be an aggregation, marketing and distribution center for farm products. Set up as a for-profit business, the hub will explore a range of approaches to help farms sell what they produce and increase consumer and institutions’ access to local foods.

More, it’s to be a “living laboratory,” a learning tool to help farms and related agricultural businesses.

Through MFT’s farm viability program, the organization has learned farmers are interested in diversification, wholesaling and other ways to grow and thrive. In addition, prospective and existing food hub owner/operators around the state have contacted MFT seeking technical assistance and advice.

“It made sense to create a working model food hub for Maine,” said General Manager Matthew Tremblay, a former legislative aide to Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins on agricultural matters.

“By operating the food hub, we’ll gain a great deal of knowledge,” he said. “We’ll use that to help farmers deal with wholesale marketing, aggregation and distribution.

“At the same time, Maine Farmland Trust will be learning as well from this living laboratory. A few years down the road, MFT will spin off the food hub distribution business, but will continue using the knowledge from this experience to advise and counsel other existing and prospective food businesses.”

Building relationships

Come next May, Unity Food Hub will be operating from the former Unity Grammar School, now being remodeled to suit its new purpose. (See related article.) Tremblay is overseeing that construction project.

Simultaneously, he has been working since last May “to get the business operating by creating systems and securing the necessary infrastructure for us to begin operations.”

A critical component of Tremblay’s start-up plan was to begin forging relationships with farms. Helping to build those connections is Colleen Hanlon-Smith, who is “focusing on farmers and on product procurement and sales — she’s our ‘veggie wrangler,’” he said. Hanlon-Smith was the first executive director of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets.

To date, Unity Food Hub has established working relationships with more than 25 farms in Waldo County and Central Maine, with approximately 10 percent coming from outside those areas and all products sourced from Maine farmers and producers.

A preliminary list includes Appleton Creamery, Circle B, Commonwealth Poultry, Buckle Farm, Black Fox Farm, Curra Farm, J+C Farm, Freedom Farm, Hahn’s End, Heald Farm, Kinney’s Sugarhouse, The Milkhouse, Six River Farm, Swan’s Honey, Sugar Hill Farm, Village Farm, Win Pressor Farm, Emery’s Meat, Snakeroot Farm, Tide Mill Farm, The Apple Farm, Dorolenna Farm, Veggies For All, Sandy Meadow Farm, State of Maine Cheese Co. and others.

“Over the winter we’ll be talking with these farms and others to plan for 2015,” Tremblay said. “Winter is the time farmers plan for the coming year, so we’ll be planning our strategy, what we’re going to sell next year, make sure we have what we need — so we’ll all be able to start the new growing season in the spring and be in an excellent position to really take off.”

Developments to date

In other aspects of its multipronged market approach, Unity Food Hub has:

– Built a temporary cold storage facility on Buckle Farm, owned by Jim Buckle, in Unity.

– Obtained a license from the state to maintain food inventories at Buckle Farm in cold storage and dry storage.

– Secured a $100,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that will allow the Food Hub to purchase product handling and washing equipment, provide technical assistance for business planning and four-season farming, and provide outreach throughout the state on lessons learned during the two-year grant period.

– Leased a refrigerated truck, which is kept at Buckle Farm, to transport food from farms to storage, and from storage to consumers and institutions.

– Begun gathering food from farms and delivering it to Spectrum Generations’ Meals on Wheels program in Hallowell, Tall Pines’ assisted living facility in Belfast, Mount View schools in Thorndike and Unity College.

– Helped MFT expand a discounted multi-farm winter Community Farm Share program for low-income seniors and those eligible for SNAP/EBT benefits. Maine Farmland Trust inaugurated this program in Unity in 2011 as a first step toward aggregating this market and forming a food hub. This fall, Unity Food Hub extended the CFS program to include a Belfast mini-market location and expanded its reach to 150 monthly customers.

– Introduced a pilot workplace program of Community Supported Agriculture shares to employees of Maine Farmland Trust and Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Fairfield.

Community Farm Shares

For the CFS program, Tremblay and volunteers gather and deliver food items on the first and third Wednesdays each month through March to Unity Community Center in the morning and to First Baptist Church in Belfast in the afternoon.

Volunteers set up each site as a mini-market, with displays of labeled product samples and clipboards on which subscribers check off what they wish to order. Tremblay and two volunteers fill the orders, packing boxes from supplies in their truck outside. Customers then check out and pay for their food.

Food selections include meat, poultry, eggs, milk, cheese, vegetables, fruits, apple cider, maple syrup and more, provided largely by local farms.

While Unity Food Hub pays farmers in full for their products, the CFS program’s low-income participants pay just 50 percent of the purchase price for their food. A John T. Gorman Foundation grant reimburses the food hub for the difference.

“Our first market [Nov. 5] went very well in Unity and Belfast,” Tremblay said. “We moved a lot of food and folks seemed happy.

“We had between seven and eight volunteers working at the locations and we did about $3,000 in sales. All told, it was a successful first day with a lot of positive feedback.”

Workplace CSA

The workplace CSA program is also going well, offering small and large vegetable shares, a meat share and a dairy share.

“It’s exciting getting started this fall with CSA shares in workplaces,” Tremblay said, “and we’re very pleased with the program’s inaugural year. We had a total of 39 people sign up for 52 shares — some purchased more than one.”

All this is being accomplished despite logistical challenges. At present, the Food Hub gathers food from participating farms, stores it at Buckle Farm, cleans vegetables in a commercial kitchen in the Unity Barn Raisers’ building, and sells the food in Fairfield, Unity and Belfast locations.

“I can’t wait to have everything in one building,” Tremblay said, alluding to the Unity school building being readied for the food hub operation. “It’s going to make life a lot easier.”

Rewarding work

A Fort Fairfield native, Tremblay has nurtured an interest in farms and food for most of his life — beginning as a member of Future Farmers of America in high school. While in college, he worked for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service in Presque Isle as an integrated pest management scout, scouting potato fields for disease and insects. Scouts catch problems early, when they can be taken care of; scouting also determines whether an issue is serious enough to warrant spraying — and if the issue doesn’t meet the spraying threshold, it saves farmers money.

After earning a degree in finance, with a minor in law, from Bentley College, he signed on as a commercial loan officer for a few years with Farm Credit in Maine.

Then for two and a half years he worked on Capitol Hill for Senator Collins, focusing primarily on agricultural policy. He left the Senate post to attend culinary school, worked briefly for a restaurant in Alexandria, Va., and then joined a start-up nonprofit in Virginia “where the work was dealing with food hubs, but they didn’t have full financial support,” he said.

Following a brief stint with another business, Tremblay returned to Maine to start up the Unity Food Hub for Maine Farmland Trust.

“It’s been very interesting,” he said. “When I first started working on food hubs, back a couple of years, they were still a very new thing. I went to a conference this spring in North Carolina that focused on food hubs and aggregation, and there were people there from every state and two provinces in Canada.

“It’s amazing how quickly things have changed — in 2011, attendance at a similar conference was by invitation only, and it drew only a handful of people. No one knew much about food hubs then.”

Nonprofit Maine Farmland Trust created the Unity Food Hub as a for-profit venture and plans ultimately to spin off the food hub and offer it for sale to its principal stakeholders — employees, farmers and/or others — but that's looking well down the road, Tremblay said.

“We’re still at the beginning," he said, "with a lot of infrastructure and logistical issues to be worked out. But it’s exciting work, rewarding work.”