Leah Cook opens a door to a room-sized cooler at Crown O' Maine Organic Cooperative's warehouse in North Vassalboro, releasing a gust of cool air. Inside, she points to foods the co-op has collected from Maine farmers and producers and will soon distribute to restaurants, retailers, buying clubs and co-ops all over the state. A five-gallon plastic container of milk from MOOMilk, a Maine farmer-owned organic dairy collective, lies in a box near shelves of bagged celery, steamy with condensation. Bundles of multicolored carrots and Hungarian hot peppers rest next to cardboard boxes full of local eggs.
While five gallons of milk and several pounds of carrots might overwhelm the refrigerator of your average household, they'd hardly meet the needs of a typical supermarket chain. It's that middle ground between where Crown O' Maine has found its niche. "Growers don't want to sell 10 pounds of something, but restaurants want to buy 10 pounds of something," Leah explains, sitting in the co-op's office in an old mill building that formerly housed the Kennebec Bean Co. "Part of what we do is to be the translating medium to get [food] in the form so the end user can use it." Along with produce, Crown O' Maine also distributes seafood, value-added products like dilly beans and apple sauce, cheeses and Maine-made canola oils.
Leah co-owns the cooperative with her older sister, Marada, and credits her sibling with its dramatic growth from humble beginnings in the Cook family van. The Cooks' father, Jim, founded the co-op in 1995 in their home of Grand Isle, traveling to Boston to knock on doors seeking buyers for organic potatoes from his farm and others in northern Maine.
After he passed away in 2008, Marada, pregnant with her second child, took over, embarking on a crash course in guiding a business through an unanticipated 40% to 50% growth curve. She incorporated the business as an employee-owned cooperative, formalizing relationships with farmers and welcoming outside help. Since then, Crown O' Maine's gross sales have roughly tripled to more than $1 million annually. "It was obvious there was lots of business waiting to happen from my dad's inbox," Marada says, with her third child, 2-month-old Arthur, nestled in her lap.
The co-op's distribution roster averages about 150 clients annually. Both women applaud their clients for patiently sharing Crown O' Maine's growing pains and accommodating its delivery schedules and product requirements. "It does take work to do business with us, whether you're a customer or a farmer," Leah says. But the co-op's vision for improving access to local foods by strengthening Maine's network of growers, gatherers and producers clearly makes that work worthwhile for many.
After spending the last year and a half learning the ins and outs of business planning and financing, with help from the Small Business Development Center in Augusta, the Cook sisters are now in the midst of founding a new venture. Along with Chris Hallweaver, an investor, they're starting Northern Girl LLC, a company that this month will begin processing and packing Maine-grown conventional and organic produce, including kitchen-grade potatoes and other second-quality goods, from a temporary facility in Limestone. Armed with a $200,000 grant from the town of Van Buren to build a new facility there, and a $300,000 grant from the Finance Authority of Maine to purchase equipment, Leah and Marada expect Northern Girl LLC to help diversify northern Maine's agricultural industry beyond traditional commodity markets. "It's really tied to the place," Leah says of Northern Girl.
The sisters — neither has any formal business training — have completed feasibility studies, lined up financing and taken other steps their business advisers have taught them. But now, they're following the advice of someone closer to their hearts, someone who wasn't afraid to dive in and take action. "Our dad used to say, 'Well, let's rock n' roll,'" Leah says.