August 9, 2010 | last updated December 1, 2011 7:40 am
The Third Sector

Farm league | Social entrepreneurs reinvigorate interest in local food systems

When Amber Lambke and Michael Scholz walk through the old Somerset County Jail in downtown Skowhegan, they don't see the warren of empty cells that held 75 inmates until two years ago. Instead, the business partners and proud owners of the 14,000-square-foot building envision what will exist a year from now: pottery and artists' studios, a knit shop, a year-round grocery stocking locally grown food, a commercial kitchen and the four-story Somerset Grist Mill that will produce flour harvested from 600 acres of wheat grown by nearby farmers.

For Lambke and Scholz, the jail and grist mill are integrally connected to the overall revitalization of Skowhegan and to other dynamic projects there, including the Kneading Conference and Artisan Bread Fair, farmers market, the Maine Development Foundation's Main Street-Downtown Network program and two exciting efforts by the Wholesome Wave Foundation to provide financial incentives to low-income residents purchasing locally grown food.

Lambke, a speech pathologist, and Scholz, a baker and the owner of Albion Bread Co., are old and good friends who grew up in Maine and reconnected in 2002. "In the 1800s, Maine was an exporter of wheat and grain, and was considered the bread basket to Boston," says Lambke. "In the 1830s, Somerset County alone produced 239,000 bushels of wheat and there were grist mills along the river." Now, she adds, Aurora Mills in Linneaus is the only mill in the state using local wheat, and they can't meet the demand of Maine bakers.

Lambke and Scholz are social entrepreneurs, not unlike their peers in communities all over Maine who are seeking to demonstrate that the state's economic, environmental and social health and future depends on a recommitment to agriculture and the creation of a sustainable local and regional food system.
This dynamic and committed group of social entrepreneurs includes, but is not limited to: Marada and Leah Cook, owners of Crown O Maine Organic Cooperative; Jonah Fertig and the cooperative that forms Local Sprouts; the dairy farmers behind MOOMilk; the fishermen involved in Port Clyde Fresh Catch; Kirsten Walters of Lots to Gardens; hundreds of Maine farmers and food producers; and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine Farmland Trust.

Lambke and Scholz are attracting enthusiastic community support and funding from a community bank, foundations, individuals and the Department of Economic and Community Development.

This spring, more than 40 Maine foundation leaders and philanthropists spent a day discussing ways to join together to fund a broad range of activities to strengthen the local food system.

Since January, in a parallel effort, a growing group of now 50-plus farmers, investors, nonprofit leaders and philanthropists has been gathering every other month in Augusta to implement and organize around the principles of Slow Money, a national organization with a Maine arm, coordinated by Camden resident and former farmer Bonnie Rukin. Based on a book of the same name by Woody Tasch, Slow Money advocates eschew economic growth at any cost in favor of "slow" investments in local farms and food production that support community and environmental health over time. Members of the group are encouraging organizations such as land trusts to invest at least 1% of their assets in the local food-based economy.

Emerging young leaders

Lambke and Scholz also share another characteristic with others involved in Maine's burgeoning food movement - they are relatively young. Maine boasts the fifth-youngest farmer population in the country, a notable statistic in a state with the second-oldest population, according to Nina Young, lands projects manager for Maine Farmland Trust. The Maine Community Foundation's Broad Reach Fund was so struck by the youthfulness of many new leaders in Maine's food movement that they contracted with the Maine Association of Nonprofits to design a three-year program to nurture a network of 15 leaders, including Lambke.

Maine resident Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, the organization that convinced President Obama and his family to plant a vegetable garden on the White House lawn, points to contrasting statistics that might shape our collective aspirations for agriculture in Maine and elsewhere. On one hand, at the peak of the Victory Garden movement in 1940, household gardens were producing 40% of the nation's produce. On the other, we will need to increase global agricultural production by 70% in the next 40 years to feed nine billion people worldwide.

It may be that national programs - along with Maine nonprofits and foundations, innovative financial incentives and hundreds of energetic, inspired entrepreneurs - are generating answers to a myriad of crucial questions that the "Think globally, act locally" movement first introduced into public consciousness in the 1960s and '70s.

Elizabeth Banwell is director of program development and strategic initiatives for the Maine Association of Nonprofits in Portland. She can be reached at Read more of Elizabeth's columns at here.


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