September 25, 2017 | last updated August 28, 2018 12:40 pm

Saint Joseph's College launches Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation

Courtesy / Saint Joseph's College
Courtesy / Saint Joseph's College
Saint Joseph's College of Maine has launched the Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation, an initiative with both private and public partners to develop the state's food and beverage industries and meet the region's food security goals. With $4 million in funding in hand, the college plans to begin Phase 1 of construction, fhe college's initiative will expand the existing hydroponic farm, where staff members grow a variety of lettuce, hearty greens and herbs, as well as expand land-based farm and agritourism operations.

Saint Joseph's College of Maine has launched the Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation, an initiative with both private and public partners to develop the state's food and beverage industries and meet the region's food security goals.

The college announced in a news release that $4 million in secured funding will allow it to begin Phase 1 construction of a quarter-acre hydroponic greenhouse, a 3,400 square-foot commercial kitchen, a livestock barn, connection to the municipal water system and a biomass boiler system.

Funding sources include:

  • $1.99 million Public Works Construction Project award from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration to provide for the institute's infrastructure.
  • $500,000 gift from the Hannaford Charitable Foundation.
  • Additional donations from several private foundations and individuals that collectively match the nearly $2 million in EDA funding.

"The institute will fill key needs to strengthen our food system and grow our economy in Maine," U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine District 1, said in a news release announcing the EDA grant. "The institute will support the creation of new jobs and a strengthened economy, which is perfectly in line with Greater Portland region's goals of doubling the region's food manufacturing employment in 10 years."

Food incubator: Long-term economic impact

Courtesy / Saint Joseph's College
Courtesy / Saint Joseph's College
Sue Wilson, foreground, and Hilary Lamkin work in at the college's hydroponic farm

Saint Joseph's initiative involves five enterprises: a food manufacturing incubator, a hydroponic farm, a traditional crop and livestock farm, an agritourism event center and an entrepreneurship development and education program offering certificates in areas such as hydroponic farming, food processing, and food merchandising.

Saint Joseph's College President James Dlugos said the institute increases the scope of the college's economic impact in the Sebago Lake region and throughout Maine.

"Our strategic plan identifies local, sustainable food production and distribution as a place where our skills as educators, as conveners, and as advocates for the environment, positioned us to address some of Maine's most pressing economic and workforce preparation needs," he said.

According to an economic impact analysis conducted by 45 North Research, the institute is projected to impact the regional economy with a total net gain of $16.1 million in output, $4.1 million in earnings, and 135 jobs during construction and operation. The report noted that of the institute's five enterprises, the food incubator will have the largest long-term economic impact as it helps home-based food businesses scale up their operations.

A significant amount of the institute's economic impact will be generated by replacing products once purchased outside the region with products made locally. The college also aspires to work with local farms and food retailers to generate unique products and services that will complement what's already happening locally.

College officials said the next phase of the work begins with building the educational programming and infrastructure to support entrepreneurial ventures in this sector.

The college will finalize architectural plans for the buildings and break ground for the hydroponic greenhouse in 2018. It anticipates offering the first competency-based courses and certificate programs in hydroponic food production in the fall of 2018.

About the Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation

Courtesy / Saint Joseph's College
Courtesy / Saint Joseph's College
Elyse Caiazzo, a senior at Saint Joseph's College and a student ambassador for the college's new Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation, poses in of of the college's hoop houses. She is majoring in environmental science and political science and has worked at the college's farm, known as Pearson's Town Farm, for three years.

Saint Joseph's College anticipates the Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation will support Maine's sustainable agriculture community and food and beverage industry, by identifying and developing educational programs and resources that will meet their needs.

Here are some of the elements that are planned:

Hannaford Food Venture Center: Its purpose is to stimulate the growth of new Maine food producers and to contribute to the growth of Maine's food and beverage industry by modeling new food production technologies, helping small companies scale-up to meet growing demand, and building a new generation of local producers prepared to deliver year-round, fresh, quality produce to the marketplace.

Organic Nutrition Hydroponic Farm: The Organic Nutrition Hydroponic Farm will focus on crops with high demand in New England markets, such as strawberries, but which currently have a heavy carbon footprint when they are sourced from California, Mexico, or South America. The institute would develop sustainable practices, focusing on the emerging growing technologies, renewable energy and eco-friendly/organic program development. The Organic Nutrition Hydroponic Farm will help entrepreneurs across the region scale up small greenhouse pilot programs into larger operations, preparing them for transition to stand-alone, for-profit businesses.

Food manufacturing incubator: The institute will operate a food manufacturing incubator with a 3,400-square-foot commercial kitchen designed for the scale-up of home processing operations. The kitchen facilities will be available to food entrepreneurs through a membership model. In addition to the use of ovens, processing equipment, and prep stations, member packages will include access to refrigeration, storage, and distribution facilities. The incubator will focus on food manufacturing and distribution and would be complemented by food packaging, branding and marketing support available to members.

Traditional crop and livestock farm: The farm operates as an institutional, college farm producing a variety of crops and raising several species of livestock while demonstrating innovative and best practices for growing food in the ground. Its dual purpose is to serve as an educational lab while also functioning as an operating enterprise. The farm will pursue a strategy of not directly competing with other local producers, but rather focus on crops that will fill gaps in local production, add on the Institute's ability to offer educational programming and supply the college with food grown onsite.

Agritourism: Agritourism offers the opportunity to introduce and involve people in agriculture, building respect and awareness of regional goals and the Institute's mission. The event center in the Stone Barn — renovated in 2016 with a $1 million investment from the college's endowment — will serve as a critical revenue generator and multipurpose gathering space for the Institute. Rental of the facilities is offered for private events, such as weddings, and corporate/organizational events, and the facilities are generally available for the institute seminars, events, and educational programs.

Workforce training: The institute offers agricultural and food industry programming designed to meet the needs of workers and lifelong learners interested in building skills and competencies. Programming will both train the workforce for increased production and efficiency in the agricultural economy and teach consumers skills for growing and preparing their own food. Specific courses and certificate programs will be designed to complement other regional educational offerings. Collaborations with partnering organizations will help avoid redundancies in the training and education marketplace.

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