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Updated: June 10, 2019 Focus: Small business

Finding a market: Farmers find ways to grow a profit

Jordans Farm Photo / Jim Neuger An interior view of the Farm Stand in South Portland

The statistics on what it takes to make a living off farming in Maine are sobering. The 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture Farming Census for the state, released earlier this year says the average Maine farmer makes an income of $16,958, while average costs are $77,179.

Still, Maine farmers are finding a variety of ways to get their product to the public and make money, boosted by growing trends including the increased focus on local products, Portland’s restaurant explosion, the popularity of organic food and agritourism.

“I can’t stay small time, I need to make a living,” says Ian Jerolmack of Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham. He works as his two youngest children, Hugo and Ishmael, skitter around one of the greenhouses. “I’m a family man.”

Karen Bolduc, of South Auburn Organic Farm in Auburn, says “There’s some sort of stigma about [farmers] making money, so they flounder or choose other careers. Profit is not a dirty word.”

Farmers across the state are embracing that concept, in a variety of ways. Here are a few:

Photo / Jim Neuger
Penny Jordan at Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth.

Bringing farmers together

Penny Jordan, whose family has run Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth for five generations, and Ben Slayton, who owns Farmers’ Gate Market in Wales, several years ago discussed how farmers could better make a living.

“How do we create opportunities for more farmers?” Jordan says, recalling the discussion. “What we wanted was a business that was open year-round.”

The result was The Farm Stand, at 161 Ocean St. in South Portland, which is open seven days a week, year-round, and sells produce and meat from as many as 40 farms across Maine, as well as wine, craft beer and more.

“When you leave the store, you have all the ingredients for a meal,” she says.

Jordan isn’t new to creative ways to make a profit from farming. Besides a farm stand, Jordan’s also runs seasonal restaurant The Well at Jordan’s Farm.

“I see The Well as an interesting add-on,” she says, but The Farm Stand is more significant — a way for dozens of farmers, including those who supply Farmers’ Gate with meat, to get their products to the public.

Jordan, before she’ll talk about her own endeavors, also sings the praises of other farmers who are making a go of retail business, including Broadturn Farm in Scarborough, which has a flower store at 123 Washington Ave. in Portland and a wedding venue.

Owner Stacy Brenner “is demonstrating what is possible here in Maine,” Jordan says.

She says that retail businesses supported by farming also provide year-round employment for seasonal farm workers and innovative ways to get younger generations to remain in farming.

“I believe in creating opportunities to grow agriculture in Maine,” she says. “That’s what it’s about.”

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Muhidin Libah, project manager of the Somali Bantu Community Association in Lewiston stands with some of the African corn the association’s farmers sell wholesale.

Looking for a piece of land

The Somali Bantu farmers of Lewiston-Auburn also come from generations of farmers, a tradition they wanted to continue when they came to Maine after years of looking for a home.

“The Somali Bantus cultivate the land to make a living,” says Muhidin Libah, project director for the Somali Bantu Community Center, in Lewiston. Their farmland in Somalia was nestled between the Shebelle and Jubba rivers, producing food not only for Somalia, but also exporting to the Middle East and Italy. When they were driven from their home during Somalia’s 1991 civil war, “We were just looking for a piece of land to cultivate,” Libah says.

Many found it in Lewiston, where more than 3,000 Somali refugees settled between 2005 and 2014.

Photo / Maureen Milliken
The association has a five-acre plot in Lewiston, seen here, as well as one in Auburn, but is looking for more space as the organization’s farming business grows.

Some 140 of them farm on two sites, a five-acre area in Lewiston and 30 acres in Auburn. At first the farming was mostly to raise food for their families and community. When the organization hired a marketing director in 2016, though, things took off.

While they grow a variety of produce, they specialize in African corn, which is less sweet and has more fiber than American corn.

The group sells to the Portland school system, as well as St. Joseph and Bates colleges. Tortilleria Pachanga, a Portland tortilla maker, buys their corn to make gluten-free tortillas.

They also sell at farm stands, which pound-for-pound are more profitable. It’s also an opportunity to connect with the community, Libah says.

The group’s favorite stand is in Yarmouth. “It’s the best market so far,” he says. “People are friendly, people talk to you.”

Some of the farmers, once they find success, split off into Ishkashito groups, a traditional Somali method of cooperative farming. One of the groups has a food truck in Lewiston.

The overall goals are to build community, to make fresh and nutritious food available and to help solve food insecurity in a region where nearly a quarter of residents live below the poverty line.

A more immediate goal is to find more land, not only for farming and camps for the community’s children, but also for traditional ceremonies, which must take place in the bush.

He says they consider the area home. “Our community isn’t out to grab anybody’s land,” he says. “We’re just like the immigrants who came before us, just like anybody who’s been evicted from their land.

“We can make the best friends, the best community members. We just want to participate.”

And with the farms, he says, “We can help.”

The Coal-Burned Spoon

Like many of Maine’s farmers, Karen Bolduc had a CSA. But she wanted to do more — get families to sit around the dinner table. In 2017, she took her CSA to a new level, providing ingredients and recipes for two meals a week, for $35.

The pilot worked well, and those who took part told her they did sit around the table for meals more often. But she couldn’t get 100 subscriptions to make a go of it. Many people cited the cost as too high.

“If Lewiston-Auburn doesn’t have the economic diversity to support the program, how can I bring the program to people?” she says. She thought if she could subsidize it, she could offer it for less money, or even free to those who wanted it.

Enter the Coal-Burned Spoon.

Bolduc plans a “treehouse sanctuary” that takes advantage of both the growing “glamping” (glamourous camping) trend, as well as Maine’s increasing focus on outdoor and agricultural tourism.

A coal-burned spoon is one made out of wood over a fire — it takes about four hours, but the spoon lasts forever.

That slow savoring of natural life, as well as a sustainable model, is what she sees for her sanctuary, which will have high-end units each on three or four private acres. She’ll provide the food, and they’ll have small kitchens that are solar-powered.

Glamping has been popular in Europe for more than a decade, and her market research tells her international tourists would pay for it in the U.S.

“I’m going full-blown,” she says. She is discussing a possible purchase of 100 acres near her farm, that has woods and a brook. “It’s really cool, like a fairy tale.”

The plan is to start with a few units and in five years have 10 sites.

The bigger plan is to fund Foodjoy, the meals-in-a-box program and to make her farm sustainable.

She’s already been the target of some online negative commentary about her plan, but she shrugs it off.

“Farmers have to get creative if we’re going to have farms,” she says. “If it brings money to Maine, if people buy produce from a farm, isn’t that a good thing?”

Photo / Jim Neuger
Ian Jerolmack, owner of Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham, says he wanted to be more aggressive rather than wait for customers to come to him at farmers' markets. He now devotes time to driving his produce to Portland-area restaurants.

A farm built from scratch

Ian Jerolmack, who’s owned Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham for 10 years, was tending his booth at a farmers’ market one day several years ago when he had an epiphany.

He wasn’t going to get very far “standing at the table waiting for people to come to me.”

“I wasn’t making a living at it,” he says. So he decided to go to them instead.

Jerolmack now spends two days a week as a trucker, not a farmer, bringing his produce to Portland restaurants. He has about 40 customers in the city, and doesn’t range any farther — a matter of efficiency and the fact he doesn’t have to.

“I sell everything I grow,” he says, as opposed to the farm stand days. He also sells produce from other farms.

His farm, which he built from scratch on empty land, is 15 acres, with almost an acre of greenhouse.

Jerolmack, and his wife, Emily, have five children, including two toddlers, and he has four employees.

He’s hesitant to name the restaurants that he sells to, not wanting to offend those left out in a fast-moving and sometimes volatile market. “I sell everywhere in the city, I don’t want to play favorites,” he says. But he adds that many of his customers are on Washington Avenue and Middle Street, both robust areas in Portland’s restaurant explosion.

Jerolmack says he sells about 100,000 pounds of produce a year and rolls with the ebb and flow of the market. “If a chef asks that I grow something, I usually oblige,” he says

For instance, he was asked to grow fava beans, something he normally wouldn’t. On the other hand, “I can’t grow enough beets and carrots and onions,” he says. Tomatoes and ginger are also popular.

He claims he does more volume with restaurants than another other farmer in the state, though statistics aren’t available. He’s made selling to restaurants a priority — he doesn’t sell at farm stands or anywhere else.

“To a lot of farms it’s a last resort,” he says. “But working with restaurants, you have to treat them well, they have to come before farm stands or any of the other things. It means working the relationship over years, not a season.”

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