ORONO, Maine — Maine’s food system functions best when its vast base of stakeholders come together to address problems and find solutions that work toward common values.
That was the message at the second annual Maine Food Network Gathering on Friday at the University of Maine, where more than 150 people with varying connections to Maine’s local food system came together to discuss a range of topics related to bolstering the state’s food chain.
“We’re really excited about the diversity of people that are here today, that are here from different sectors, different organizations,” Tanya Swain, Maine Food Strategy project director, said. “One of the primary reasons we’re doing this event is to provide an opportunity for people to hear from each other and learn from each other, meet new people and hopefully develop more relationships within the food system.”
This is the second year Maine Food Strategy has hosted the Food Network Gathering, which is put on in collaboration with about a dozen other statewide food, agriculture and aquaculture organizations including Maine Farmland Trust, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, LocalCatch.org and others.
Discussion at the gathering stressed the importance of creating and bolstering networks — or relationships — within Maine’s food system to advance the collective goals of supporting locally grown and produced food, providing resources for producers and access for consumers and effectively marketing Maine products inside and outside of the state.
Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Walt Whitcomb and Sen. Angus King spoke Friday about how Maine’s abundance of small-scale farms can band together and work to export the scale of products that in other areas of the country is generated by large-scale commodity farmers.
“We’ve got to figure out how to gain the advantage of scale without becoming commodity farmers … and a part of that, seems to me, is working together,” King said. “We’re sitting in one of the world’s great brands: It’s called Maine.”
The daylong gathering kicked off with a panel of representatives from several established food network organizations in Maine who discussed how collaboration formed their groups and helps them promote the local food system. Panelists were Riley Neugebauer of Farm to Institution New England, Amanda Beal of Food Solutions New England, Bonnie Rukin of Slow Money Maine and Brett Tolley of LocalCatch.org.
“We need more connection with each other, and we need to slow it down, talk to each other and really listen,” Rukin said, receiving applause and cheers from the audience.
Discussions at six workshops held throughout the day helped to form a list of priorities for the Maine Food Strategy to focus on in 2017. The list included matching small producers to buyers, supporting development of the Maine Food Atlas website to serve as an aggregator of information on the state’s food system, streamlining workforce training resources, committing to support network infrastructure, gleaning food sovereignty lessons from the Penobscot and Maine Wabinaki nations and to promote the marketing of local food.
Swain said the Maine Food Strategy intends on holding a third gathering next year but said goal is to have the connections made Friday continue in the interim outside of the structured event.
“There are a lot of opportunities for people to connect, but I think there is a natural inclination to travel in our own circles, so we’re really trying to figure out how to bring people together who don’t connect naturally,” she said.