A new building designed to house a broccoli-processing line was erected this spring at the Orland-based blueberry harvesting company W.R. Allen. The new construction is part of an effort by the Good Shepherd Food Bank to create a frozen produce business to get local vegetables in stores year round. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

The state’s largest hunger relief organization has created a new company focused on freezing local produce from small and mid-sized farmers to ensure high-quality produce is available to Mainers year round, despite the short growing season.

Harvesting Good, the new venture from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, has partnered with Maine blueberry harvesters to create an innovative food system that will give them welcomed work during the off-season and provide eaters with local produce options 12 months a year.

The for-profit arm of the food bank plans to grow and freeze about 600,000 pounds of broccoli this year, with the first seeds going in the ground at Circle B farm in Caribou this week.

Instead of building a frozen broccoli operation from the ground up – an “impossible” task, according to one processor – the food bank is attempting a new model where it breaks down the frozen food production chain link by link.

The broccoli will be grown by Circle B. Orland-based blueberry harvester and processor W.R. Allen will cut the crowns and flash-freeze the florets. Jasper Wyman and Son in Milbridge will then package the broccoli and make it ready for retailers across the state.

If done alone, Harvesting Good would have had to secure farm land, build expensive processing plants from scratch and likely spend millions of dollars before even getting a seed in the ground.

But by tapping smaller processors and growers, the operation is taking advantage of the expertise and infrastructure that smaller farmers, processors and packagers already have at a time of year when they aren’t using it.

While each welcomes and can shoulder a little extra work, none could have taken on a massive project like this individually.

Harvesting Good says it hasn’t seen this model used elsewhere and it could help bolster growers and processors past their usual seasons.

“It’s creating a new revenue stream for our farmers that are mid to small-scale,” said Jessica Donahue, a spokesperson for the food bank.

The company is starting with broccoli, a hardy and easy-to-freeze vegetable but plans to consider more options once the project is fully up and running. The first florets are expected to be on shelves by Thanksgiving.

Circle B has largely grown blueberries, cauliflower and apples over the years, but couldn’t really break into the already saturated fresh broccoli market, said owner Tom Ayer. Through this frozen food deal, the farm expects to grow millions of pounds of broccoli over the next few years.

“It’s allowed us to branch out and be more competitive in the vegetable market in northern Maine,” Ayer said.

Harvesting Good is investing in new processing equipment to cut and blanch the broccoli at W.R. Allen and the company is working on a new building to house the machinery.

The amount of time the facility is used will skyrocket with the addition of broccoli. Normally Allen uses the plant for about four or five weeks a year to process blueberries. With the new vegetable, he could be working initially for four months a year and maybe even longer in the future.

“We’ve got projections to be processing and freezing upwards of 5 million pounds in the next four years,” Allen said. “This is going to open up a lot of doors for us to hire more full-time employees.”

Matt Chin, Harvesting Good’s president, has been playing with the idea for Harvesting Good for about 10 years while working at the food bank. The project started to get legs during the pandemic after food freezing studies with the University of Maine.

Harvesting Good will donate net profits to food banks based on where the vegetables are purchased. The company hopes that this new model, once proven, could be mirrored in other parts of the country.

“We are hoping that this model will be able to be replicated around the United States to help out food banks,” Donahue said.