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Around The Grange
Maine Grange project may be boon for area farmers

By David Robinson, Kennebec Journal, Maine (2/18/12)

  FEBRUARY 25, 2012 --

Peter Beane has a great idea for selling salad dressing, vegetarian soy burgers and other popular health food treats made from tofu. 

Like so many other aspiring food entrepreneurs, however, he has never been able to turn his great idea into a successful business.

Beane, 57, has money to invest in the new venture but can't afford the thousands of dollars it takes to build a commercial kitchen.

That's where the Farmington Grange Hall (in Maine) comes in.

Grange members recently finished installing a commercial kitchen at their hall on Bridge Street, giving residents a place to launch innovative food businesses previously beyond their reach, according to Richard Marble, a third-generation farmer and one of the Grange officers behind the effort.

The new kitchen is the culmination of four years of planning and fundraising and should help area farmers and residents alike, with a goal of tapping into growing support for the local food movement, Marble said.

More people want to buy food produced locally and a commercial kitchen for the community is another tool for those interested in meeting the demand, he said.

There is a free public workshop at the Grange hall tonight at 6 to promote the kitchen and teach people about the state regulations for running a food business. There will be a rental fee to use the kitchen and Grange members have yet to determine the cost.

Marble, 59, hopes the kitchen will inspire a variety of new ideas. It can be everything from someone selling grandma's famous cookies to a farmer turning crops into jams, jellies and baked goods, he said.

Beane owns MG's movie rental store in town and was the first person to ask about using the Grange's new commercial kitchen. He plans to buy the soybeans from farmers to make them into tofu, a basic staple that can be used in a variety of foods.

When he lived in Portland as a young businessman, Beane started out selling tofu at a co-operative market and alfalfa spouts to restaurants about 30 years ago. He has owned the movie store for 18 years but said he always wanted to get back into the food business.

Beane looks at the Grange's kitchen as a great resource for the region, calling it a way for food entrepreneurs to work with local farmers.

Marble said the new commercial kitchen is among a long list of recent upgrades made at the Grange hall, where the tiered wooden structure was built in the 1880s by Free Will Baptist Church before being donated to the Grange in 1939.

Renovations started about four years ago and have revived the aging building, making it a thriving community center after years of declining activity, Marble said.

Much of the renovation work has been done by grange members and community volunteers, with contractors hired to do the more skilled labor when necessary. The Grange has raised more than $41,000 in donations and government grants for the projects, he said.

Getting the commercial kitchen opened highlights the goals set recently by the roughly 60 Grange members, who wanted to give small family farms new tools to help them survive amid competition from giant commercial farming operations in other states.

Local farmers needed to find ways to earn more money from their crops and livestock. But many of them couldn't afford to install a commercial kitchen, which is the best way for farmers to process food items into products with a much higher value, Marble said.

The Grange's kitchen gives the community a way to take that important next step in food production, according to Marble, who owns Marble Family Farms in Farmington.

Among the other additions at the Grange hall is the winter farmers' markets on Saturday mornings, which gives area farmers a vital lifeline to earn money during the tough winter months, Marble said.

The winter markets started about two years ago and farmers have since told Marble the indoor market venue has helped save their farms. The winter markets run from November to May, closing the gap between the three outdoor farmers' markets in town during the other seasons.

Marble believes these efforts by the Grange and other agriculture organizations statewide have been making progress in recent years toward saving the family farm, which has been declining steadily for years.

Maine has farmers with the youngest average age and is among the fastest growing agriculture economies nationwide, highlighting the promising future for the small traditional local farm that once seemed on the brink of collapse, he said.

"We're all trying to revitalize farming any way we can," he said.

People with questions about using the Grange kitchen should call Marble at 491-6166, or Bonnie Clark, kitchen manager, at 778-6637.

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