MFC Spotlight Interview with John Shattuck

Tuesday July 19, 2016

A: What is your job title and location?

J: Town of Topsham economic and community development director

A: For you personally or with your work, how do you interact with the local food system?

J: I’ve been working for the town of Topsham for about 8 years. If you had told me when I came that I was going to see agricultural development become a significant driver for economic development, I would have said you are crazy. I delved deeper into the subject of the local food system when someone came to me with the idea to create something called Maine Harvest Company, and asking the Town for some help. I have been actively advocating food since.

Given what I’ve come to know through my work on the active asset resources that we already have in the area and the passive or inert assets that we have in terms of where the state was 50-100 years ago in agricultural production, I can see the importance of agriculture in our economic development.  However, given our attitudes towards development in Maine and given the fact of the high cost in food, energy cost, transportation cost, we are not really looking to build a huge industrial infrastructure.

A: For you personally or for your work, what do you see as some of the strengths of our local food system?

J: Well as I said, just the fact that we do have active farms in our area. You talk to Miranda Cook* about what they are doing up north with Northern Girl and Crown of Maine. She’s come down here to Land Trust events and said ‘you don’t know how good you have it.’ Within a 35-mile radius we have so much production going on for truckible food or garden food compared to what they have to aggregate for over 300 miles up in the northern counties to really access the same level of production. So it’s here. There could be more. It would be compatible to what we are trying to do in the area and it would be great food.

 A: What do you see as some of the weaknesses?

J: Well I think that the one I’ve identified and I am certainly not alone or original on this is the lack of processing capacity. We need the ability to process our produce and distribute locally and sell it across state lines to folks that want healthy food products. I just think it would take us to the next level in terms of it being a productive economic activity.

I am still hoping that the folks who were working on Maine Harvest Company come back to the table and join forces with someone like Jenn (Turtle Rock Farm).  Although I would like to see something larger scale, Jenn just went out and did it rather than waiting for something to come along to serve her needs. And now it is up to her. I still think we need something on a larger scale, but it can start as Maine Harvest Company meant to do it on a fairly simple-basic-level. This will work with your hardier vegetables— squashes, carrots, potatoes— where you can process it, flash-freeze it, and you can take the capacity that we now have and expand it as needed.

People don’t usually think of Maine as a three or four season growing place, but it is and always has been. For the last 100 years, Maine has continued its growing season with relatively low technology, but now with plastic and greenhouses you can grow productively for at least three seasons of the year and you can grow greens in the dead of winter.

I learned from Tom Settlemire, a Board member at the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, that Maine was highly self-sufficient in feeding itself until really about the 1960s. Between the two world wars and thereafter until the 60’s, Maine produced and processed over 90% of its own food. And the processing like the production was local. In those days the technology was canning. The building the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust is located in used to be the headquarters of the Maine canning facilities. If you look at the Corinthian columns in front you can see corn at the top. In those days canning facilities were all fairly small. There would be several in a county. Somewhere in the BTLT archives, Tom has aggregated these great pictures for a conference with the Canning Association. He has photos of these very dressed up Victorian looking dudes in their three-piece suits in the middle of summer from the early 1900s to 1930s.

But the canning industry was a big group even though each company was fairly small scale and local. It meant that the food that was grown here could be preserved and processed into the winter. Of course we saw after the War a number of things going on simultaneously. The increasing dominance of the automobile on the way we plan our municipality and suburbs. The growth larger scale retailing efforts. A&P have been around for a while, but after the war A&P was bought by national or at least regional chains. No longer was it just the grocery store down the street. That in turn triggered the larger scale farming we see in the Midwest. The three of them conspired together to start something that is completely unlocal, unsustainable, and expensive. Now in Maine we are providing less than 5% of our own food.

A: What external factors are impacting our local food system?

J: The lack of processing, however, I guess it’s external to the fact that we don’t have that capacity. The biggest barrier I am seeing to developing that capacity is we’ve made a couple of efforts that I think were either under capitalized or over capitalized that have not succeeded that made it more difficult to capitalize an effort like this. And those would be Moo Milk, which probably didn’t have enough capital going in. They were using old equipment and bottling and processing out of Oakhurst. The Coastal Farms processing facility downeast of here, which capitalized in a much higher rate than we anticipated at Maine Harvest. It too has failed for a variety of reasons. And that kind of environment where people are worried about investment anyways and you have two processing failures like that it gets harder for people to take a risk.

A: What are the most important things that should be happening in the region to support increased production, consumption, and access to local foods?

J: Well I think we are doing a lot of it or it is happening despite us. The major thing is the Food Council, and that grew out of a lot of the work the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust has done over the last four or five years. Financially protected our core. Additionally, educating people like me even before the Maine Harvest Company project that I eventually got involved with. I was initially introduced to these issues through the Food Hub Forum that Angela at the Land Trust put together. So the Food Hub and three following conventions that had to do with Ag-Sector issues. I am hopeful given that there aren’t enough of them in Maine now that the Land Trust is here in the Midcoast that will help us out and aggregate.

A: And the last question, what are you having for supper tonight?

J: Salad. Mostly down from Island Farms and Madison Farms near where I live. They are selling through the local Hannaford’s anyways.

Following Thoughts:

In my mind fairly astounding how little public funding there is for this type of activity. At a time when everyone is giving a lot of lip service. And I suppose federally they look at larger scale projects. Though, part of the lesson in industrial agriculture is that larger is not always better. I guess I am particularly disappointed that this peak, and I understand that Maine is very resource challenged, but in a state with this much arable land available to us and a desire to have high value but low impact development it is amazing to me that we haven’t done a better job within our limited resources to do more to deploy more money for this very desirable activity. And we just haven’t yet. Too its credit one of the funding pieces was the community development block grant CDBG—was for general community development, not agricultural. You would think that a state that depends so much on natural resource productivity would do a little bit better.