Sean Doherty needs a GPS. Any given day finds the Waterville chef collecting food from across central Maine, purchasing heirloom tomatoes, edible flowers, and cauliflowers from a farm in Winslow; turnips, carrots, and fennel from a grower in Unity; and raw milk from an organic dairy in Sidney. When he finishes sorting all the produce in his kitchen on Silver Street, he'll turn his attention to the filet of beef he picked up in North New Portland and the heirloom pig that just arrived from his supplier in Lubec.
Like many other Maine chefs, Doherty has learned that a key to turning out top-notch entrees and appetizers is knowing precisely where your food comes from. And that's where that global-positioning system would come in handy. "From Waterville to Skowhegan to Winslow there are actually a few different microclimates," Doherty remarks. "On a particular day I'll be able to get my sugar snap peas here, but not over here." As a result the menu that emerges each evening from his Apollo's Bistro is not just delectable, it also represents a cross-section of central Maine. During the growing season, up to three-quarters of Doherty's food comes from area farmers and ranchers. "I'll pair a protein one week with a vegetable that I'm getting somewhere else," Doherty says. "These things are being picked and then brought to me a half-hour later; I never really had that option when I lived in other cities."
But four-star chefs are not the only Mainers who have discovered the benefits of buying local food. The number of community-supported agriculture farms, where people purchase shares of a local farm and receive part of the bounty (or the famine), has skyrocketed in recent years, to around eighty today. Their popularity is rivaled only by farmers' markets, which have mushroomed from just a couple two decades ago to seventy, at last count. Even major grocery stores like Hannaford now make it a point to showcase their local food, though the pickings are admittedly a bit limited. And while the local food movement is taking off nationwide - Barbara Kingsolver's new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about eating local food, has been hovering near the top of the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list for months and shows no sign of moving - there's no doubt that people in Maine are once again going back to the land in record numbers.
"We'd like to think that we're a little bit ahead of the curve in Maine in some ways, and I think that food is one of them," explains Roger Doiron, coordinator of the Eat Local Foods Coalition of Maine, in Scarborough. "What we've managed to accomplish in Maine is a little bit out of proportion in terms of our population base." He points to the presence of more local food on the shelves in supermarkets as proof that the local food movement is gaining traction here. "It's an interesting time for local food, because you can see a new food system being planted," Doiron says. "The retailers are seeing that, and saying okay, how can we be flexible, if that's the way the market is going."
But the market still has a long way to go in terms of supporting Maine's growers: A recent state task force found that Maine farmers receive less than 4 percent of the $3 billion spent by Mainers on food each year. And while some growers believe institutional barriers will always prevent their crops from reaching mass-market shelves, supermarket owners claim maintaining a consistent supply is the real limiting factor for local food. "We [offer local food] because our customers want it, it supports the local economy, helps promote agricultural sustainability, allows us to offer our customers the freshest product available, and reduces carbon emissions by limiting product transport," declares Caren Epstein, director of external communications for Hannaford Brothers. "The primary obstacle is that the demand outstrips the supply."
One of the local products you might come across in Hannaford, especially in northern Maine stores, is Robin's Original Chocolate Sauce. By combining Houlton cream and butter, along with some sustainably grown South American cocoa beans, Robin Jenkins has created a dessert topping so delicious that it took first place at the New England Products Trade Show in Portland last March. Operating out of a one thousand-square foot space at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, the elementary school teacher is on her way to turning a weekend pastime into a self-sustaining business through which she hopes to employ several local workers. Jenkins, whose sauces consist of about 40 percent local ingredients, says the decision to forgo organic dairy products in favor of local ones is one of the keys to her success. "When we started, the organic cream from Houlton was shipped to Wisconsin," she says. "I said 'I'm not going to buy organic butter that comes from Wisconsin when it started out here.' Sometimes you have to make a choice between local and organic, and in this case we chose local." (Jenkins hopes a southern Maine processor will soon start producing local organic dairy products, allowing her to satisfy both interests.)
Indeed, many Maine chefs say that after the USDA took responsibility for certifying organic products in 2002, the label lost much of its meaning. "Organic is sort of on the back burner for me now, mostly because of the involvement of the federal government," remarks Herbert Peters, chef and owner of the Thomaston Cafe. "Wal-Mart is going organic, and once people like that get involved in it you know they're in it for the money and not the fact that it's good." These days Peters snatches up quality, unadulterated local food wherever he can get it. "I'm buying lettuce from an organic farmer in Union, and I don't even talk about price; I just say 'bring me whatever you have.' "
Peters is not the only Maine chef scrambling to get his hands on enough local food to keep his patrons happy. Joshua Mather, the chef/owner of Joshua's Restaurant in Wells, says his location hurts him in terms of proximity to growers. "Every time I head north of Portland I wish I was up there in terms of getting more local food," Mather admits. "Here there are just more people, more hotels, and it's just harder to find local food." (He is able to compensate, of course, by having an exclusive arrangement with the organic farm operated by his parents about five miles away.) Mather says he'll pay top dollar for quality local produce - he admits to shelling out $8.25 a pound for lettuce - and has learned how to squirrel away enough onions to last him through the winter, carrots to get him well into spring, and potatoes to keep his patrons satisfied all year long.
Doiron, with the Eat Local Foods Coalition, says teaching everyday people how to eat locally throughout a long, cold Maine winter is the next big challenge. "There's a lot of outreach that still has to happen to educate people about how to enjoy their produce throughout the year, whether it's through canning or else turning it into something that will last, like sauerkraut." But others say part of the joy of eating local is enjoying what is in season, even if that means going without certain foods at a particular time of year. "I always say 'If you don't have it, don't use it,' " remarks Herbert Peters. "To have strawberries in December, for instance, is just awful. Oranges, okay, they don't grow here. But to buy apples from Washington state - that's just not right."
But even in Maine, eating local doesn't have to mean depriving yourself of fresh food. Doiron points out that some community-supported argriculture (CSA) farms now offer a winter share, where they'll store root crops under proper conditions and allow members to withdraw them during the colder months. And he and Russell Libby, the executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, have begun meeting with fishermen to determine the feasibility of community-supported fishing, possibly by banding individuals together to sponsor a day of shrimp fishing, for instance. Such grassroots solutions will be critical to meeting the demands of new people discovering local food, says Jill Agnew, owner of a CSA farm in Sabattus that supplies 170 families with fresh food. Agnew says her farm is maxed out and won't sell any more shares. "I think as people learn what large-scale agriculture means, and its inherent risks, that they'll look for local food supplies wherever they can. Plus, it tastes so much better!"
Indeed, during harvest season, at least, the biggest problem you're likely to have with eating local in Maine is deciding which food to put on the table. From the farmer's market down the street to the CSA farm out in the country and even to the Hannaford downtown, these days you're likely to find that your grocery-shopping trips are looking more and more like a scenic tour of Maine.
Better remember to bring along your GPS.