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March 27, 2009

Appreciating Maine’s Local Foods

Those of us who love to eat are spoiled here in Maine. It’s easy to lose perspective and take for granted things that make eating in our state unique. In an age when the White House has an organic backyard garden, I’d assumed that enthusiasm for locally-grown food was sweeping the country. Not so, says Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, who spoke this week in Belfast at a screening of the film Tableland. Maine is one of only a handful of places, along with Vermont, the Pacific Northwest, and pockets of Wisconsin, where organic, locally-produced foods are widely available. Nowhere else is interest in eating locally and sustainably so fervent.

Illustrating this point, more than fifty people turned out on Tuesday night to see the film, and stuck around afterward for a lively discussion. The screening of Tableland, a word the filmmakers define as the “culinary highground, the nexus between field and plate,” was part of the Belfast Co-op’s Eat Local Challenge Film and Discussion Series, which wraps up April 1 with a local foods dinner, dance, and community brainstorming session.

Over the past decade, demand for locally-produced food has increased dramatically. In 1971, Portland hosted Maine’s only farmers’ market. Now, according to Libby, there is a market in every Maine community of more than 10,000 residents. Five years ago, few Mainers had heard of Community Supported Agriculture, but now there are more than 100 CSA programs in the state, with Community Supported Fisheries popping up and even some Community Supported Bakeries in the works.

The makers of Tableland interviewed farmers, bakers, brewers, vintners, cheese-makers, beekeepers, and restauranteurs who extol the benefits of eating locally, describing the taste of salad made with lettuce picked an hour before it hit the table, and the satisfaction of spending money in ways that support friends and neighbors. Knowing where their food comes from gives them peace of mind. Farmers discuss their pride in practicing growing methods that have sustained the land and communities for thousands of years. As Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens remarks, “there’s nothing conventional about conventional agriculture.” Small-scale organic food producers seek a return to our roots.

Russell Libby echoed this sentiment Tuesday night when he lamented the availability in modern grocery stores of “anything from anywhere, anytime.” We’ve become desensitized to seasonal food cycles, he says. When we buy Californian strawberries and Mexican tomatoes all winter, we’re dulling our sense of how each season tastes. It may be difficult to wait all winter for strawberries, but the first sun-ripened batch, sweeter and more delicate than the bulked-up specimens at the grocery store, is a cause for celebration.

Throughout Tableland, colors and textures leap off the screen. I could almost smell garlic sauteing with wilting deep green chard, and taste a bright pink raspberry vinaigrette. I felt the tactile joy of kneading bread, combing through tubs of grain, and mixing salad with bare hands. Images of California farmers picking and sampling avocados, strawberries, and kiwis made our group of damp Mainers in the midst of mud season drool. When the narrator told us these spring crops came in early March, a few people actually gasped. Chefs talked about the challenges of cooking with local ingredients, sharing tips for storing crops for the winter. An image of asparagus in mason jars with sliced lemon inspired me to finally learn the art of canning this summer.

We may not have the longest growing season in Maine, but we do have dedicated, hard-working small-scale organic farmers, and a growing group of consumers who are tuning their taste buds to the rhythms of the seasons. Take heart, Mainers: the sun is shining later, the air is warming, and the other day I saw crocuses blooming through the snow. It won’t be long before we’re feasting on the season’s first beet greens, spinach, and asparagus, and come June, I’ll be face down in a bucket of strawberries.

Mary Lake is a writer, teacher, columnist for MF&L, and vegetarian blogger: Mitten Machen

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