Local Food Innovation: A Win for Maine

Ben Tettlebaum

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Arundel-based farmers and Legal Services Food Hub participants Frinklepod Farm pitch their business idea to the judges.

This past weekend, ten teams competed to win the first ever Maine Farm, Fish, and Food Innovation Challenge. What’s an “Innovation Challenge”? Think Top Chef for startup businesses aimed at expanding the sustainable distribution, processing, marketing, and aggregation of Maine foods.

Thirty-six participants representing 10 teams participated in the weekend event at Bowdoin College. Over the two supercharged days, a diverse group of creative teams workshopped their businesses over and over and over. On day two, each team got five minutes to make their pitch to a panel of expert judges.

This high-energy weekend had three big goals. First, to transform Maine into the sustainable food production engine for New England… and beyond. Second, to incentivize new businesses that bring more value to local farmers and fishermen. And, finally, to craft food business models that open new ways of getting our food from farm and sea to plate, while baking in social and environmental values.

Sounds great! How does CLF fit in?

CLF’s work in helping build a more sustainable and just food system throughout Maine and New England led to our involvement in the weekend event, for which we served on the planning committee. The Innovation Challenge involved a strong collaboration of several individuals and organizations. Long-time Maine entrepreneur Bill Seretta led the planning committee. Tom Settlemire – local legend, Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust board member, and biology and biochemistry professor at Bowdoin – co-chaired. In addition to CLF, representatives from Coastal Enterprises Inc., Drummond & Drummond, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, the University of Southern Maine, and Bowdoin College filled out the planning committee.

We also helped the Innovation Challenge teams by providing assistance through our Legal Services Food Hub as they workshopped their ideas. The Hub provides pro bono legal assistance to lower income farmers, food entrepreneurs, and food-related organizations, and offers educational workshops and trainings about legal issues in the food system. Two of the teams that competed in the Challenge are receiving legal assistance through the Hub. Both The Farming Artists and Frinklepod Farm did a fantastic job pitching their farm businesses.

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Long-time Maine entrepreneur Bill Serretta, who helped plan the Innovation Challenge, addresses the weekend crowd.

Our participation in this event highlights the valuable ripple effect of CLF’s Legal Services Food Hub. The Hub is seeding positive, sustainable growth for individual local farmers and food entrepreneurs, and finding creative ways to leverage this work to benefit our expanding regionally based food system.

Wins for innovation – and local Maine food

So, who won the Innovation Challenge? The judges faced a difficult task in deciding between so many creative ideas, from the company that’s using seaweed to craft completely new products, to the college students who developed an app that helps small farmers track data about their livestock. Before announcing the winners, Senator Angus King congratulated all the teams, and Barton Seaver, chef-extraordinaire and Director of Harvard’s Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative, gave a thought-provoking presentation about fisheries and our food system.

In the end, the Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative and Forq Food Lab won the day. Both teams will receive $5,000 plus six hours of legal services. The Farm and Sea Cooperative is a broad coalition of Maine producers, fishermen, and citizens. It’s the nation’s first farm-to-institution food service cooperative working to bring control over our food system back to local communities. Forq Food Lab is striving to become Maine’s premier collaborative commercial kitchen for new and existing food businesses. It will provide shared equipment, serve as a business mentor, cater, and distribute its members’ innovative food products.

The New Beet Market and Frinklepod Farm tied for second place and will each receive $1,750 plus eight hours of consulting services.  Two student teams, AgriGatr, from Hampshire College, and the Darling Sea Farm, from the Darling Center, received Honorable Mention.

All ten teams showed great promise. CLF is proud to be helping more and more of these innovative food entrepreneurs grow our sustainable local food system. If these talented food system entrepreneurs succeed, all of us will be winners.

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