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Small farms woo summer camps
ROSEBECK FARM — Right now, Rosebeck Farm of South Paris is one local seller that provides natural meats for the 4-H Conservation Camp in Bryant Pond. Relationships like this could provide a large boost for area farms.
AREA — Local summer camps have signed on to the idea of buying local food, creating a huge opportunity for area food producers to prove that they can be an option for the demands of a large-scale kitchen.
By the end of the summer, camps may emerge as a viable new market for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of local farming products.
Alternatively, camp administrators may conclude that buying local is a nice, but impractical idea.
"I think many of us are going to give it a shot this year," said Bob Strauss, owner of Camp Wigwam in Waterford. "Those of us who live in the state know how important it is."
In January, Healthy Oxford Hills hosted a meeting between food-buying institutions and 30 local growers.
"The Maine Youth Camp Association directors are doing as much as we can to buy locally this year and in future years," said Strauss. "We gathered information and brought it back to our next meeting and explained to local directors how they can reach out to local producers."
As a result, Strauss says that this year, Camp Wigwam administrators will try to make direct purchases from the local farmers market.
"There's a farmers market in Bridgton that we're going to try to attend on a regular basis," said Strauss. "This is really the first year we'll be trying it. It will all have to do with what's available then."
Attending with Strauss was Spencer Ordway, of Camp Winona in Bridgton. Both are members of the board of directors for the Maine Youth Camping Foundation, which represents 75 summer camps across the state.
"This year is going to be a hard learning curve for everybody to see what fits," said Ordway.
The stakes for farmers are enormous. An average farm-supporting household spends about $500 on the products of a local farmer.
The 4-H Camp, Camp Winona, and Camp Wigwam have a combined food budget well in excess of a quarter of a million dollars. Multiplying that by the dozens of summer camps in the region gives one an idea of how big the local food market can be.
Ryder Scott also attended the meeting, on behalf of the 4-H Conservation Camp in Bryant Pond.
Scott says that the camp has been interested in increasing the amount of locally-grown food for a couple of years now.
"We've been working to increase our purchasing from local for a couple of years," said Scott. "Two years ago, we set a goal of spending 5 percent of our budget on local food. Since then, we've been trying to increase that by 5 percent each year."
Jane Bates-Gilmore, who manages the food for the 4-H Conservation Camp, says that the camp has hit its goals over the last two years. She purchases beef, maple syrup, oats, vegetables, and dairy products from Maine-based suppliers.
"Last year we definitely spent 10 percent [on local food]," she said. "We did that last year and I hope to do that again this year."
Scott says that there are obstacles which make the transition difficult.
"We're making progress," he said.
For Scott, the program is an opportunity to model responsible behavior to the campers.
"Our mission is to teach about sustainability," said Scott. "In our minds, local food, supporting the local economy and the local agriculture and reducing the carbon imprint of our food by shipping a shorter distance is a really good example."
Scott says that the campers are educated about the origin of their meals. At the 4-H Conservation Camp, learning about the food has become a mealtime ritual.
"It's an example of a teaching moment. When they sit down at the dining hall, we give them a little presentation about where some of the food comes from."
While everyone is enthusiastic about the concept, there are many obstacles to a happy union between camps and growers.
These pitfalls have the ability to completely undermine the good efforts of the purchasers.
"Our issue is going to probably be quantity," said Ordway. "Being a boys' camp, we serve large amounts. For us, it's not practical to order in the smaller volumes. All the smaller farmers only had so much basically."
There's also a chicken-and-egg aspect to the process, in which neither side wants to assume too much risk. The buyers are reluctant to commit to an order for 1,000 tomatoes from a seller whose ability to fill the order is subject to local weather conditions.
Meanwhile, the sellers aren't eager to grow those 1,000 tomatoes without knowing that they will be sold when the time comes.
The camp directors agree that timing is another big issue. Many of their food purchases come early in the season, which is at odds with Maine's growing months.
"So much of the product comes in to the local farmers towards the end of the season," said Strauss.
Bates-Gilmore says that she has found that local food goes far beyond seasonal vegetables.
"I think we're all trying to come up with an answer to this, and I think we will," she said. "I got beef before the first week of camp, and he had it available. The cheese is always available. The oats are always available."
Ironically, delivery is another large obstacle. Established distribution chains mean that it can be more practical for a bushel of beans to be delivered from California, than from right down the road.
"Of course there's delivery," said Strauss. "When we're buying from [larger companies], they deliver. Many of the locals don't have the ability to deliver."
Ordway says that picking up food orders is a possibility, but that it would require some thought.
"How are we going to be able to ... pick up the items? ... That's an issue we haven't addressed yet."
Bates-Gilmore says that, for now, she is willing to pick up the food from the various farms. She drives to Rosebeck Farm in South Paris to purchase beef; Lyons Orchards in Bethel for apples; and Maple Valley Farm in Jay for maple syrup. She also purchases oats from northern Maine, cheese from Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, tomatoes from Madison, milk from Maine-based Oakhurst Dairy Farm, and lots of Maine potatoes.
She says that she hopes that the camp can serve as an example to larger camps that are tackling the same problems.
There's also a cultural obstacle that has to be overcome. For decades, camp kitchens have been supplied by larger companies that have been able to produce a wide variety of foods with low sticker prices.
Overcoming that initial inertia will be a real challenge, particularly with larger camps, which see a centralized purchaser distributing the food to many camps.
"Our true roadblock is going to be camp director involvement," said Strauss. "A kitchen that's running a food service kitchen, you have to somehow get to that buyer, because most of those are working with a seller they have a history with."
As a group, the camp directors are hopeful that the new system can be made to work.
"We want to do it. We want to buy local," said Ordway. "We don't mind paying a slight premium. We know that's going to be part of the process, and that's perfectly okay. That's something we'd like to do both to support locals, and to get the better products."
"We're all buying like products," said Strauss. "We're all buying produce. We're all buying things that these farmers are absolutely growing. Why not try to include them if we can?"
Scott says that, all else being equal, he would like to see a lot more local food purchased at the 4-H Camp.
"If we were fully funded every year and didn't have to worry about money, we would buy 100 percent of our food locally."