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Community Development

Sustainable Island Food Systems

At the beginning of the last century, when 300 island communities thrived along the Maine coast, much of what is now dense spruce forest was tilled for pastures and fields.  While most non-perishable staples arrived by barge and boat, the sustainability of island communities hinged on the availability of fresh local produce, meat and fish.

Peppers, Onions, Eggplants - Locally Grown - Sustainable Island Food Systems

Today, most of the agricultural land on islands is once again covered with tall stands of spruce and pine; much is owned by seasonal residents or under conservation.  Small island stores strain to provide a variety of items, and must pass on the expense of transporting their goods to communities that already struggle with higher-than- average electricity and fuel costs.  As a result, according to a recent “food basket” study by the University of Maine, the residents of Maine’s remaining 15 year-round island communities pay at least one-third more for basic food items than the state average.

Local Production, Local Consumption

Many islanders have begun to reconsider the historical use of island land for agricultural purposes, and they are actively exploring ways to increase the amount of local food produced and consumed through island fisheries, farms and gardens.   For the past two years, the Island Institute’s Sustainable Island Agriculture Initiative has helped island communities expand the availability of more local food throughout the year. In the coming years we plan to expand our work to include promoting local fish as a part of the food system. 

The Four-Season Agricultural Fund

In response to requests from several island communities, the Institute launched the Four-Season Agricultural Fund in early 2009 through a grant from the 1772 Foundation.   This year’s funding in the amount of $10,000 supports 12 farming and gardening projects. The fund’s three major focus areas are 1) capital projects that increase the amount of locally produced food available on-island; 2) professional-development opportunities for individuals and organizations to attend or lead workshops to gather and spread information about the practice and value of local sustainable agriculture; and 3) small stipends to support on-island leadership for time devoted to managing food-related projects. Since its launch in May 2009, the fund has supported 37 agricultural projects, totaling $30,000 in awards distributed to island communities along the coast.  Receiving grants of $300 to $1,500 each, 2011 award recipients include:

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Chebeague Island: Green Lantern Garden Project to acquire farming implements and tools;

Cliff Island: Cliff Island School to send head-teacher Josh Halloway to attend aquaponics training at Herring Gut Learning Center;

Frenchboro: Lenfestey Farm Project, to increase island-based egg production and access by updating chicken coop; Ann Fernald, to increase garden production through season extension equipment;

Islesboro: Islesboro Central School stipend for summer-market management; Cheryl Gaudiana-Erskine, in support of a new greenhouse;

Monhegan: To support the Island Farm Project with a stipend for leadership and purchase of supplies;

Peaks Island: Peaks Island Community Garden’s purchase of a tool shed; Christina and Rusty Foster in support of season-extension equipment;

Vinalhaven: Free-range Poultry Project for chicken-coop upgrades, fencing, and supplies; Vinalhaven Middle School’s raised bed project, including a stipend for summer management; Dean and Kate Stockman to assist with the purchase of a 20’ by 48’ greenhouse.


Working with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), the Institute has also provided on-island workshops on such topics as extending the growing season, cold-frame construction, and composting.  Local food has been a theme for our annual three-day Sustainable Island Living Conferences.  In 2009, keynote speaker Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International emphasized the need for training in locality-specific food-growing methods and recruitment of students and adults who will initiate food production starting with their own backyards and within their own communities. In 2010, the keynote speaker was Woody Tasch, Founder of Slow Money. Slow Money’s mission is to build local and national networks, and develop new financial products and services dedicated to investing in small food enterprises and local food systems; connecting investors to their local economies; and building the nurture capital industry.

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Sowing the Seeds of Success

Mary Terry , the Institute’s Community Development Director, works with all of the year-round island communities to maximize their agricultural resources; market their products to their own communities, other islands, and the mainland; and access continued technical assistance from MOFGA, Maine Farmland Trust and other well-established agricultural organizations and individuals.  Mary is responsible for helping island food producers and local leaders establish community kitchens, local buying clubs and farmers’ markets; facilitating workshops and technical training; and overseeing the Four-Season Island Agriculture Fund. She is also currently working with local purveyors to promote recognition of fish as a local food.

Island Food Systems: Next Steps

While planning for the upcoming years in the Island Food Systems program, we have established several program areas to pursue.

Mapping Maine’s Foodshed and Distribution Networks

Using Island Institute staff expertise and working with other Eat Local Food Coalition (ELFC) members, we intend to map Maine’s foodshed. We are interested in exploring the import/export models for island communities and learning how residents access food in these remote places. Mapping is an excellent tool to visually represent the interconnectedness of our communities and to establish where local food hubs exist. ELFC has developed a partnership with the Agriculture, Food and the Environment program at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutritional Science and The Muskie School at University of Southern Maine to begin the fact-finding for a Maine foodshed mapping initiative.

Building upon this work, the Island Institute will map the distribution systems and food shed for the 15 year-round island communities as a way to identify opportunities to increase the availability of fresh, local foods and to identify barriers and possible solutions.  This process will serve as a model to analyze economic development across sectors.

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Coordinating Technical Workshops

We will continue our partnership with Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and other organizations to offer technical trainings to island-based growers. In past years, we have organized visits to specific communities to address their particular issues. The next step will be to organize a training at the Island Institute building in Rockland, where islanders can participate in person or via Tandberg video conferencing units. In addition to advancing the technical know-how on islands, such a meeting would likely develop camaraderie between island-growers from up and down the coast.

Buying Clubs

Our goal is to establish three new island-based buying clubs in the coming year. Prospective communities include Islesboro, Chebeague and Matinicus. Buying clubs have the potential to reduce food costs and increase the availability of fresh, local foods to islanders.

Fish as Food

Working with local fishermen, restaurateurs and distributors, our goal is promote the use of local fish on islands and in remote coastal communities.  Cooking classes using local fish and education around what fish are in season and are sustainably caught are two tools to increase awareness of fish as food.

Economic Development

The Maine local food scene is burgeoning and island communities are in constant need of sustainable economic development. The Island Food Systems program will support island-based food business through the new Island and Coastal Innovation Fund to diversify and intensify economic development opportunities in remote coastal locations.


Looking Forward

The increasing volume of applications for our Four-Season Island Agriculture Fund and requests for on-island workshops and trainings indicate that many island residents are fully engaged in the quest to grow and market food on islands. While the mounting costs of transporting food are a critical impetus, it appears that more residents desire the personal fulfillment of growing their own – and perhaps their neighbor’s – food, and want to return fallow island farmland to its historical agricultural purpose. Through the foresight and generosity of key individuals, as well as the support of the 1772 Foundation and the Partridge Foundation, these dreams are closer to becoming reality.   


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