Science helps Maine specialty food producers find their
Homemade food is an art form all its own. Made with
the freshest, healthiest
ingredients, most often locally grown and organic. Made with love — and
pride. Often fashioned from family recipes for the sake of heritage and
good taste, or invented as value-added products.
No matter the method, the handcrafting satisfies. And, at the height of
perfection, the creation is always shared.
But it's when food artisans decide to share their passion with the
public that their romantic, kitchen-based utopia gets dicey. They become
small business owners. Food entrepreneurs who put it all on the line —
money, time, energy, livelihoods — to enthusiastically follow their
instincts and dreams, and courageously face the harsh realities of the
marketplace, say nothing of the daunting maze of state and federal food
safety rules and regulations.
Make no mistake about it. Consciously or otherwise, theirs is a quiet
yet all-out revolt against conglomerate food producers distributing
highly processed products that rely on additives, preservatives and
low-cost ingredients for ultimate profitability and shelf life. Part of
the "slow food movement" denouncing fast food. Small food producers
offer a healthy alternative for consumers interested in closer
connections to their food sources. Artisanal food producers and their
customers share discriminating tastes that come at a higher price — and
a distinct difference in quality of life.
"These food producers have a lot in common with the creative economy,"
says Jim McConnon, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension business
and economics specialist and associate professor of resource economics
and policy, who has worked with these companies for the past 17 years.
"They are innovative, customer-driven people — and have to be."
The specialty or value-added food producer is an important component of
Maine's overall microbusiness economy, in which 135,000 businesses with
up to five employees account for 22 percent of the state's employment
base, says McConnon, who recently completed an extensive study of
microbusinesses in Maine and New England.
"One of the
future growth areas in rural economies is the rise in value-added
businesses to support the growing, overall economy," McConnon says.
For start-up food producers in Maine, expertise is available through
numerous agencies, including the state Department of Economic and
Community Development; the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and
Rural Resources; the Maine Technology Institute; and UMaine Cooperative
Al is Alfred Bushway, a UMaine food scientist who, for the past 27
years, has been the go-to guy for food producers, large and small, in
the state. His depth of expertise is unfathomable. His commitment to
putting food science to work for the benefit of the state and its people
is well known. Among Maine food producers, you can refer to Al and
they'll all know whom you're talking about. No last name needed.
They describe him as down to earth and caring. Able to translate science
into layperson's terms. Patient enough to answer even the smallest
question and knowledgeable enough to take on the biggest challenges. If
he doesn't know an answer, he knows how to find it.
He is always just a phone call or e-mail away, the small food producers
say. Even those in the industry for years contact Bushway as often as
every other week. For some, he's on speed dial.
"Having grown up in Maine, I certainly have an appreciation for the
state. It's great to see people succeed and have their dreams come to
fruition," says Bushway, who received the 1996 UMaine Presidential
Public Service Achievement Award for his statewide and regional efforts.
"Maine still has a strong agricultural base, and food processors are one
facet of it."
Anecdotal evidence abounds about the encouragement he offers fledgling
food entrepreneurs. At times, support from UMaine food scientists
involves keeping the goal in sight, no matter what the hurdles — from
struggles to meet regulatory requirements to frustrations with packaging
problems. But the artisanal producers also know and appreciate that his
counsel is science-based, and, as a result, his responses aren't always
what they'd love to hear. And not all new food product ideas make it
past his laboratory.
Maine has 6,000 licensed food businesses, from home bakeries to potato,
blueberry and seafood processors, according to David Gagnon, director of
the Division Quality Assurance and Regulations in the Maine Department
of Agriculture, Food and Resources. An estimated 672 are producing foods
considered non-potentially hazardous, typically not requiring
Small food producers in Maine and other northern New England states have
their food products and processes reviewed in Bushway's food
microbiology laboratory to meet state and federal regulations. In the
last 15 years in Maine and New Hampshire, Bushway has done nearly 700
process reviews for acid and acidified foods that are canned or bottled,
such as jams, pickles and salsa — a step-by-step laboratory analysis of
recipes, paying particular attention to heating and cooling times and
"We're looking for sufficient heat treatments to ensure the destruction
of pathogens and watching the amount of water in a product that could
support the growth of microorganisms," says Bushway, who also is
involved in FDA regulation of food products shipped across state lines.
"We're not testing quality, just process safety."
For example, in a process review, a new chocolate sauce is found to have
a water activity greater than 0.850 and a pH above 4.6, which means the
product could be susceptible to pathogen growth. Because reducing the pH
adversely affected the flavor, Bushway worked with the manufacturer to
reduce the water activity. The result is a safe, palatable product.
The department also has the Matthew E. Highlands Pilot Plant, equipped
for the research and development of products such as fruit juice, smoked
meat, cheese, pasta, frozen and baked goods, and extruded foods.
Packaging capabilities include freeze drying and vacuum sealing. Here,
an entrepreneur can learn how to scale up for commercial production; to
improve products or extend shelf life; or to troubleshoot problems, such
as the separation of fluid ingredients. Sensory or consumer testing also
Bushway has been working with Maine's food industry businesses since the
mid-1980s. By 1990, he and three colleagues had established the Maine
Food Processors Association, which evolved into the Maine Gourmet and
Specialty Food Producers Association, in an effort to raise visibility
for the industry, share technical expertise and address mutual problems.
Maine's food processors range from one person working out of a home
kitchen to multinational corporations, yet they have common needs and
interests: product development, packaging, marketing, quality control, "economies of scale" for cooperating small businesses and changing
technology that improves processing and opens worldwide markets. For
small processors, networking — connecting people to the resources — is
"The gourmet part of the market has grown a lot in the last 15 years,
especially in Maine," says Bushway. "Many Maine products, especially
organic or all-natural, are growing and being successful in niche
markets, where they're not competing with large national chains."
Bushway and Beth Calder, University of Maine Cooperative Extension food
science specialist, field more than 400 calls, e-mails and letters a
year about small-scale food production, including some queries that
begin: "I've got this new product that I'm making in my kitchen. Where
should I go from here?"
Bushway helps guide food entrepreneurs through the federal and state
regulations regarding food processing, while Calder and Connie Johnson,
the pilot plant manager, focus on product development and offer grant
writing assistance — review, input and letters of support.
"We function as a team, and that makes a huge difference," says Johnson.
"With his decades of experience, knowledge and scientific background, in
a moment Al can (reference) research to save us time in product
development. He knows what works and what doesn't. Beth has a scientific
background and networking capabilities. She knows who in the state is
involved in food production and how to connect producers to the right
government licensing agencies. I have the technical expertise, working
with the equipment in the pilot plant, looking at producers' facilities
and making recommendations on maintenance, warranties and new
"For home-based businesses, profit margins on foods are often not that
great," Bushway says. "If the business grows, the next step involves
finding the capital to make the jump to a larger operation. It can be a
tough decision, but some companies are quite successful. For them,
understanding marketing is critical."
Artisan food makers have to be experts in their products and in
business, McConnon says. "The challenge is to find the time to produce a
quality product and address the needs for good marketing, pricing and
business planning. Developing business skills and putting them into
practice increases their chances of survival."
Maine's successful food entrepreneurs share common characteristics, the
experts agree. They are people who have energy, ambition and drive.
They're willing to take a chance and resilient enough to take the ups
and downs that come with commercializing a food product.
"These are people who are trying to improve some aspect of their lives,"
says Calder. "Their products have personal stories behind them.
(Consumers should have) pride in knowing these are Maine people going
through with their labors of love and coming out with these great
A lot of people out there have dreams of starting their own food
businesses, says Johnson. "That's why they should make that first phone
call. We're in a position to help people plant the seeds to grow their
by Margaret Nagle
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