The ‘country gentlemen’ starting a sustainable food movement in Aroostook

3 years ago

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Blake Harvey and Michael Smith are on a mission to bring farm fresh foods and products to the dinner tables of people throughout Aroostook County and beyond.

Since early 2021, Harvey and Smith have been the owners of Shop Small Farms, LLC, a Mars Hill-based company that delivers food from local growers to customers who place orders online or by phone. Their goal is to expand access to locally produced dairy, meat, poultry and vegetables in a market that often shifts agricultural products away from Aroostook and into the hands of national corporate customers.

“We’re not trying to compete with grocery stores or stigmatize them. We want to highlight local, sustainable agriculture, which is a major economic driver for this region,” Harvey said. “We want to keep the supply chain going locally.”

New York natives Harvey and Smith, who call themselves “Two Country Gentlemen” on their website, took over Shop Small Farms after founder Roxanne Bruce left due to a long-term illness. Bruce had partnered with 100 Aroostook farmers but the pandemic and health-related challenges limited what she could do.

This year Harvey and Smith are rebuilding connections with the agricultural community and delivering products from 24 farmers to 35 customers from Island Falls to Madawaska. They have also hired employees in southern Maine to coordinate deliveries to customers in Bangor and Ellsworth.

To help people get even more access to local food products, Harvey and Smith, who are also life partners, will open a year-round cooperative farm and maker market at 473 Main St. in Presque Isle. Seasonal foods will be available, as well as a cafe that sells sandwiches and locally brewed coffee.

“Our customers want to support local farmers and they’re the ones who kept saying we should have a shop,” Smith said, on the inspiration behind the new market.

To cover licensing and equipment expenses for the market, Harvey and Smith have set up a Go Fund Me campaign and have raised $925 toward their $2,500 goal. They hope to open the market in late October or early November.

With most farmers markets ceasing operation in mid to late fall, Harvey and Smith will  partner with greenhouse growers for a fresh supply of products throughout the winter. 

“A lot of our customers love visiting farm stands, but they can’t travel to every one,” Harvey said. “Being open year-round will allow us to carry these fresh products that people want to buy.”

Farmers and other entrepreneurs who have partnered with Shop Small Farms are excited about opportunities to expand their markets.

Joe Marley, owner of the Smyrna Mills poultry farm Marley Mountain Farms, said that Shop Small Farms has allowed him to reach customers in towns like Caribou and Fort Kent. He had mostly focused on southern Aroostook and Presque Isle.

“They’re able to work with farmers on their schedules and be good middle men between us and customers,” Marley said. “We have already talked about me supplying beef, pork and chicken once the shop is up and running.”

Alan Susee, owner of Red Devil Coffee in Fort Kent who has operated his roasted coffee shop and online deliveries since 2018, said that farmers and small business owners like himself often do not have the resources to fully invest in marketing. 

But collaborating with Shop Small Farms can help him grow his base of Aroostook customers, he said.

“Aroostook County has diverse producers of products, but we’re often our best kept secret,” Susee said. “I ship and sell coffee nationwide more than I sell locally. Local customers are creatures of habit, so they’ll often get their coffee at McDonald’s. I’ve relied a lot on word of mouth.”

Helping farmers and producers find a larger local audience is a major goal for Harvey and Smith, in addition to expanding Shop Small Farms into statewide deliveries. By focusing on sustainable food products, meaning food that is grown with little environmental impact, they hope to tap into Aroostook people’s support of local agriculture and encourage healthier lifestyles.

“Farmers have told us that even though things are tough [economically] right now, people are still buying from them. They want chemical-free foods. They want to protect themselves, especially during this pandemic, ” Harvey said. “I think Shop Small Farms has shown that protecting ourselves really does start at the dinner table.”