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Agriculture & Foods - Pleasing Palates

Science helps Maine specialty food producers find their niche

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 Extension.

Al Bushway

Alfred Bushway

And Al.

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 refrigeration.

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 temperatures.

“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 is available.

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 particularly important.

“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 technology.”

“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 products.”

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 products.

by Margaret Nagle

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