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Farm Fresh helps keep kids learning

Good eatin' may well be what life is all about; at least in Martha Putnam's world. But what you may not know is she's having an impact on the food you eat every day right here in Maine. You see — long before Buy Local came into fashion, Martha was hard at work with a vision. Fourteen years ago, she took a long hard look at food distribution, and set out to make change — in her car, with a pad of paper, she reached out to local farms, seeking ways to bring fresh local produce from farm to table in Maine — she had no warehouse!10-24-oped-KV-farm

Today, her food distribution company, Farm Fresh buys, markets, and distributes food for over 150 farms all over Maine.

These days, as Portland has become recognized as a haven for foodies, Maine is serving up some impressive fresh stuff on their menus that goes way beyond restaurants to school lunch programs, hospitals, and other institutions — in part because of the business that Martha established 14 years ago.

Eight years ago, she married John Schwent of Wealden Farm in Freeport. Together, Martha runs her distribution business from the barn they built and John runs the farm at 19 Pleasant Hill Road, in Freeport where he grew up. Their seven-acre farm grows a diverse range of vegetables. John starts the seedlings in February in their wood fired greenhouse. Customers can purchase vegetable and flower seedlings at their farm and the farm stand is open daily. They have a loyal customer following via their farm blog — the goal is to educate, inform and enlighten people to the advantages of eating local and enjoying chemical free produce. http://wealdenfarm.blogspot.com/

Food brings people together. After all, we all need to eat. What we eat matters. And, as our local economy is challenged to be sustainable, Martha sees the farming connection to be the integral link. For through a local distribution channel, there is a smaller carbon imprint — not only are things on a smaller scale; it becomes an economy of scale. Simply put; food that travels shorter distances, arrives sooner, fresher, and costs less going from point A to point B. When a sustainable economy can be built on farming, Maine's beautiful farm landscape is preserved — not just in its landscape, but in its people. Despite Farm Fresh's tremendous growth, the human connection remains: all invoices are hand written and hand delivered!

Business is booming. There seems to be a re-birth in the desire to farm in Maine, and it is attracting the young and educated. They're world traveled, and they've chosen Maine to come and farm! They appreciate their earned degrees, but say no thanks to the desk jobs; opting instead, for something good to eat. Farming fits their palate.

Such is the case for Farm Fresh's newest employee, Mariel Nunes. Originally from Cambridge Massachusetts, she pursued a degree in Psychology from University of Pennsylvania, landed a job as a paralegal in a Massachusetts law firm, and hated it. Soul searching, she took up yoga in India, trekked Nepal, traveled through Southeast Asia, and then throughout the U.S., where she WWoofed (working organic farms in exchange for room and board), eventually landing in Maine where she met Martha and John.

Marveling at their similarities (Martha has a degree in psychology too); Mariel started out wearing many different hats: from the greenhouse, to truck loading, over the summer, she made calls, organized orders, packing the truck, wrote invoices, and sent the truck off to make deliveries. Today, she spends time going to events, meeting people, spreading the word, and connecting with customers. She's morphed into a sales role that she loves.

"It's really all just fun when you are working with good people."

Her job challenges her mentally and physically each day. She's constantly learning about hundreds of vegetables; when their growing seasons peaks; where they grow best in Maine. She's re-trained her brain to do fast math — all part of paper invoices!.

"I get a lot of exercise moving produce around the walk-in and warehouse; I love supporting [the] farmers and building relationships with them," explains Mariel who equally enjoys getting to know the people she sells too.

This would include the Portland Public Schools; a strong supporter of Farm Fresh; nearly half of the schools menu comes from local farms. It goes way beyond serving strange new vegetables to kids. Rather, it involves education, with hands-on experience. Kids come to know exactly what local food means — schools are planting gardens, cafeterias have taste tastings, and days become events, such as Local Thursdays — where everything on the menu is local.

"Kids don't learn if they're hungry," explains Mariel. "We distribute fresh food, high in nutrients, and it's making a difference in the lives of our kids."

It's also making a difference in the lives of our community and economy. Local grocers and chefs appreciate the produce that arrives at their back door. "We help chefs around town who are doing brilliant things with our produce; creating an industry, and making Portland a true 'foodie hub.'"

But most of all, this provides relief and renewed purpose for Maine's mid-sized farms, who once felt squeezed out of the grocery produce business by mass production large monoculture farms, who sold grocery chains on lower price; Maine has seemingly been able to find its niche. These farms offer greater vegetable varieties — welcomed in smaller independent markets, restaurants, and schools; when the consumer is introduced to the new taste, demand for fresh and local becomes even stronger.

Step aside mashed potatoes, make room for pureed roasted turnip; goodbye chemically induced mammoth oranges; local pears rule — good eatin' has arrived in Maine, grab your fork, and dig in! To learn more, www.farmfreshconnection.org.

(Karen Vachon is a Scarborough resident. She is a licensed health and life insurance agent and active community volunteer. To follow her on Facebook, go to: http://www.facebook.com/karenvachonhealth.)

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