AUGUSTA – Successfully marketing Maine’s products is the priority of the 23rd annual Maine Agriculture Trade Show, being held through 3 p.m. Thursday at the Augusta Civic Center.
Hundreds of visitors flocked to opening day Tuesday, including farmers, processors, producers and experts in most of Maine’s agricultural fields, offering sales and advice on everything from blueberries to beef to grain to greenhouses.
A major part of Maine’s agricultural marketing strategy, said many of the producers at the exposition, is linking local consumers to local products.
Tom Gyger, a Bridgton apple producer, said his farm is a perfect example of this “return to our roots, local marketing.”
“Until a decade ago, we sold only wholesale for 35 years. We grew apples, stored apples and packed apples, but a broker sold them for us,” he said. “Now, we don’t sell apples. We sell an experience.”
Over the past five years, Gyger has changed the way he does business. He now provides wagon rides through his pick-your-own orchard, as well as having an on-site petting zoo for children.
“I have a customer from New Hampshire that drives 21/2 hours to come buy apples,” said Gyger. “Those aren’t food dollars being spent, those are entertainment dollars.”
Agritourism, as it is called, is a priority with the Maine Department of Agriculture.
Mary Ellen Johnston, head of marketing for the department, said, “Agriculture is now a part of the tourism message. Consumers want a connection with the land and their neighbors. They care where their food is coming from.”
Jim Amaral of Borealis Breads said he hears daily from customers who are pleased he is buying grain from local growers. “There is no question that the local connection is our ace,” he said.
Maine Department of Agriculture-backed events such as Maine Farm Days, Open Farm Day and the Great Apple Day continue to bridge the consumer and the farmer.
Pat and Ed Jillison of the Maine Maple Producers Association said that Maine Maple Sunday has revolutionized local marketing. “We do [more business] in that one day than we do in five other weekends,” said Pat Jillison.
The couple also opens up their sugarbush and sugarhouse to school trips.
Maine Agriculture Commissioner Robert Spear also stressed the priority of connecting with local producers during his annual luncheon Tuesday, when he recognized first lady Karen Baldacci for her commitment to the state’s agriculture.
Baldacci has held a half-dozen events at the Blaine House featuring local products, such as tomatoes, apples, squash, dairy, Christmas trees and Maine Menus Month.
Throughout the three-day show, workshops and meetings also have been scheduled around marketing issues, pursuing what Andrew Files of the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society called “food with a face.”
“By buying local food, local farms will be sustained,” he added.