Determined Employee Brings Local Produce to Maine Commissary
BANGOR, Maine — A commissary isn’t the first place most people think of when it comes to buying locally produced food. However, the commissary in Bangor should come to mind quickly when shoppers are thinking about fresh blueberries, Maine potatoes and vegetables.
Bonnie Young has been shopping at the Bangor Air National Guard Base Commissary for 27 years. She’s worked there for the past 11 years, the last two in the produce department.
“I’m a store associate attached to produce,” Young said. “This means, I run the produce department in lieu of a manager. We are a small store and don’t have a billet for a manager in produce.”
There wasn’t any locally grown produce available when Young started working in the Bangor commissary.
“I started looking for Maine potatoes when I first came to the position in December 2009,” said Young.
She isn’t allowed to solicit farmers, complicating the process. They have to come to her first. Once contact is established, she can continue communicating as necessary.
“I finally got them November 2010. Then in July we got Maine blueberries,” she said. “This fall we got Maine apples, Maine squashes, and now Maine greens. We are up to 6 percent in less than a year. I think now that the ball is rolling, that number will rise.”
A lot of effort went into bringing local produce into the store, even though the commissary is on the edge of farm country.
Aroostook County, commonly known as “the County,” is well known for its potatoes. The potatoes were passing the commissary on their way to the distributor.
“I wanted Maine potatoes for our store in Maine. We were only carrying Rhode Island and Idaho potatoes,” Young said. “The cost of shipping Maine potatoes to Rhode Island, where Tourtellot, our supply house, is located, then shipping them back to me was cost prohibitive.
“I was told about a buy local program that the Defense Commissary Agency had that would allow me to get them right from Aroostook County, but I could not call farmers. And the farmers would have to be able to deliver,” Young said.
“I was talking about it at my church one Sunday, and one of the members knew someone who knew someone.”
Soon, young got a call from Davis Egg Co. in Newport, Maine, asking if she was interested in purchasing potatoes. Davis Egg delivers eggs to Aroostook County and backhauls potatoes.
“That’s how we got the potatoes,” she said.
Young works with farmers to make this work, and farmers are working with each other. Backhauling potatoes is good for the potato farmer, Davis Egg Co. and the commissary. The potato farmer gained a new customer, Davis Egg Co. has a backhaul to help pay transportation costs, and the commissary’s customers have Maine potatoes they can afford.
“I went to an event in the winter of 2010, and was talking about my job, and how I wanted local produce, but the rules made it very difficult for me to get it,” Young recalled. “Worcester Blueberries then contacted me and asked if I would be interested in local blueberries. I was.”
From the same event, a woman who was just starting a farm contacted Young about selling her produce at the commissary. Although they ultimately weren’t able to do business, the woman referred John Burgess to Young. Burgess, owner of Burgess Farm in Newport, is now the commissary’s pumpkin and squash supplier.
Networking has secured five farms for the commissary and more to come.
“When a customer saw the blueberries, he asked if we would be getting Maine apples. I told him of the process, and he’s been giving out my name and number to every farmer he meets,” Young said. “It was his referral that prompted Rowe’s Apple Orchard to call, and we now have Maine apples. Rowe’s then spoke with Lakeside Family Farm, who then contacted me, and we now carry their winter greens, and are looking forward to next season, when they may be able to supply more of our green line.”
Young offers 19 locally grown products during the course of a year. Some of the vegetables can be stored, so when she needs more she calls the farmer to place an order. She’s looking for more produce, especially root crops such as parsnips and rutabagas.
“It’s exciting. This is my baby. This is the way buying and selling should be. It’s win-win all around,” she said.
Young has created signage for each item that lists the name of the farm and its location. Burgess, the pumpkin and squash farmer, uses locally purchased seeds, so Young includes that information on the sign, as well.
Farmers can be intimidated or turned off by signing a government contract, Young said, but it’s much simpler than they realize.
“This has been a wonderful experience. When I get a local farm, I have to send the information down to our supply house, which is Tourtellot in Rhode Island, and they handle all of the paperwork and billing,” she said. “Guy Menard, from Tourtellot, handles that entire element for us. One would think that since we are not making the purchase from them, they would not be helpful. This was not the case. All the farmers I spoke with were very impressed with Guy’s helpfulness, in getting the paperwork tended to, and making sure they get paid in a timely manner. ...
“What a joy it is to work with people who are helping each other out, and sharing their contacts. I don’t think you see that mindset in a lot of other businesses,” Young said.
She speaks fondly of her customers, as well, who are so excited about getting local products that they are telling everyone they know.
“The Buy Fresh Buy Local movement, I think, became real when they saw the quality of the product, and the lower cost because we aren’t shipping from so far away,” she said.
Young plans deliveries to the commissary around times when farmers are already going to be in the area, rather than having them make a special trip. It helps keep farmers’ fuel costs under control.
Melissa Fish shops in the commissary and is happy with the new selections.
“I pass the word in my circle of commissary shoppers,” Fish said. “I’m very glad that Bonnie’s bringing more local produce to the store. It looks tenfold better than it ever has, and she is doing a fantastic job.”
The National Guard base has been supportive, too.
“When the Maine potatoes first arrived, the base gave me a Maine state flag to hang over them,” Young recalled. “They were that pleased to see Maine potatoes in their commissary.”
Young is currently in talks with Jason Hartford from Green Ledges Farm, a USDA-certified organic farm. If all works out, Hartford will be the first certified organic producer to sign a contract.
“He is willing to drop the price of his produce to be able to make available organic produce to our service members and their families,” she said. “What a great group of people I get to work with!”
Commissary management wasn’t always as enthusiastic as Young when it came to locally produced foods, but the numbers have helped change that.
Between September 2010 and September of this year, produce sales increased by 64.95 percent.
“I think what turned the tide for the management was the blueberry sales in July,” said Young. “Through the supply house, I was selling five to six cases of blueberries a week. Shifting to local blueberries, I did 30 cases a week through the season.
“This is a great ride. I’m loving every minute of it.”
Contact Young at Bonnie.Young<\@>deca.mil or 207-404-7752.