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Maine Food Production Industry Thrives as Global Demand Rises

Learn how Maine farmers and fisheries are meeting today's needs for healthy, tasty and sustainable foods from land and sea.

By Kathryn Royster on September 25, 2015

With nearly 3,500 miles of rugged shoreline, Maine has always been defined by the sea. Its fishermen have made the state top in the nation for lobster production, bringing in more than 100 million pounds of the delicacy over the past few years. The highly regarded “Maine Made” label also extends to farm-raised seafood and locally grown produce such as berries and potatoes, along with kelp and other sea vegetables.
With today’s global demand for food surging and consumers demanding fresher, healthier and tastier foods, Maine’s food producers are leading the way, both on land and at sea.
Portland, the state’s largest city, is home to a growing specialty-foods industry that includes craft brewers, small-batch distilleries and even gelato made with milk from Maine dairy cows.
“We’re now in 46 of the 50 states, and our founder is looking to export our gelato to Asia,” says Bobby Guerette, marketing director for Brunswick-based Gelato Fiasco. “Other frozen-dairy producers would be co-packing at this point, using ingredients from other parts of the country. Instead, our gelato is 100 percent made in Maine.”
Bounty from the Sea
The 2011 Japanese tsunami and the subsequent Fukishima nuclear disaster made Asian food purveyors look to Maine for nori (edible seaweed) and kelp. The growing popularity of natural foods among U.S. consumers has also sparked a greater demand for edible forms of seaweed.
Maine’s cold water and tidal range make it ideal for growing edible seaweed. To keep up with demand for the product among whole foods suppliers, local producer Maine Coast Sea Vegetables is planning to move its operation from Franklin to a larger site in Hancock. It also launched its first seaweed farm on Frenchman Bay. The first crop will be ready in 2020.
“The wild plants we currently harvest aren’t going to suddenly produce more to meet the growing demand,” says Seraphina Erhart, general manager for Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. “Being able to seed ‘ropes’ of seaweed and grow it in a more controlled environment will give us a sustainable supply.”
A Sustainable Culture
Sustainability has long been a priority for Maine’s 6,000 lobster fishermen. The number of permits, timing of harvest, and size and age of lobsters caught have all been voluntary practices for more than 150 years. In Maine, lobstermen also mark egg-bearing females with a “V” and toss them back into the sea.
“We’re not vacuuming the bottom of the ocean, and we’re not factories at sea,” says Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. “We catch each lobster by hand.”
Restaurants, chefs and diners react positively to the story of the lobster’s sustainability – a factor that has contributed to the popularity of the delicacy. Not that it needed any help: the cold waters in the Gulf of Maine produce a variety of lobster unmatched in taste.
Moreover, Maine fisheries primarily catch soft-shell lobsters, preferred by chefs, during the peak season of early summer.
“Only Maine catches these kinds of lobsters,” Jacobson says.
Harvesting Profits
Lobster is Maine’s top export product, accounting for approximately $366 million in total export value. Lobster exports grew by 45.4 percent from 2013 and 2014.
“We’ve seen huge growth in Far Eastern markets for lobster,” says Jeff Bennett, senior trade specialist at the Maine International Trade Center (MITC). “Besides China, Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia are now countries where we export.”
Most exports are fresh lobster, though Maine is home to a smaller, but growing, frozen lobster segment. Portland-based Ready Seafood, for example, recently established two spinoffs that market frozen and direct-to-consumer lobster globally.
Some hearty lobstermen and women have even begun venturing out to sea during Maine’s chilly winters, aiming to meet the increased demand for lobster during the Chinese New Year.
Closer to home, Canada is a major buyer of Maine foods, some of which it processes and exports back to the U.S. The arrival of Icelandic shipper Eimskip in Portland has opened new export markets in the North Atlantic for food producers, and plans for a cold storage warehouse at the port could give regional international traders an additional boost.
Other popular Maine exports include farm-raised seafood such as oysters, mussels, clams, scallops and salmon, as well as potatoes, blueberries, maple syrup, and bakery products.
“Overall, Maine’s exports have increased by 17 percent in the past few years,” Bennett says. “That strong demand speaks to the high quality of everything we export.”

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