MAINE TALES. “PUTTING HEADS TOGETHER.” FORT KENT, MAINE Fort Kent, Maine. Circa 2008.
Worlds colliding, the last thing I expected during that dinner break was for a debonair Canadian titan of industry in his three-piece-suit to make a fast beeline towards me.
We were all convened for a business gathering. Maine Governor John Baldacci was hosting New Brunswick’s Premier Shawn Graham for a Roundtable Business Summit in the tippy-top Northern Maine border-town of Fort Kent. The Summit was held during the buoyant, halcyon days of pre-Great Recession Springtime. The format involved the neighboring political leaders bringing with them a cadre of members from their business communities so that all could discuss common business challenges and opportunities.
It was a Saturday event. Being mid-May we had just begun to harrow our own Potato fields in the previous week. May is universally the most harried month of the year for North American farmers. That distills down to the fact that we don’t get around much until planting is completed in June.
On this rare May trip northward I was surprised by the stark difference latitude had made over the length of the eighty mile journey to this American side of French Acadia. Spring had not sprung in this historically francophone point of origin for US Route One. To use English Aroostook jargon, no one up towards Fort Kent had yet “spun a wheel”. My quick calculation was that if Fort Kent’s growing season was shaved by a solid week in the Spring as compared to us, they must also stand to lose another week in the Fall. With Northern Maine’s already paltry growing season to begin with, a reduction by another couple of weeks must present itself as a steep challenge for area crop production.
In the lead up, our Governor and the Premier were tasked with enlisting business representatives to attend this one-day Summit. For a Democrat like Bangor’s John Baldacci, the pickins’ are slim in Northern Maine as our Dem business bench runs thin. However, the good Governor did manage to roust up his necessary contingent.
On Team Maine represented independent businesses, including the owner of a backwoods sportsman camp, the head of a fabricating company which builds fire engine apparatus and one Organic farmer who grows a little bit of Maine’s iconic Potato crop. The Governor’s business group were all hands-on Maine small business owners. We showed up, as rural Mainers typically are wont to do, dressed casually with open-collar-shirts sans sports coats.
Weren’t we surprised to discover the high-octane team Premier Graham had brought with him. To a man, they were elite behemoths of New Brunswick industry. Attending were the CEO of New Brunswick Power, the head of Fraser Paper, and top executives from McCain’s Frozen Foods, JD Irving Ltd. and banking and mining interests. Power-dressed in Italian suits, starched white shirts and ties, they might just as well have been all on their way to a Canadian trade mission in Hong Kong.
Unrattled, our unpretentious Maine delegation offered our modest company thumbnails and perspectives on common challenges confronting our two similar and abutting rural colonies. In their initial presentations, the Canadians portrayed charm and were brimming over with confidence. Discussions soon ensued.
When it was my turn to talk, I offered an off-the-cuff rosy review of the recent rocket-like growth occurring in the Organic sector. Increasingly, consumers were thinking things through and concluding that the good life was an interwoven blend of good health, good pursuits and good eating.
Since Organic dairy farming was then flying high I choose to build my narrative around Organic milk and the hard-working organic family dairy farmers who then produced it. I made note that Organic milk had been identified as the primary entry point for new Organic eaters. So it stood to reason that continued robust Organic milk sales were a leading trend indicator of continued Organic industry growth.
Soon after offering my Organic ditty the Summit broke for dinner. That’s when the NB Power CEO in his three-piece suit walked briskly over to me. When within earshot, the first words out of his mouth were, “Why is the only Organic milk I can find always ultra-pasteurized?”
At first I offered an offhand reply. I remarked on the spread out geographic nature of the USA and its similarly sprawling Organic milk production and consumption, intertwined with the few-in-number concentration of dairy processors. In combination, these factors became inevitable economic pressure for concocting a distribution business model that would as much as possible free Organic milk from constraints common to this unique class of highly perishable foods.
Reassured that I knew something about what I was talking about, Mr. NB Power CEO soon loosened up and related his story. Not long before he had been headhunted in Toronto where he and his wife had become committed, gung-ho Organic whole-food aficionados. He had been successfully recruited to run NB Power. So, he moved wife, kids, whole kit and caboodle to a new home in the Canadian Maritimes.
His milk inquiry had been genuine. In the sophisticated and geographically-dense Toronto marketplace they had enjoyed the European-like availability of all things Organic, including raw and regular-pasteurized Organic milk. However, in sparsely-populated New Brunswick, Organic offerings were limited and his family could find nothing beyond semi-shelf-stable ultra-pasteurized Organic milk.
I related that in Maine for years there had been similar interest expressed for fresh Organic milk. Maine’s relatively compact size and good distribution of Organic milk production – at the time 20% of all dairy farmers in the State of Maine were Organic – made the fresh Organic milk alternative a promising possibility. In time, fledgling fresh Organic milk distribution attempts would be made in Maine. It seemed conceivable that given the right combination of entrepaneurial Organic dairy farmers in proximity to Provincial-capitol Fredericton, and its long established and thriving year-round Boyce Farmers Market, that there was no good reason why fresh Organic milk could not one day become a reality.
My CEO encounter at the business Summit once again provided a good reminder that you can’t tell a book by its cover.