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As Restaurants Close, Website Connects Maine Farmers With Consumers

Chris Carlson
Associated Press
A vender wearing rubber gloves packs strawberries at the Tustin farmers market on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Tustin, Calif.

The coronavirus is drying up a key sector that many of Maine’s farmers, fishermen and other producers depend on — restaurants. But Waldoboro farmer’s attempt to help herself and other Maine growers make new connections with retail customers is bearing fruit.

About two weeks ago, Allison Lakin of East Forty Farm watched her sales of pork and cheese to restaurants suddenly decline, as the spread of the coronavirus prompted state government to shutter dining rooms.

“And 85 percent of my business is direct sales to restaurants,” she says.

The story was the same for her friends in the same sector.

Lakin responded by publishing a shareable spreadsheet where producers can list offerings — for pickup and in some cases delivery. The University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension liked the result so well it asked her permission to take it over and boost its online presence.

The extension now hosts an interactive web resource, with a clickable map and a database that can be searched for specific products, from sheep cheese to scallops. Some 300 Maine producers are featured so far.

“The fact that I created this on Monday, on Tuesday was contacted and by Thursday there was a live website, I was incredibly impressed that this came together so fast, and in a really pretty elegant way,” Lakin says.

In four days the site’s been visited more than 25,000 times — an indicator that Mainers are looking for new ways to procure healthy food while maintaining social distance. Lakin’s already seen a modest but noticeable increase in traffic at her farm stand.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.