Bowdoin Feeds Farmers to Bolster Ties to Local Food Economy

When Paul Dobbins walked into Thorne Dining Hall on a recent afternoon for lunch, introducing himself as a Portland-based seaweed farmer to Mary Lou Kennedy, her eyes lit up.

“I would love to get some of your kelp here!” exclaimed Kennedy, Bowdoin’s director of dining. “It’s such a great source of iodine and other nutrients.” At this, Dobbins launched into his purposefully overstated sales pitch: “It is great! I eat it everyday. I’m 99 and don’t look a day over 50.”

Dobbins, however, was not on campus to sell his kelp products; rather, he was a guest of the College’s regular “Feed the Farmer” lunch series. For the past five years, Dining Services has brought in local farmers — both ones who provide food to the College and a few who don’t — to come meet students, staff and faculty who are interested in the local food economy.

Paul Dobbins, owner of Ocean Approved

This year, the four-week Monday-afternoon series has focused on marketing, on community-supported agriculture for meat and vegetables, and on value-added products. For a complete list of this year’s participants, go here.

Kennedy said the lunchtime sessions are both generally informative and also specifically helpful to dining operations. “The farmers will tell us what their issues are and how we might work together better, such as how much lead time is helpful to them for our local dinners, and what [products] are available at that time.” Or, they might bring attention to any new products they are selling, she added.

Jonathan Holmes, who organizes the farmer series and is in charge of sourcing products for Bowdoin’s menus, says he is always seeking new local sources for dining hall recipes. “Right now over 30% of our food is produced or processed in New England,” he noted, “and it’s something we’re always trying to increase.”

Doug and Heather Donahue, owners of Balfour Farm

From Kelp to Cheese
For the most recent “Feed the Farmer” event, two others besides Dobbins dropped in for lunch: dairy farmers Heather and Doug Donahue, owners of Balfour Farm in Pittsfield.

The Donahues described their dairy operation and their products of yogurt, butter, cheese, cream, etc. They also answered questions from the audience, which on this day consisted of an interested community member, dining employees and a couple of students, including Shannon Grimes ’14.

Grimes, president of the Bowdoin Green Alliance, said she attends the Feed the Farmer lunches regularly because she’s interested in local food and agriculture movements. “I think it’s important for Bowdoin to be involved with these discussions and I want to learn what we as students can do,” she said.

After the Donahues finished talking about their farm, Dobbins described his start-up, Ocean Approved, which is the first commercial kelp farm in the United States. He and his partner, Tollef Olson, currently farm eight acres of ocean, in Casco Bay and near the town of Blue Hill. They harvest 70,000 pounds of kelp per acre.

“It’s very efficient,” Dobbins said. “Kelp growing doesn’t require arable land, fresh water or supplements.”

Following lunch, Dobbins chatted with the Donahues about the possibility of providing them with Ocean Approved’s kelp scraps — the unwanted bits trimmed from the seaweed — to feed their cows as a food supplement.

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