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Northern Girl: from ‘hippie farmers’ to regional food supplier

When Leah Cook and her family moved to the St. John Valley 15 years ago and took up organic gardening and raising animals on their Grand Isle farm, she said more than one resident dismissed them as “hippy farmers.”

Years later, Leah and her sister Marada Cook have taken all they learned on that family farm, applied 21st century technology and business practices and created Northern Girl to sell local produce to niche markets around New England and along the Atlantic seaboard.

Northern Girl started in October 2011 with four employees, a small facility and a test kitchen in the old NCO club on the former Loring Air Force Base.

“The Limestone facility was really R&D (research and development) for us. That is where we learned production and supply and figured out what we are good at,” Chris Hallweaver, Northern Girl plant manager, said. “What we are really good at is beets.”

Based in Van Buren, the business is processing, freezing and shipping beets in addition to carrots, potatoes and a “root medley vegetable” in 24-ounce bags.

Beets and potato wedges are going to Whole Foods markets for use in their prepared food delis around New England and the Atlantic region.

A number of corporate and school cafeterias in Maine are receiving the beets, potatoes, carrot sticks and root-vegetable medleys.

A 24-ounce bag of Northern Girl produce is retailing for around $5, according to Hallweaver.

Last week Leah Cook, vice president of Northern Girl, said she and her sister, the company president, had been planning for years to set up a processing operation in the Van Buren area.

Last summer, they finally made the move to a brand new building they are leasing from the town built specifically with Northern Girl in mind with funding from United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development.

Then, a $230,000 loan from the Maine Community Foundation and Fair Food Fund allowed the Cook sisters to equip their plant with up-to-date processing equipment.

“By helping scale production, the loan to Northern Girl has a ripple effect that will spur job creation in rural Maine, provide additional revenue for farmers and increase consumer access to local, sustainably produced food,” Meredith Jones, Maine Community Foundation president and CEO, said.

The business has 20 full- and part-time employees who spend most of their time in the facility’s spotless and cavernous processing room peeling, slicing, par-boiling, freezing and packaging produce supplied by local farmers.