HOPE – The blueberry barrens were abuzz Monday afternoon at Brodis Blueberries with a visit from Governor Janet Mills to announce the state is using $20 million in federal relief funds to directly invest in Maine’s farming communities that have been impacted by COVID-19.
Ron Howard, manager of Brodis Farm said his farm had been impacted significantly by COVID.
“The farm is owned by my mother-in-law, Gwen Brodis,” said Howard. “For years and years, she sold the blueberries out of her house. She made and sold all the jams, as well. The customers would come into the house to buy and when COVID hit we knew we could not do that, so we invested in a new building and barn at 87 Jones Hill Road to be able to continue the business.”
Howard said the pandemic started some positive trends for blueberries as people began eating at home and were more health-conscious.
Brodis encompasses 170 acres of wild blueberries though the farm is over 800 acres in total.
“We’re very thankful for all the work the governor and her office has done to help us get through this crisis,” said Howard.
Gwen Brodis, owner of the farm, said it has been in her family for seven generations and she has been making jams since the early 1960s. We asked her what the secret was to making great blueberry jams and jellies.
“That’s a secret,” she quipped. “If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret, but I can say you start with only the freshest blueberries. You pick over them and make sure you only use the best. I’ll usually start with about five pounds of blueberries for a batch.”
Governor Mills spoke to farming as it is in her family. Her grandfather was a potato farmer in Ashland. And her family were farmers generations before that.
“There’s a lot of farming history in my family,” she said. “I know something about the work ethic and ingenuity that goes into farming and the hardiness of every farm family across the state of Maine.”
Mills said 7,600 farms in the state, many of which were struggling with aging infrastructure, lack of refrigeration, and processing made farmers get creative with how to keep sales during the pandemic.
Mills said her administration has so far awarded $18 million in federal relief to more than 600 farms, food processors, and food banks across the state. Funds helped Brodis Blueberries build a new processing center to help sell wild blueberries to consumers.
Mills used her appearance at Brodis Blueberries to announce what she called an unprecedented investment in the state's farms and food processors.
“We are creating something we call the Agricultural Infrastructure Investment Program,” she said. “The program is backed by $20 million from the American Rescue Plan, this program will provide direct grants to help farmers and food processors upgrade their infrastructure.”
Mills pointed out that funding will range from small grants for on-farm improvements to larger grants for capital projects. No minimum amount or matching funds are required and there is no interest as it is a grant and you do not have to pay it back.
Amanda Beal who serves as the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, explained that in the coming weeks, applications will be accepted and will be available on their department's website in December.
“We all know that our national resource industries are part of the foundation of Maine’s economy,” she said. “We look forward to the impact these funds will have on excellent operations like the one we are standing in front of today.”
Mills toured the inside of Brodis Blueberries, which includes Blue Barren Distillery that is owned by Jeremy Howard and Andrew Stewart. She was surprised to learn that the freezer inside the facility was a salvage from the torn down Camden/Rockport Middle School.