People in Blue Hill Maine really care about food. Eaters of all persuasions live here: heritage meat grazers, diversified organic farmers, vegans who run animal sanctuaries and vegans who run schools for children. Many innovative, outside-the-box thinkers, passionately pursue their chosen path where the rolling glacial tilth meets the rocky ragged shore. The Blue Hill Co-operative Grocery and Café sits right in the middle, selling food from local farms and cottage purveyors, as well as organic products from all over the world.
Begun as a bulk-buying club in 1974, the Co-op now has around 1100 owners. The total population of the area is about 8000, making Co-op ownership a popular form of local support. With 26 year-round staff-members, the Co-op is the fourth largest employer on the Peninsula, which is how coastal dwelling Mainers reckon area. You are either ‘on the peninsula’ or ‘off peninsula’ at any given moment. There are a few peninsulas, islands and lots of inland area in Hancock County, which claims both the eldest median age population in Maine (itself the most aged state in the union) and the healthiest. Co-op owners typify both of these statistics.
The space itself is small, around 1800 square feet for almost 10,000 items. The staff works creatively to make it feel bright, relaxed and open. The deli serves delicious fare daily, pleasing a broad range of diets and tastes. The bulk, grocery and wellness departments all do brisk business. Produce, given the prevalence of farmers’ markets and farm stands, thrives, perhaps because of the locals’ craving for fresh vegetables.
So intimate are the folks who live here, that locally grown produce and meats are often thought of in relation to the person who grew them, or by the farm’s name. “King Hill carrots, Horsepower Farm potatoes, Eliot’s eggs, Phil & Heather’s beef, Tinder Hearth bread” and many, many more are all commonly heard in conversation. It makes for very close-knit community. The folks are drawn here from all over the world, to apprentice on the myriad farms, to find a quieter life, to be artists, to live the ‘goof life’ like their iconic forebears Helen and Scot Nearing. In the 1950’s when the Nearings moved to the area, farming and writing books, igniting the “back to the land” movement, did they imagine this day?
Another iconic local group is The “Local Food Local Rules” movement, which has helped towns across Maine and the country pass ordinances protecting citizens’ rights to private contract when buying food from each other. These two groups overlap somewhat, and encompass a wide swathe of political beliefs, eating practices, and philosophies. They share many things: a desire to thrive without many of the trappings of overarching consumer culture, a devotion to the soil and sea themselves, a unity within diversity, where vegans, pescatarians, heritage breed hog raisers, micro scale raw dairy farmers, grass-farmers, hopeful homesteaders and any number of iconoclasts can be found sharing coffee, soup, and lively conversation in the sunny Co-op café.