MH&T: An intermediary between food suppliers and guests

This week, the third week of my January Internship with Maine Huts & Trails (MH&T), I stepped outside the organization itself. I had the privilege of interviewing Jos Thalheimer of Riverweb Farm, Jarod Frigon of Carrabassett Coffee, and Deborah Chadbourne of Rasmussen Farm, all suppliers of food to MH&T.

My first interview of the week, with Jos, was valuable because he clarified the way I was viewing the relationship between food suppliers like himself, MH&T, and guests. I was referring to MH&T guests as the customers of food suppliers and of MH&T, and Jos gently corrected me by saying, “Don’t confuse my customer with MH&T’s customer. My customer is John [Winter, MH&T Hut Manager].” A successful exchange with a MH&T guest, a final consumer, is different than a successful exchange with an intermediary like MH&T, which relies only on the timely delivery of the desired quantity of clean, quality produce. Once that produce is out of the Jos’s hands, he can’t control what MH&T does with it, and it may not be productive for him to concern himself with its journey from the MH&T office to a table at a hut.

I think that in Jos’s place, I would have to focus on my buyer and ignore the final consumer of my product to avoid frustration. Jos has intermediary buyers additional to MH&T, and he feels that often, they don’t bother with what kind of fertilizer he’s using, if he’s certified organic, or how he’s paying his employees – they worry about the price of the product, when he can get it to them, and if they can call it local so that it has some added value to their customer. In the end, Jos doesn’t often know how intermediaries label his products. The label is up to them. That means he doesn’t necessarily get credit for being a producer, or for being a responsible producer.

Becoming aware of a lack of proper recognition to food producers made me eager to revisit the Carrabassett Coffee roastery in Kingfield, knowing that Carrabassett Coffee is kind enough to donate coffee to MH&T. Yes, donate. Jarod graciously showed me the coffee roasters and entertained my curiosity about the source of the beans for MH&T Backcountry Blend (Mexico, Peru, and Timor, if you want to know!), as well as the beans for Bad Dog Blend and Back Draft Roast, served in the Colby dining halls. Jarod shared that the reasons for Carrabassett Coffee’s support of MH&T are simple: the company’s founder was a good man who liked to do the right thing. He wanted to give MH&T a boost and he liked the idea of coming in from the cold for a cup of good coffee.

MH&T is positioned as a receiver of goods, information, and kindness from the community and that position gives the organization power and motivation to provide community support beyond money transfer. In thinking about how MH&T could give more to food suppliers, I considered MH&T’s potential as a marketing channel for people like Deborah of Rasmussen Farm. Deborah shared that the Western Maine Market, Franklin County’s Online Farmer’s Market, which she manages, is not as profitable each week as she knows it could be. She knows that she just needs to do more marketing. The idea of the ability to shop (whenever it’s convenient) for fresh, locally-produced food, which can be delivered at no cost to homes and workplaces along a route in Farmington, through Kingfield, to Strong, must appeal to more people than those already using it. However, as she manages the online market, updates the facebook page, writes a weekly newsletter, and makes the deliveries on top of producing and selling her own value-added products all winter, she doesn’t quite have time for more marketing. It’s really hard to run a market like the Western Maine Market. Could MH&T help her out by providing some information about the market on a poster, or in a booklet at the huts?

Maybe! But I must remember that MH&T needs to make money itself, and guests probably don’t want to be advertised to as part of their hut experience. Perhaps, instead of becoming a marketing channel, MH&T just needs to continue to be a responsible information user. As a student, I am encouraged to use information responsibly by citing my sources – both in-text and in a bibliography. The MH&T equivalent of an in-text citation is the diligent acknowledgement of ingredient sources as the hut staff set a meal on the table. The MH&T equivalent of a bibliography is the list of farmers and food producers supplying the huts, posted both on the MH&T website and on the walls of all the Maine Huts. If the list of the farmers and food producers – the bibliography – were annotated to outline the responsible practices or the hard-earned certifications of the food suppliers, the guests who want to source-check would be satisfied, and the food suppliers would get full credit for the goods they produce as well as the work they put into production.

– Lena Martin ’20