Transcription of Natural Foods from Local Farms #277

Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician, who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at Here are some highlights from this week’s program.
Gabrielle G.: Coming from the farmers’ market background, that was always the primary interest for us. The markets that we do in Brunswick are really quite strong and just getting stronger.
Tina Wilcoxson: Growing up in a farm community where most people were farming, especially around harvest time, it was just the whole town was in it together. You don’t really get that chance a lot, I don’t think, when the whole town is really pulling together for something. Oftentimes, unfortunately, you see that happen, the whole town pulling together, and it’s around a tragedy. This was the whole town pulling together around something good.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio show number 277, natural foods from local farms, airing for the first time on Sunday, January 8, 2017. Mainers care about where their food comes from. We are known for supporting local farmers and the businesses that sell our farmers’ produce and goods. Today we speak with Nate Drummond and Gabrielle Gosselin of Six River Farm in Bowdoinham and with Tina Wilcoxson, who sells Six River Farm organic vegetables at Royal River Natural Foods, the store she owns in Yarmouth. Thank you for joining us.
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Lisa Belisle: Today I have with me Nate Drummond and Gabrielle Gosselin, who are the owners of Six River Farm, a diverse organic vegetable farm, located on the shores of Merrymeeting Bay in Bowdoinham. Thanks for coming in today.
Gabrielle Gosselin: Thanks for having us.
Nate Drummond: Thanks for having us.
Lisa Belisle: This has been an interesting adventure for you, having this farm. I’m sure that you have learned a lot since you began.
Gabrielle Gosselin: Definitely.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me how this all started.
Nate Drummond: Well, I guess, gosh, way back when we were graduating from college we were surrounded by lots of friends who are starting to get into food and foodie-like people. I guess a couple years after college, or maybe a year after college, we actually moved down to New York City and were living in Brooklyn and just trying to find work to make it worthwhile to be there. After a period of time Gabrielle decided that she really didn’t want to be in her office job and found a job at the farmers’ markets in New York City for a couple farms that were in Upstate New York and would come down to the city. That became her full-time job.
Gabrielle G.: Yeah. When I was trying to figure out what we were doing and what I wanted to do in New York City, a friend asked me what made me happy about being in the city. I laughed and said “Oh, I really like going to the markets.” She said “Why don’t you just ask them for a job? Just go up, and whatever stand you like.” I hadn’t thought about that. I went and did that and worked for two farms that were fantastic farms. I learned a lot from the growers that came down and got more and more excited about the tangible, physical work of selling, and interacting with customers, and learning about food and food production, as well as food consumption. Sometimes on Saturdays I would get Nate to work with me if they needed an extra hand.
I think we both realized that living in New York was a temporary situation. It wasn’t something we wanted long-term. We both became more interested in doing physical, tangible work, and so we decided to go apprentice on a farm. We went to apprentice on Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle, New York, and it was the farm that seemed the closest to the one we envisioned for ourselves in the future. They were able to support their family year round, and sold primarily at farmers’ markets, and did a diverse vegetable operation. We learned from them, and they were incredible teachers, and then we decided to just jump in and start on our own, and learn a lot as we went from doing.
Nate Drummond: Yeah. That was back in 2007, so pretty much 10 years ago now. I grew up in Maine. Gabrielle grew up in Western Massachusetts in Amherst, so we wanted to be back in New England. We were just looking at trying to figure out farmland that was available, and we found a really nice parcel in Bowdoinham, so that’s where we ended up. When we started in 2007 we just grew two and a half acres of vegetables. It was just the two of us. We wanted to do farmers’ markets. That’s obviously what we knew well. I think Gabrielle in particular knew the marketing side of it very well from her time in New York City and whatnot. We were learning fast on the ground as far as all the other components of producing vegetables and the business side of it.
It’s been pretty much a 10 year adventure since then, and we still actually farm that original piece of land along with some other fields that we lease and also own. Six years ago we bought a house that’s adjacent that also has some farmland in Bowdoinham. Two years ago we had a daughter, Alice, who adds another great component to our farm adventure. Yeah, at this point we grow probably 15 acres of vegetables. We also have a decent number of greenhouses, so we operate all year round now. We do a winter farmers’ market in Brunswick along with the farmers’ markets during the spring, summer, and fall that are outside and combine that with some restaurant and natural food store sales, mostly in and around the Brunswick and Freeport area.
Yeah. From our starts of when it began it was just the two of us working, not really side by side usually, on opposite ends of the farm, but getting everything done together. Now we usually have a pretty good size crew in the summertime, and we keep some of them on throughout the whole winter as well.
Lisa Belisle: Did either one of you have a farming background in your families?
Gabrielle Gosselin: No, not at all actually. Maybe you had a little bit more experience with farming and gardening from growing up with your parents, but in my family there’s no interest in gardening, no interest in food in fact. Neither of my parents like to cook. We’ve had a lot of support since going down this route, but it’s definitely not what I grew up with.
Nate Drummond: No, I grew up with parents who love to garden and who are actually…. My parents are both university professors, entomologists at the University of Maine. They study insects, so we joke that they’re our on-call insect pest consultants, and so they’ve been very supportive in this. No, I think we’re fairly emblematic of maybe a lot of beginning farmers in that we had a liberal arts education, came at farming from more the food end of things, and so that has maybe been a great help in the sense of we’ve always been very interested in the vegetables that we’re cooking, that we cook what we grow and enjoy them.
We’ve always been interested in experimenting with different vegetables and probably very adept at marketing, but there was a very steep learning curve in learning to actually do the growing. Certainly apprenticing at a farm helped, and we’ve been surrounded by other very good farmers as we’ve gone along, who have helped as well. Yeah, there’s been a lot of education by doing over the years. That’s the nice thing about farming. Every year you have a clean slate almost. You get to try things and learn from your experience. Then you go into the wintertime, and the fields are frozen and bare, and you get to think about what went right, and what went wrong, and how to try it again the next year a little bit differently. Yeah, it actually provides a very good trial by doing sort of education.
Gabrielle Gosselin: I think in many ways we were really lucky actually not to be trying to create our farm on a pre-existing farm, like if one of our families already had a farm that we were taking over, because it’s given us a lot more flexibility to create exactly what we want and to change things exactly how we would want them to. There wasn’t existing infrastructure or certain equipment that was scaled to a degree that maybe we weren’t interested in.
We were lucky enough to, and we continue to be lucky enough to, lease a barn and some cooler space, but we’ve really been able to create the farm that we want and grow it at the increments that we’re interested in and just shaping it each year, like Nate was saying, choosing in the winter, “Oh, what worked well?” but also, “What are we interested in, and how are our interests changing?” Maybe now we’re at a certain place where we can try some crops that perhaps aren’t quite as profitable, but are fun, and we want to see what they do, and that’s okay because we have that flexibility at this point. I think that’s a pretty neat spot to be in.
Lisa Belisle: Give me some examples of crops that you are interested in, that you want to play with and see where they go.
Gabrielle Gosselin: One thing we’ve been talking about recently is adding some more fruit to our production as a whole. We grow strawberries, but other than that we haven’t done other berries or tree fruit. We may not be set up or with the skill base currently to manage them at the most efficient level, but we are talking about just growing some, and seeing how that goes, and also having our daughter…. She loves fruit of all kinds, and so to be able to add that component to our farm I think we had a certain amount of joy for all of us to be able to pick as a family, as well as with our crew, certainly, but just to enjoy those other flavors.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah. It’s also fun. You get to indulge yourself in also some of the obscure offerings in the seed catalog, so it’s fun to have the flexibility to try a red napa cabbage, or some obscure chicory, or something like that. We are also lucky. We sell to a number of very wonderful restaurants, and sometimes they’re happy to indulge our indulgences. If we have something odd that maybe the regular farmers’ market clientele is not as interested in, sometimes one of the chefs will be interested in giving that a try. Although to be fair many of our farmers’ market customers are amazing in what they’re interested in trying, too. Honestly I think we are lucky to live in a part of Maine in the Midcoast region that has a very sophisticated food taste. It’s amazing sometimes how much bok choy, or radicchio, or fennel that will sell at the farmers’ market.
Lisa Belisle: Who are some of the stores, natural food stores and other stores, that you work with?
Gabrielle Gosselin: We sell to Royal River. We’ve been working with them since we began actually. We were able to get certified organic our first year because no one had been growing on our fields for many years prior. They are an amazing natural food store that we have been selling with our entire farming season. We also sell to a range of other stores, but we’ve begun selling to Hannaford in Brunswick as well.
Nate Drummond: Yeah. I guess we sell to the main small grocery stores. Hannaford’s not small, but we just do that one Brunswick store. We sell a lot to the Harraseeket Inn, which is in Freeport, and they do a lot of events, so they’re a very big customer and then a lot of those restaurants in Brunswick, El Camino Restaurant, Tao, Henry and Marty, Trattoria Athena. Those are all good customers of ours. There’s a couple small local distributors, Farm Fresh Connection and Unity Food Hub, that sometimes get our stuff a little bit further. Yeah. For the most part those are some of our bigger core customers.
Lisa Belisle: What are some of the things that these stores are likely to want, or restaurants are likely to want, from you?
Gabrielle Gosselin: I would say they want a wide range of things, which is great, and it really complements our farmers’ market production because our goal as a farm is to be a one-stop shop for pretty much anything you might want in the vegetable world for as long as possible throughout the year. I think that a lot of our wholesale customers appreciate the diversity that we have to offer, as well as the length of time that they are able to get each crop from us. I think we will focus on extending the season maybe a bit more than…. Well, there plenty of friends that are doing that, but I think they are excited to be able to get lettuce in December or January as well as in June and things like that.
Nate Drummond: Yeah. We offer a wide range. We do certainly a lot of salad crops and leafy greens, but we have root crops, and tomatoes, and everything. It’s a pretty diverse mix that we are able to offer people.
Lisa Belisle: Do you have a farm share setup with your farm?
Gabrielle Gosselin: We don’t at the moment. I think we’ve always felt a couple of things. One, coming from the farmers’ market background, that was always the primary interest for us. The markets that we do in Brunswick are really quite strong and just getting stronger. Also, I think we felt that if we were to do a farm share in conjunction with a farmers’ market, maybe one of those would lose out a little bit. We wanted to always prioritize the farmers’ market and didn’t feel great about maybe having a farm share that wasn’t quite as wonderful as the selection we were otherwise offering, although I think there are more creative ways we could consider doing that in the future, but we haven’t pursued it yet.
Nate Drummond: I think also there’s just so many good farms, diverse vegetable farms, in our part of the state. A lot of them do offer farm shares. Sometimes we try and think of marketing niches that are not being served or relationships that we have that we can develop further. I think with the shares we’ve looked around and seen that there’s some very good farms that already offer shares within Brunswick, or Freeport, or further afield, and so maybe there’s less of a need for us to try and compete in that niche as much as work more to grow more for either someone like Royal River, who we are already dealing with, or try and add a new crop that we can sell at the farmers’ market or something like that. We’ve been trying to take our existing markets and customers and try and just keep developing them.
Lisa Belisle: Gabrielle, you talked about… Well, actually, I think, Nate, you were the one that said that Gabrielle was not happy with her office job.
Gabrielle Gosselin: No.
Lisa Belisle: I’m interested in what were you doing. What was your education? You guys met at Brown, so obviously you have a very strong educational background, academic educational background. What were you trained to do, and what were you doing?
Gabrielle Gosselin: Well, I can’t say I was particularly trained to do something. I had a pretty obscure major as an undergrad. I was a South Asian Studies major focusing on Eastern religion and language, so Sanskrit wasn’t leading me specifically to a career. It was more of a personal interest, which now seems particularly random. In New York I was really just trying to feel out different opportunities that weren’t related to any of my studies. Actually, I only had an office job for a few weeks and realized that I really, for a great organization, but commuting to Midtown and sitting in a cubicle with a little window that faced directly to a brick wall of the adjacent building wasn’t feeling very fulfilling. It wasn’t about the work so much as just where I was, and sitting at a computer didn’t excite me. Now there is some computer work certainly associated with our job, but I like the physical outdoor aspect quite a bit.
Nate Drummond: Yeah, I think it was a similar, although slightly longer, progression for me. I came out of college being very interested in continuing in some sort of academic pathway and not quite knowing… I was a history major, but not quite knowing if that was going to be more like history or some sort of policy-based work. I was actually working at Columbia University when we were in New York City doing academic research. Yeah, I think it was similarly a process of realizing that, although the actual subjects were interesting, the actual complete package of what it meant to work in academics was not actually that appealing to me.
Some of that also had to do with just the setting, wanting to be outside and wanting to do more physical work. Also I think Gabrielle used the word “tangible” a couple times, and there is something that when you’re writing papers and doing research and having, that maybe a small number of other people may read, and informing what sometimes feels like a conversation that’s being held by just a few people at a very high level and not really going any further than that, that an interest in something that was tangible was very strong.
I think there had been a period right after college where we had actually both worked for an organic apple orchard up in Maine prior to moving to New York City. It was a very small taste of farm work. I stayed on and did some stone masonry work afterwards with the owner. It was just enough of a taste to make us think, “Gosh, that really felt good.” It was good to be physically tired at the end of the day. It felt good to know very concretely what you had accomplished sort of thing. I think for both of us that was something that was missing in our day-to-day lives working in the city.
That has been honestly a big part of what is rewarding about working on the farm is just that there is never any question about what you got done and what the meaning of that is, even if it’s just that there’s satisfaction in weeding a row of carrots, and having it be weedy when you start and clean when you finish, and then also knowing how important that is in the process, the whole process of getting those carrots from seed to harvest. Farming is a lot of very small rewards and a lot of very small frustrations as well, but a lot of small rewards. I think the cumulative effect is very significant on just a quality-of-life level.
Gabrielle Gosselin: I think, also, since we run our own farm there’s a great balance between…. We’ve been talking a lot about the physical work, and weeding carrots, and the tangible rewards of harvesting that carrot later in the season or something like that, but because it’s our own farm, there’s also so much that we are talking about, and learning about, and doing that is very stimulating, and intellectually stimulating, and challenging. Spending time planning the farm, and how we’re going to have a rotation, and where does this fit into our business model, and how are we looking to grow, and where is our profit margin, and all of these things is a nice balance for us, I guess is what I’m getting at, so that It’s not just the physical labor, but we are also continuously challenged intellectually as well.
Nate Drummond: Yeah. I think we like to think of it like organizing the farm is like trying to figure out a process of making the circles overlap. You have the big circle of the production side of things, of getting things to grow sufficiently well so that you have quality produce over a long period of time, and then the circle of getting things to sell, and then the circle of making it all be sustainable both ecologically, and lifestyle wise, and financially, and getting all of those to overlap and trying to keep things in that sweet spot in the middle. Yeah. There’s a lot of intellectual stimulation in just doing that, which is great and somewhat, I won’t say unexpected…. It’s not why we got into it sort of thing necessarily, but it has been probably a big part of what has made it satisfying and something that we are interested in continuing on with.
Lisa Belisle: We talk a lot with people on the show about different types of intelligence and different types of intelligence that are required to do whatever it is that someone chooses to do. It sounds like you’ve tapped into multiple different types of intelligence in order to run a small business, actually grow food, parent your child, market. It sounds like it’s not necessarily all… Maybe very little of it is stuff that you got from sitting in a classroom.
Gabrielle Gosselin: That’s a good question. I think that our experience as undergrads just helped us learn how to think about our decision making process, and that was probably the most beneficial thing. The way that we decide to make small choices as well as larger choices was very much informed in the style of learning that we had as undergrads, I think.
Nate Drummond: Yeah. It’s also opened up the reality that there are lots of ways to learn and that just learning in the classroom or a college-based education has lots of value, but there’s also lots of different ways to learn and learning hands-on, learning…. I think one of the wonderful things about farming in Maine is that there’s this incredibly supportive farming community, certainly assisted by great organizations like MOFGA and Maine Farmland Trust and the university extension system, but at the core there’s a lot of farmers who are very passionate about sharing what they know and being very open and certainly older, more established farmers being very invested in younger farmers getting going and getting established themselves.
We’ve had the great benefit of just not only being able to learn through our own experience, but really being able to learn from visiting other farms or going to farm conferences and hearing other farmers talk about what they do. We are actually very lucky to have landed where we did in Bowdoinham. Actually there’s a wonderful swath of very good alluvial farm soil that we sit on. That’s a great help to our farm, but it also supports a number of other farms.
At the moment there’s, I think, seven different all vegetable or cut flower farms that are all clustered right in our neighborhood, and so we get to essentially watch what our neighbors do and learn from them. It’s a little cluster or almost incubator. That is incredibly important. I think you don’t realize until you’re doing that how it’s amazing just to be able to… The daily ability to bounce small creative ideas off someone else who is having a similar experience to you and compare notes, so to speak, is a very powerful way to learn. That has also been very important for us.
Gabrielle Gosselin: Yeah. I also want to add in the height of our season now we hire up to 16 people, and everyone is coming from a wide range of prior work or life experiences, and we have been incredibly lucky to also learn from our employees. They have so much to offer not just in terms of energy and enthusiasm for the work that they’re doing on our farm, but also maybe suggesting, “Hey, have you tried this,” a way that perhaps Nate and I have never even considered. Small or big changes that are suggested have actually been incredibly valuable for our farm. We have some employees who have worked with us for a number of years, a fellow, Andy, who has worked with us for eight years. He manages the winter crew, which changes our role in the winter and means we can be home more and have more family time as well. He’s incredibly valuable, but he’s very invested in the farm and always thinking about ways that we can do better. I think that has been a huge asset for us.
Nate Drummond: Yeah. It’s definitely true. It’s like the more brains and eyes that you have engaged in the farm, the more the collective decision-making is better, and the better the outcome. That has been a big… Yeah, many of our employees have their own farm experience working on other farms and whatnot, so we can tap into them to figure out what other people are doing and whatnot.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I appreciate your coming in to talk with me today about this. This is very interesting for me, and we will make the information about Six River Farm available to our listeners on our show notes page. I appreciate all the time that you have taken to come in and talk to us, and to learn about farming, and to send vegetables out in the world. As someone who goes to Royal River Natural Foods on a regular basis, I have eaten your produce before. You do a very good job. It’s quite delicious. I’ve been speaking with Nate Drummond and Gabrielle Gosselin, who are the owners of Six River Farm, a diverse organic vegetable farm located on the shores of Merrymeeting Bay in Bowdoinham. Thanks for coming in.
Gabrielle Gosselin: Thank you.
Nate Drummond: Thank you, Lisa.
Gabrielle G.: Yeah. Appreciate it.
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Lisa Belisle: My next guest is Tina Wilcoxson, who grew up on a farm in northern Maine, began working at Royal River Natural Foods 20 years ago, and worked her way up to general manager, and became the owner of the natural food store in Freeport three years ago. Thanks so much for coming in.
Tina Wilcoxson: Thank you for having me.
Lisa Belisle: It is one of my favorite stores, so obviously….
Tina Wilcoxson: Mine, too.
Lisa Belisle: Well, that’s really good to hear. Living in Yarmouth, I feel like we are so lucky to have that access right in Freeport. Why did you start working there? What was your initial connection 20 years ago?
Tina Wilcoxson: Well, I forget exactly how many years ago, but I went to massage therapy school in New Mexico. When I came back to Maine, I started working at a little health food store in Cape Elizabeth for a little while and really got to put into practice what I had learned about nutrition and herbal supplements and just overall healthy eating. That store burned down, so I waitressed for about a year. A friend of mine told me there was an opening at Royal River, and that’s where it started. I’ve worked in every department through the 20 years, and there was always something new to learn, and I just loved it. I never found a reason to leave.
Lisa Belisle: You actually grew up in northern Maine.
Tina Wilcoxson: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Well, first of all where in northern Maine? It’s quite a vast area.
Tina Wilcoxson: Yeah. I grew up in Limestone in Aroostook County, and my father was a potato farmer. I grew up on a potato farm, which was pretty common up there. It was a great place to grow up. I feel really lucky that I got to grow up there.
Lisa Belisle: That’s where the former airbase was.
Tina Wilcoxson: Yes. Yeah. That was really nice because we were probably the most diverse school in the state really even though we were way up there because we had kids from other countries and kids that lived all over the place. It was interesting. It was nice. I’m really glad that I had that experience.
Lisa Belisle: How did you find your way down to southern Maine and then out to New Mexico? What was the path there?
Tina Wilcoxson: Well, I went to college in Orono, and I had worked in the Bangor area for a little bit. I was actually in pharmaceutical sales, of all things. I did that for about a year. I decided I didn’t like that very much, and I took a job in Bar Harbor waitressing while I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. The woman I worked for, she and her husband owned a restaurant. She was a massage therapist, and one day I was helping in the kitchen prepping, and I pulled my back. I was lifting a five gallon bucket of pickles and thought it was empty, and it was full.
Anyways, she gave me a massage, and that was the first time I ever really even knew that such a thing existed. By the end of the summer I decided I was going to go to massage therapy school. It was a great school. We learned a lot about, as I said, herbal nutrition, herbal supplements, massage, polarity therapy. When I came back to Maine I wanted to use that while I was trying to build up a massage practice and just started working at the health food stores. That’s how I ended up there.
Lisa Belisle: I remember when Royal River Natural Foods was actually in Yarmouth. I think it was before that building turned into a Napa Auto Parts, and now it’s Maple’s Gelato. It was kind of a funky little space, and it was at a time where we were past the ’70s when health food stores were in their heyday, and we had not quite gotten to the place we are now where I feel like people are very interested in health and nutrition. It was kind of that interim space. It was interesting to me to know that this was located in this little suburb, this little town. Were you working there during that time?
Tina Wilcoxson: Our first store was actually even smaller than where Maple’s is now. It was in the little strip mall next to Romeo’s in Yarmouth.
Lisa Belisle: Right. I actually remember that too. That’s interesting. That was very far, very long ago.
Tina Wilcoxson: Yeah. When I first began working for Royal River, that’s where I started. Then not long after I started working, Ruth bought the building where in Maple’s is, and we moved in there. The first store was so small. When I think about it, I don’t know how we managed. The back room was the size of a closet. Then when we moved to the other space, we felt like we had so much room, and we were able to really expand. We could have customers come in and actually do their grocery shopping instead of doing just one little thing here, one little thing there. It was a lot of fun. It was fun to be part of that process. We really were independent. We didn’t really have any other groups or organizations at the time that we could belong to, so we were really trying to find our own way for most of it. Now, I feel like there’s some more support for independents, which is nice because you have other people you can talk to and commiserate with, or celebrate with. That’s nice.
Lisa Belisle: The space that you’re in now in Freeport is a very good size actually. What I’ve noticed over the years of going there is that you’re not just sitting back on your laurels. You’re continuing to evolve it. The new produce case that you installed, it’s beautiful, and shiny, and efficient. You walk right in the door, and one of my favorite things, I think, about your store is that right there is the produce. The mangos are talking to you, and the grapes, and the berries. I think that’s one of the things that I’ve always liked about the independent stores is they put out there these really very options, and they make them appealing.
Tina Wilcoxson: Yeah. We take a lot of pride in our produce. It’s a reason that a lot of people come to us because they really like our produce. Kind of a funny story, someone that used to be a produce manager at our store, she had moved away and come back, and she was interviewing for a job at Wild Oats in Portland. In part of her interview process they said, “Okay, go up to the produce section, and do some culling, and tell us what you would take out, which doesn’t look good.” She did her thing. When they came back and saw her bucket full of stuff, they said “Oh, your standards are way too high.” She didn’t get the job, but we thought that was pretty funny. We do take a lot of pride in our produce, and it’s important to us. We only carry organic. We made that commitment a long time ago. I think customers really appreciate it. For one thing, it’s easy. They know everything is organic there. They’re not having to read the label. It’s important to us.
Lisa Belisle: I also notice that it used to be when we got organic food that, especially produce, that there wasn’t necessarily the selection, and they didn’t have the greenhouses now that people are using to grow year-round. There was a lot of ugly fruit and twisted roots. I don’t really mind that. That doesn’t really bother me, but it was more of that than not. Your stuff, really, as I said, it’s kind of like the store has upped its game. Do you think that that is similar to what’s going on industry-wide? When it comes to organic produce, I mean.
Tina Wilcoxson: Yeah. I think there are more options for organic than there used to be 20 years ago when I was starting. There are a lot more farms. In Maine we have really an embarrassment of riches when it comes to that. We’re so lucky. If you go to other states, they just don’t have that. They don’t have as many farms. They don’t have as much access to choices, to natural food choices or independent retailers at all. There is a lot more selection. Also with the increase in hoop houses and hydroponics, we are able to get local produce for a lot longer part of the season, which is great because then it’s fresh. It’s just coming from right down the road.
Lisa Belisle: It’s also fun, I find, to go into your store, and other independents, but because your store is my store, it’s where I usually go. There’s little fun products that I see. We interviewed the woman who created LooHoo, the little balls for the dryer.
Tina Wilcoxson: Oh, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: I just thought, “How great is it that I can go into this store that’s small enough so you would worry that maybe the selection wasn’t so great, but it also makes it possible that there’s little fun and creative products that you can run into. “
Tina Wilcoxson: Right. Yeah. We carry her product. I use that myself. I haven’t done a check recently, but last time I checked, we purchase from about 200 Maine farms, producers, people that make the dryer balls, or it could be laundry detergent, herbal teas. That really makes us different, but it’s also a lot more fun for us because we get to work with a bunch of different people, who are really passionate about what they do. It gives us some good variety and just makes it a much more interesting store for us who work there, as well as for people who shop there. That’s a high priority for us, to buy as much as we can from Maine companies.
Lisa Belisle: The people that work at your store also seem to have a pretty high level of knowledge about what they are selling. When I go in and I’m looking for echinacea, or elderberry, or fish oil, or some supplement, there are people that work in your store who are able to say, “Here is a very high quality version of that. This is the direction I might go in.” You have books that are available for references. It’s impressive because that kind of knowledge is important.
Tina Wilcoxson: It is important. It’s very important. People have a lot of access to information now than they used to when we first started. You can go on the internet and get too much information, really, but, for example, Becky, who works in our supplement department, for the last couple summers I’ve had her go to Avena Botanicals and take some courses. It’s active learning in a way, and you’re really getting to learn about a lot of other properties of herbs that you might not know by just reading a book, or get to hear from Deb Soule’s experience, who she’s been an herbalist. I think that company’s been around for 30 years. That’s important.
For me that’s where I started out working when I first started in the store, and I really enjoyed that part, getting to work with people one-on-one. You can have some pretty intimate conversations with people when you’re in a store, which is unusual. I loved that. I really loved that. I still love that because occasionally I’ll fill in if someone’s on a break or on vacation. It’s one of the things I really like, is working with people one-on-one. I don’t think you get that in a lot of stores, so that’s important to us to have someone in that department as much as possible to help people.
Lisa Belisle: It’s useful to me also as a doctor because I will suggest that…. For example, beet juice is good for high blood pressure, and I know that there’s not that many places that have beet juice. Your store has it, and so I feel really comfortable, and I know it’s high quality beet juice, so i feel really comfortable saying to a patient, “Okay. You don’t want to take a medication? I’m completely behind that. Beet juice seems to work really well, and here’s where you can get it.” I feel good that I’m sending them to a place where if they have questions, they can ask, or if they have something else they’d like to get, they can find it there.
Tina Wilcoxson: Right. Yeah. We get a lot of referrals, and I really appreciate that, thank you, from a lot of different physicians, or chiropractors, or other therapists. I do, and I think a lot of people that work there try to take the whole approach. If someone comes in looking for a certain supplement, ask them some questions about their diet or what they might be doing otherwise in their life that could also help in a gentle way. You really need to meet people where they’re at.
Years ago when I was working in the supplement department there was a couple that would come in fairly often. They would have a long list of supplements, and I would try and talk them down a little bit. It was obvious that they were smokers because when you work in a health food store it’s pretty obvious when someone comes in, but I didn’t mention that. Over time we get a relationship and formed a relationship, so then I felt comfortable where I could say, “You know, have you thought about maybe quitting smoking? That would probably do a lot more for you than just buying supplements.”
They were very open and receptive. Obviously they had thought about it and were working on it. Then it was so exciting because they came back to me, I don’t know, a few months later, and they said “We quit smoking. We haven’t had….” It was really exciting to be a part of that and share that with them. It’s important to, well, and I know that you believe this as well, to look at the whole picture and not try and just treat one thing.
Lisa Belisle: I’m interested in this idea of an independent store like yours also needing to balance the books and make profits.
Tina Wilcoxson: Right, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: People often feel very mission-driven, which is wonderful. Obviously the mission, the whole person, the high quality produce is great, and then there’s also the balancing of the books. Your store has actually been recognized as doing a good job with that.
Tina Wilcoxson: Oh, thank you. Yeah. That’s the behind the curtain non-exciting part, counting the beans. I prioritize where the money goes that we do bring in, and I want to pay farmers a fair price, what they’re asking. If a farm comes to us and tells us they can sell us something for something, then that’s what we pay them. We don’t try to negotiate them down, and I always want to prioritize benefits for my staff. My intention when I bought the business was that I wanted to be able to run it the same way Ruth did and I wanted to be able to be as generous an owner as she was. Otherwise I wasn’t going to do it. I had been doing the bookkeeping for several years, and I’m like, “Okay. This can be done. There are places you can save.” The places I think about saving are electricity, and how you’re going to heat the building, and things like that that aren’t going to be affecting my staff or the customers. It is a juggling act sometimes, but I like it.
Lisa Belisle: You seem to have done a good job with your staff because I’ve noticed some longitudinality.
Tina Wilcoxson: Yeah. We have a lot of staff that have been there 10 years or longer. I’ve been there 20 years. There are a couple of people that have been there for 17 years, 18. I think they’re going on 18 years. Five or six that are 10 years or more. That’s the other thing. I wanted to have a place where people want to stay, and I can give them good benefits and good pay, and it’s a fun place to work. That’s good for us, and it’s also great for the customers to see the same faces. There is some turnover. You hire some young people like your daughter’s friend, and they go off to school. You want to see them do that even though we hate to see them go. They usually come back.
Lisa Belisle: Well, that leads me to my next question, which is actually… I think two of my daughter’s friends, and my daughter’s 20, she’s a junior in college, I think two of them worked for you in the last couple of years. I know that one of them is planning to go to naturopathic school, so she’s doing a lot of background courses in that. It’s interesting to me that this generation, they are very aware. One of my daughter’s roommates is vegan, so they do a lot of vegan cooking and looking into the health benefits of certain foods. Her good friend that we’re talking about, she, I believe, also is a vegan, but definitely has some food sensitivities. She’s very aware of that sort of thing. I love this because I have literally been trying to get my kids interested in this for their entire lives, but I think it’s somehow a little different when it’s coming from mom and maybe even harder coming from mom who is a doctor. I think a lot of it, when it comes from the peers, somehow it makes more sense.
Tina Wilcoxson: Yeah. Well, it always means more when they discover it on their own. With my husband, he’s a really good cook, and he eats well, and when I would bring food home, first of all it was always that it tasted better. That was one way to get him into it. Then he just started really embracing organic and non-GMO. It was cute because he would read something, and he’d get really excited about it and start talking to me about it. I would just smile, and nod, and listen, and be like “Yay. Yeah. Yeah,” as if I’d never heard it before. Then one day he called me up and said, “Can you bring home some cornstarch?” I said, “Yeah, don’t we have cornstarch at the house?” because we’d probably use a teaspoon a year. He goes “Yeah, but it’s not organic. It might have GMOs in it.” I said “I think I’ve created a monster.”
Lisa Belisle: Well, it’s a good kind of monster.
Tina Wilcoxson: It is a good kind of monster.
Lisa Belisle: Definitely, I’m down with that kind of monster.
Tina Wilcoxson: He had to come to that on his own. It meant a lot more to him on his own than it did me telling him. That’s the same approach, I think, to take with customers that come in, like I was saying, meet them where they’re at and get them to try a few things. Then maybe they’ll want to try a few more things. Then they’ll build from there.
Lisa Belisle: Is it interesting to you that you began your life associated with a farm and now you’re in this part of your life and you’re affiliated with farmers?
Tina Wilcoxson: I know. Yeah. I didn’t think it would… It’s come full circle. I’m not farming, but I do get to work with the farms, and that’s one of my favorite parts of my job is talking with the farmers. We have some real characters that come to the store with some really great stories. I didn’t realize, I think, how much I missed being in a farm community until I started working with farmers again and getting to talk with them. I don’t know. I have a hard time to describe it, but growing up in a farm community where most people were farming, especially around harvest time, it was just the whole town was in it together. You don’t really get that chance a lot, I don’t think, when the whole town is really pulling together for something. Oftentimes, unfortunately, you see that happen, the whole town pulling together, and it’s around a tragedy. This was the whole town pulling together around something good. I still get that. I get to have a little bit of that now in a different way.
Lisa Belisle: I guess my last question is one of the things that I used to notice about, I’ll call them “natural food stores” because that’s what they used to be called, and yours is still called that….
Tina Wilcoxson: Yes, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: But small independent stores like yours was that some people went because there was a sense of fear about what was in the world, that the food that they had was bad, and there were chemicals. I would sense that people were escaping and taking refuge. Now what I sense, and not everybody, obviously….
Tina Wilcoxson: Right. Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: But now what I sense is that people are in the stores, and there are still people who are in the stores because they are fearing something, and they’re trying to go away from something, but now what I see are people who are trying to go towards something, that people are saying, “Oh, well if I try to buy food that’s organic and doesn’t have GMOs in it, then it’s going to bring me better health. It’s not like I’m avoiding it because it could make me sick and die.” It’s more like “I want to live my life fully. I want to savor. I want to grab hold.”
Tina Wilcoxson: Yeah. That’s a great perspective. I think you’re right. I think another big part of it, too, is with a lot of the independent stores especially, as I was saying, where we do carry a lot of Maine products, people in Maine are very proud of being from Maine and want to support Maine products. I think that’s another reason that drives people into the store, knowing that they can buy a lot of things from Maine vendors. I had someone in the store recently from… I forget where she was from. It might have been Pennsylvania. I was speaking with her after she was done shopping, and she goes, “You people in Maine are kind of really into Maine, aren’t you?” She was now noticing some of the names of the companies had a lot of, a lot of the companies have “Maine” in the name. I said “Yeah. Yeah, we are.”
Lisa Belisle: Why do you think that is?
Tina Wilcoxson: Well, it’s a great place. I love Maine. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I love all the seasons. It’s beautiful. I think the people are beautiful and wonderful. It’s a great place to live.
Lisa Belisle: What have you learned over the last three years of being the owner of this business and having this ultimate responsibility?
Tina Wilcoxson: Yeah. Ooh. I have a few more gray hairs. What have I learned? It took me a little while to really take ownership, I guess, of being the owner, I think, because I’d been there so long and worked with and still do work with a lot of the people that I was working with before I was the owner. It was a little bit of a fuzzy transition, but I think now I’m starting to feel a little bit more like the owner. I was always invested before. Ruth always helped us all feel like we were really kind of part owners. Now if I have an idea, then I just get to do it, like this summer with the new produce case and the new… I can get a little carried away sometimes. I get going on a project, and some of the staff are like, “Tina’s got a hammer in her hand. What’s going on?” I’ve really gotten a lot of fun out of it, and I feel reinvigorated I would say.
Lisa Belisle: What do you want the next five to ten years to look like for your store?
Tina Wilcoxson: Well, my vision and my hope is that we’re really a haven for people. I want customers to work in and feel comfortable, to feel welcome, to feel at ease, to come in and go, “Oh, this is a nice, relaxed place. I like this place.” I want to continue to make that happen on a daily basis for people, and I want to continue to do well so that I can provide well for my staff and my community and charitable givings, and help be, I guess, a voice in the community as well for healthy eating and healthy living. There are a lot of voices, which I’m very thankful for.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I appreciate your taking over the business three years ago, and I appreciate all the time that you’ve spent building the business over the last 20 years. For people who are interested, Royal River Natural Foods is located in Freeport, and we will also put links on our show notes page. I’ve been speaking with Tina Wilcoxson, who grew up on a farm in northern Maine and now has worked her way up through the ranks to become the owner of Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport. Thanks so much for all the work that you do, and thanks for coming in today.
Tina Wilcoxson: Thank you so much for having me.
Lisa Belisle: You have been listening to Love Maine Radio show number 277, natural foods from local farms. Our guests have included Nate Drummond, Gabrielle Gosselin, and Tina Wilcoxson. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as DoctorLisa, and see my running, travel, food, and wellness photos as Bountiful1 on Instagram. We love to hear from you, so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. I hope that you have enjoyed our natural foods from local farms show. Thank you for allowing me to be part of your day. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is made possible with the support of Berlin City Honda, The Rooms by Harding Lee Smith, Maine Magazine, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music have been provided by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producer is Paul Koenig. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Lisa Belisle. For more information on our hosts, production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at