Using Cooperation Science to Strengthen Maine’s Local Food Economy

(Four-Minute Read)

Policy In Brief:

Maine’s food system has enjoyed a recent surge in demand for local food. However, a difficult business climate for farmers, small business owners, and institutions impedes the opportunity for economic growth. The authors of “Using Cooperation Science to Strengthen Maine’s Local Food Economy” argue that it is this difficult climate for business that necessitates policy interventions by the state of Maine to sustain its vibrant local food economy.

The article summarized here specifically examined social dilemmas concerning three stakeholders related to the local food economy in Maine:

  1. farmers
  2. retiring business owners
  3. local institutions

Fascinating Features:

Local food provides many economic, ecological and social benefits to the state of Maine:

  1. By keeping financial resources circulating with a region, it creates an economic multiplier of $.78 for every $1.00 spent.
  2. The environmental impact is smaller than industrial foods:
    • Maine farmers use less chemicals
    • Maine farmers transport food over a shorter distance to market
    • Maine farmers operate smaller, less-intensive production systems
  3. There is greater democratic control over the food system through direct purchasing:
    • Farmers’ Markets
    • Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs)
    • Buying Clubs
    • Food Co-ops

In 2013, 80 percent of Maine consumers preferred food grown, raised, or caught within the state. Further, 41% of Maine households spent between $1 and $50 on food grown or produced locally each month.

Despite this growing demand for local food in Maine, a number of socioeconomic factors threaten the future of the local food economy. For example, Maine’s increasing retirement rate poses a threat to small business, jobs, and general economic resilience.

Cooperation Science:

Cooperation science shows that Maine’s food system can benefit from policies that promote cooperation over competition. The literature indicates that the natural urge for someone to free ride on cooperation programs is actually thwarted by incorporating mechanisms that encourage cooperation into policy solutions.

If Maine wanted to capture the positive social, economic, and environmental benefits of local food systems, the state must support them and create economic conditions in which small-scale operations may thrive on their own.

Cooperations science can be used to tackle the social dilemmas persisting in Maine’s local food economy and buttresses the argument for increased support from the state. This article implements the framework of cooperation to address the key concerns of farm viability, business succession, and increased food sourcing in local institutions from local producers in Maine.


The authors provided several policy solutions to be considered for increasing the amount of cooperation in Maine’s food system revolving around both lowering the costs of farming and boosting the benefits of cooperation.

  1. To stabilize cooperation among consumers, policymakers may consider lowering the costs of patronage by subsidizing small, diversified, local farms.
  2. To lower the cost of living for farmers, policymakers could include health insurance options in the state’s Farms for the Future program.
  3. To increase access to low-cost funding opportunities, policymakers could expand the competitive grant funding and reduced-interest loans through the Farms for the Future program to include prospective farmers.
  4. The Farms for the Future program could collaborate with the Maine Farmland Trust to make business succession easier on both the seller and buyers.
  5. Policymakers could incentivize the sale of existing land to prospective farms by making the sale of land in such cases income tax-free.
  6. The bill LD 1338 provides small incentives to prevent small businesses from closing by helping the businesses transition into cooperatives. A reciprocity mechanism could be created by policymakers to make the transition into a cooperative tax-free.
  7. To increase the amount of local agriculture supported by the state, local food source minimums can be enacted. At present, LD 1584 would require all Maine government institutions to purchase 20 percent of their foods from local producers by 2025. This plan could be amended to make the 20 percent based upon volume instead of pricing with the understanding that there is often a price disparity between local small-scale agriculture and industrial sourced foods.

Without proper policy mechanisms to support cooperation, the motivation to continue cooperating dwindles, and in the long run, this ephemeral cooperation turns into random and unstable acts of altruism. The lessons from cooperation science imply that altruism alone cannot solve the problems that Maine farmers face.

Dig Deeper:

Hupper, Afton, Sujan Chakraborty, and Timothy M. Waring. “Using Cooperation Science to Strengthen Maine’s Local Food Economy.” Maine Policy Review 28.2 (2019) : 23-33.

From MPR’s Archive:

Felder, Deborah. “It’s Growing Season for Maine’s Food System.” Maine Policy Review 20.1 (2011) : 12-16.

Taylor, Davis, and Rob Brown. “Owning Maine’s Future: Fostering a Cooperative Economy in Maine.” Maine Policy Review 26.1 (2017) : 23-34.

Tremblay, Ethan, and Timothy Waring. “A Smiling Face Is Half The Meal: The Role of Cooperation in Sustaining Maine’s Local Food Industry.” Maine Policy Review 23.2 (2014) : 43-50.