Washington County fishermen and farmers leveraging broadband

May 18, 2011

The ConnectME Authority is often asked for examples of how high speed broadband can assist businesses in Maine. The article below is an excellent example of the benefits that are being realized by traditional Maine based industries.

Modernizing traditional industries through technology

People who work on the water and with the land have a wealth of information. Their experiences from day to day and year to year inform our understanding of the landscape and its resources. Tapping into this knowledge base is just one goal of Axiom Technologies' three-year program to expand broadband Internet and computer expertise in Washington County. Using funds from the federal stimulus program dedicated to increasing connectivity in the United States, the Machias company is providing blueberry growers and commercial fishermen advanced computer technology and training.

"As part of our social mission, we plan to pay forward the results of this program" says Axiom CEO, Susan Corbett, of the $1.9 million grant awarded this past winter.

To meet this goal, phase one of the project puts heavy-duty laptop computers in the hands of 10 fishermen and 10 farmers and provides them, their crew and family members with up to 177 hours each of computer training. The 20 participants, who were chosen through an application process, are highly motivated and "got it" when it came to understanding the potential for the project. "We are giving the tools and the training to help ensure the survival of these industries," says program manager Jane Blackwood.

Through the winter, weekly classes were held in Calais and Machias. Blackwood says, "Now as the weather warms, we recognize the need to be flexible and we will be going out to do training at individual locations".

Senior technician Kim Emerson has been helping with instruction and ensuring that each participant has a broadband Internet hook up. Student tutors from the University of Maine at Machias are also employed. According to Emerson, "the participants come to us with a wide variety of knowledge. Well over 50 percent of the people did not have experience with computers." Over the course of the program, bookkeeping, marketing and data collection will be the focus. Depending on the needs of each business, individual training will be tailored.

"Tidemill Farms, in Edmunds, is seeking to develop barcodes for its food products, while others are exploring weather and mapping software," said Blackwood of the range of applications being explored. Dr. Brian Beal, marine biologist at the University of Maine at Machias and director of the Downeast Institute, and Dell Emerson, an experienced blueberry grower, will be establishing parameters to help shape the proposed data bases for the farmers and fishermen. Web-based tools needed by the target industries will then be designed. One of the end uses for this documentation will be to satisfy required reporting to state and federal agencies.

Corbett describes the potential of this project saying, "Just imagine having a system where a lobster fisherman can record the time, location, tide and weather for each trip along with the number and weight of the catch." According to Corbett, software created in phase two of the project will "be made available with user-friendly tutorials for every farmer and fisherman in Washington County, allowing businesses to make really good decisions."

Kathy Garcelon lives with her husband David on the 200-acre farm "Point of Maine" that the couple took over from her parents in 2005. Remote-you can only drive by truck across the mud flats during low tide-and without electricity or running water, the property is being steadily updated. "This will finish bringing us up to the 21st century," said Garcelon who manages two acres of blueberry land, a flock of sheep and several heifers.

Establishing high-speed Internet reception to this location has been difficult, but Axiom's Emerson has identified a satellite provider that will enable connection in the short-term as a long range solution is determined. Connectivity at these isolated locations and on the water is among the challenges being met by the program.

David Garcelon is a soil conservationist with the United States Department of Agriculture, but plans to work ful-time on the farm starting in the next few years. "I am learning how to streamline accounting," he says of the training that has sharpened his computer skills. As for Kathy, she says, "I am starting from scratch; this is a fabulous opportunity."

Further Downeast, Fred Moore III of Native Harvest, LLC, a tribal fishery from Pleasant Point, is planning to use the technology to allow customers to view the fishing operation from their restaurant computer or cell phone. He hopes that "the increased connectivity between customers and their supply sources will add a human element to the value chain."

Coverage of Washington County is made possible by a grant from the Eaton Foundation.

Leslie Bowman is a freelance writer and photographer living in Trescott, Maine.

Reprinted from "The Working Waterfront" May 11, 2011