Mainers Shaping Agriculture’s Future
Photographer Lily Piel has captured on film two dozen persons who have helped revive farming in Maine, and who remain committed to the cause.
By Chelsea Holden Baker
Photographs by Greta Rybus
Katia didn’t grow up on a farm herself; she grew up on the South Shore of Boston, an area no longer known for arable land. Still, she had always known she wanted to work with large animals. A five-year apprenticeship with a veterinarian and a family connection led Katia to a biodynamic dairy—Seven Stars Farm in Pennsylvania—where she fell in love not only with cows, but also with Brendan.
Brendan hadn’t grown up on a farm either, but as a child in North Yorkshire, England he’d walked downhill to visit a neighbor’s farm nearly every day. Since the age of five Brendan knew what he wanted to do: anyone that married him was marrying a farmer. And that worked just fine for Katia. She liked the idea of keeping her own animals healthy rather than tending to other people’s animals when they were sick.
After informal study in Pennsylvania, the pair attended the biodynamic and organic farming course at Emerson College in Sussex, England and when they returned to the States in 2004, they were ready to take on land of their own. From 2004 through 2013 the Holmeses ran a diversified livestock and vegetable operation around Hardwick, Massachusetts. All around Hardwick, Katia and Brendan cobbled together a patchwork of fields owned by 14 landlords in 4 towns, traveling up to 20 miles between parcels. After their sons Alister and John were born in 2007 and 2009, the desire for a centralized farm to call their own became even stronger. The Holmes family joined all of the New England LandLink programs and looked at farms in several states.
The farm they found in Albion, Maine was part of Maine Farmland Trust’s “Buy, Protect, Sell” program; the Trust lined up a combination of state and federal grant funds to finance an agricultural conservation easement and lower the resale price, which put the purchase within reach of the Holmes family. As they worked up a new business plan, Katia and Brendan realized the financially sound way to make Misty Brook’s 250-mile transition was to bridge their established customer base to Maine through eastern Massachusetts. In 2012 they began attending the Somerville Farmers Market just outside of Boston and in the summer of 2013, the Holmeses and their helpers ran two Misty Brook Farms: one in Massachusetts and one in Maine.
The new Misty Brook in Albion is 412 acres, about half certified- organic fields and half woods. The Sebasticook Regional Land Trust retains the rights to build trails on parts of the protected property, which now sports a green and white FOREVER FARM sign.
Making the move to Maine has allowed the Holmeses to farm to their biodynamic ideals: “It’s really given us the opportunity to do a lot of things in a much more ideal way,” says Katia. “We’ve been able to take the farm organism to another level with everything so close.” In the pastures of Misty Brook, Freedom Ranger broiler hens scratch for bugs and eat clover, and in the cornfield, the pigs—twenty Tamworth sows that love to forage—get the chance to glean the remainders after harvest.
These breed choices were intentional: the Holmeses like livestock that exhibit natural tendencies. They also chose a breed of cow—the Jersey—that does well on a grass-fed diet while producing milk with high butterfat and protein. Last year Misty Brook was able to rotate the herd across the entire farm; every acre of field was grazed at some point in the season. “We think it’s really good for soil health to have that touch of cow,” Katia says.
Three other couples work on the farm alongside Brendan and Katia. One of them, Nell Finnigan and Justin Morace, came on to grow and manage the vegetables using their three draft horses—Barley, Rye, and Skip—rather than tractors. Katia also keeps two draft horses for haying, but the newest member of the farm family is Bella, a Maremma livestock guardian dog. With Bella on patrol, the Holmeses are talking about raising sheep again someday. “Like everything else, we start doing something because we like to eat it,” says Katia.“And we miss eating sheep.” In Massachusetts, Misty Brook didn’t have the acreage or the fencing for a flock.
The Holmeses also didn’t have the land base to grow cereals, but now they mill whole wheat, pastry, and rye flours from their own grains. Misty Brook also produces cornmeal, dry beans, and popcorn along with a huge variety of vegetables, paying particular attention to storage vegetables because the Holmeses feed themselves—and others—year-round.
“We eat what we grow,” says Katia. “About the only things we buy are coffee and maple syrup. We’re trying to offer people the same experience we have with eating in-season and very locally.” In addition to the farm shop in Albion, Misty Brook runs a drop location in Eliot and maintains a presence at the Somerville Farmers Market, even though Misty Brook now farms only in Maine. In the fall of 2013, the farm also started a raw-milk delivery route to health food stores around Maine: out to Auburn, down to Scarborough, and along the coast to Belfast.
The Holmeses are also leveraging their connections on behalf of others. The farm recently started working with The Milkhouse— a small dairy in South China that specializes in yogurt— to share labor and delivery routes, while distributing their products farther. And they’ve connected with Farmers’ Gate Market, which offers Misty Brook veal and chicken to a larger customer base. “As farmers, you always need a community,” Katia says. In just a year, Misty Brook is already part of the local food ecosystem.
And the kids have settled in too. In Massachusetts, there was a four-mile drive from the house to the dairy barn, which might not sound like much until you imagine a dark winter morning of farm chores with two little boys. In Albion, the dairy barn is next to the house and the kids can come and go as the please. Or, as Katia says, “They can play in the mud all day and go hop right in the tub.”
1 ½ cups flour (We like to sift our whole wheat pastry flour for an ideal crust, but substituting a cup of all-purpose flour makes a dough that’s easy to work with.)
½ cup lard
1 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 tablespoons cold water
½ cup milk
1 tablespoon salt
herbs and seasonings to taste
½ cup cheese (We like to use our gouda, but homemade soft cheese is great too!)
3 cups meat and/or vegetables on hand (A couple recent favorites were grated root vegetables—storage kohlrabi, carrots, black Spanish radish— with bacon, or ground beef with onions and potatoes. Just fill in with what the season has to offer!)
Combine flour and salt in a bowl. Cut lard by hand with a fork or use a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Don’t overdo it or the crust will be crumbly instead of flaky. Sprinkle water one tablespoon at a time over the mixture and fold until it holds together. Shape into a ball and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Pre-heat the oven to 350°F. Pre-cook the vegetables and/or meat. (We often use leftovers from the day before.)
When the dough has had its rest, roll it out on a lightly floured surface to about ⅛ inch thickness. Transfer to a 10-inch pie dish and shape the edges. Pre-cook the crust for 10 minutes or until slightly golden. While the crust is cooking, whisk eggs, salt, herbs/seasoning, and milk together in a bowl.
When the crust is done, add pre-cooked meat and/or vegetables. Pour on the egg mixture and sprinkle cheese on top. Cook for 30 minutes or until golden, with a center that doesn’t jiggle.
By Sharon Kitchens
Illustrations Julie O’Rourke for Muwin Collective
Photos Jon Levitt for Muwin Collective
Food is a strong part of Thai culture. Even in big cities, edible traditions are upheld, such as a community lining up at dawn to offer food to a silent procession of monks who give blessings. While Americans might open a conversation by asking, “How are you?” Thai people often greet each other by asking if the other person has been eating.
Ravin ‘Bas’ Nakjaroen and Paula Palakawong are the husband-and-wife owners of Long Grain, a Camden restaurant that serves ethnic comfort food influenced by their native Bangkok, a Thai city known for street food that melds cuisines from neighboring countries.
Nakjaroen, the chef at Long Grain, learned the fundamentals of Thai cooking from his grandmother and mother. They shopped with him at local food markets and instilled a sense of pride in cooking delicious and comforting food from scratch, using the best available ingredients. When Nakjaroen was announced as a 2014 James Beard Award Semifinalist for Best Chef: Northeast no one in Camden was surprised.
Long Grain opened in September 2010 and the buzz has continued since then. Part of the reason could be timing: Consumers are more aware than ever about the importance of locally sourced foods and the men and women who are their farming neighbors. Every dish at Long Grain starts with good ingredients like locally foraged mushrooms, eggs from Bowden’s Farm in Waldoboro, tofu from Heiwa Soy Beanery in Belfast, and meat, seafood, and greens sourced nearby.
“My husband always says it is an honest food,” Palakawong says. “There is nothing to hide what we do. When we say it’s homemade, it’s homemade. When we say it’s local, it’s local.”
Because Palakawong and Nakjaroen are from Thailand, Long Grain is often perceived as a Thai restaurant, but the menu features comfort food inspired by dishes you might find at markets in Bangkok where the food is as much Thai as it is a pan-Asian medley. A popular vegetarian item at Long Grain is the garlic chive rice cakes, which are pan-fried and served with sautéed bean sprouts. In a Chinese restaurant this type of dish would likely be served with soy sauce, but at Long Grain they add a little more chili and vinegar to make it brighter and more flavorful.
“We use more seasoning than any other Asian country,” Palakawong explained. “Indian foods use more dry spices, Thai use everything. Japanese and Chinese only use soy sauce, they don’t use fish sauce. Thai use all kinds of sauces; that makes Thai food more accessible.”
Spicy Thai Basil Minced Chicken
Spicy Night Market Noodle Soup
Pla Mug Manow
Pad Kee Mow
Pad Ped Moo
Pan-fried Garlic Chive Rice Cakes
The couple is not only committed to local foods, but to incorporating ingredients Maine has to offer in dishes that would normally rely on foods from a tropical climate. In the spring diners find locally foraged ramps on the menu in place of leeks or scallions, which do not come in until July and August.
Palakawong said locals especially know and appreciate the difference in their use of locally sourced ingredients. In a small town, everything travels fast—in Camden it is not just the ingredients that attract the locals, but what Nakjaroen does with them. The unique combinations burst with fresh taste.
Long Grain uses seventy-five pounds of Heiwa Tofu a week, year-round. Most of Heiwa Tofu’s soybeans are grown in Maine. Through the reemergence of a grain-growing community, the company has been able to recruit more farmers. According to Heiwa Tofu owner Jeff Wolovitz, soybeans are an excellent fit into many of these farmers’ rotation schemes for oats, wheat, corn, or even potatoes.
Wolovitz appreciates the couple’s support of the local food economy and the cooking. “Bas is spot on with it,” said Wolovitz. “Cubes of tofu quickly stir-fried, piping hot, and seasoned near the end. So simple. You can really enjoy the tofu that way. One of my favorites is the Pad See Ew with tofu and pork. Traditionally, tofu isn’t vegetarian food, it’s just another protein source that everyone eats.”
Patrons range from fishermen to summer residents and the restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner throughout the year. On most summer evenings, the homey 30-seat space is full for hours, with diners eating plates of house-made noodles and stir-fries. As a testament to the food, the staff never tires of “family meal.” In other restaurants, family meal is often different than what’s on the menu. At Long Grain, the food is so simple and easy to prepare that the staff eat just like the patrons.
And the prices are reasonable (nothing on the menu is more than $17). “A lot of the time people think when you eat locally it has to be expensive,” said Palakawong. “It is our job to work on the pricing. It doesn’t have to be a special occasion when someone comes in to eat with us.”
If the crowds, positive customer reviews, and recent James Beard nomination are any indication, Long Grain’s proprietors are doing their job and a lot more. Nakjaroen’s mother and grandmother would likely be very proud of what their son and his wife have accomplished. At Long Grain, good ingredients sourced locally allow the food to speak for itself.
By Melissa Coleman
Photographs by Greta Rybus
The saying goes that there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them, and the same could be said for changes to local food systems. Maine has evolved from individual mom-and-pop farm stands and CSA shares, to the all-in-one farmers ‘super’ market, to present-day models of distribution and retail that look something like souped-up versions of the old mom-and-pop model. What’s most interesting are the ways in which these old stories are being told anew, right now.
Growing up on a rural farm in the 1970s, my family’s primary source of income was, at first, a serve-yourself farm stand resembling the ‘Doctor is In’ structure from Peanuts, with a hanging scale and honor-system money box in place of Lucy. Word spread of tomatoes and strawberries as sweet as those of distant memories, and our small stand soon grew to a freestanding building filled with fresh vegetables in colorful displays on shelves covered with smooth pebbles wetted to stay cool.
As Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) came into being in 1972, these stands were the best income option for small farms. There was only one farmers market in the state, in Portland, and not even one food coop, as best I can tell. The first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares in Maine wouldn’t be available until 1989. As these things go, by the time I moved back to Maine and settled in Freeport in 2002, there were lots of farmers markets and CSAs across the state, but few obvious local farm stands near my home. A writer not a farmer, I was seeking a consistent day-to-day connection to local food—a place to run in a pinch for a head of fresh lettuce or local pork chops. I’d visit my dad, Eliot Coleman, who with my stepmom Barbara Damrosch was planning to open a bigger version of that childhood stand at Four Season Farm. Whenever I said there still wasn’t a place like that in my area they’d send me home with bags and coolers full of vegetables.
What puzzled me was that there were a number of big farms near my home and lots of enthusiastic customers, but there was only a once-a-week opportunity to meet at farmers markets. I’ve since learned others were thinking the same thing—that this brave, new local network needed redefining. The following trailblazers are some of the many who did something about it.
Pictured: Tomatoes and a variety of greens grow inside the New Gloucester greenhouses of Olivia’s Garden, a year-round supplier of vegetables distributed by Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative
It was the summer of 2003 or 2004 when I first spotted a Farm Fresh Connection (FFC) truck in Portland and struck up a conversation with the driver, Martha Putnam, then a 20-something go-getter from Houlton with a blonde ponytail and quick smile. I asked how I could access local farms in the Freeport area and she told me John Schwenk at Wealden Farm was planning to open a stand on Pleasant Hill Road—one that would look a lot like the Peanuts stands of my childhood.
She also mentioned she’d received a $10,000 grant from Common Good Ventures to start a nonprofit distribution company under the umbrella of Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society to help Maine farms access new markets. As a result, she was delivering produce to Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby colleges, as well as other wholesale customers.
“I noticed a lot of us here in Maine didn’t have access to local food,” Putnam says now, reflecting exactly what I was sensing at the time we first met. “It’s being grown down the street, but we can’t get it.”
In what would make for a superpowers merger, Putnam and Schwenk fell in love and married in 2006, effectively joining Wealden Farm and FFC. By 2008, renting storage space from large commercial distributors had become limiting, so Putnam and Schwenk resolved to put up a timber-frame building at Wealden Farm to serve as both market and warehouse.
The benefits were many. The attractive red barn-like structure has refrigeration so produce can be stored during transition, and heat so the indoor market can operate from May to December, supplemented, of course by bounty from FFC’s partners.
“To have a good business, you have to provide more than you grow,” Putnam says. “Honey, bread, cheese, raw milk from Bisson’s, and butter, are the things people want on a regular basis. People stop for these and crops like corn that we don’t grow, but while here they buy green peppers that we did grow.”
FFC is now an LLC, grossing over one million dollars in 2013. It buys both organic and conventional fruit, produce, meat, dairy, honey, and syrup from a network of more than 100 farms, including R. Belanger & Sons Farms, Bowden’s Egg Farm, Backyard Farms, Hahn’s End, and of course Wealden Farm; and delivers to 300-some schools, buying clubs, restaurants, and markets from Portland to Bath and beyond, such as Rosemont Market and Bakery, Jordan’s Farm, and Wealden’s own market; and even provides vegetables to commercial distributors like Sysco.
Putnam and Schwenk’s model of farm/market/distribution under one roof is similar to that of larger operations like Pineland Farms, but they prove it can be done successfully on a mom- and-pop (Martha and John) scale as well.
Looking forward, Putnam believes the best thing investors can do to help local food distribution is give money to schools: “Schools are a guaranteed buyer, and with donations they can pay for large quantities of local food at a price that makes it possible for the farmer to grow it,” she explains. “We need to find ways like this to pay the farmers enough money to keep farming.”
Pictured: John Schwenk is the chief farmer at Wealden Farm and is married to Martha Putnam, founder of Farm Fresh Connection, the local produce distribution company now based at the farm
By 2013 Wealden Farmstand had a freezer full of beef and pork from Luce’s Meats and chicken from Maine-ly Poultry; and Bow Street Market had Wolfe’s Neck/Pineland Farms beef, but everyone I knew was going in on half a pig or cow. In this spirit my dad decided to gift his children with half a pig each, as well as some roasting chickens.
If not for this good fortune, I would have sought out Ben Slayton of Farmers’ Gate Market in Wales. Opened by Slayton and his wife Erin Cinelli in 2010, Farmers’ Gate is a specialty butcher shop that cuts from the rail pasture-grown, humanely raised and slaughtered animals from Maine farms with environmentally sound practices.
When I met Slayton at his shop, his calm good looks, easy manner, and passion for his work instilled confidence that he not only cuts a filet mignon exactly right, but in the best way for customers, the animal, and the whole community. To this end, his goal of transparent meat production means sharing with customers exactly where and how their meat was raised, slaughtered, and processed.
However, while the Farmers’ Gate location—along
a rolling farm road in a town of 1,300—is near animal raisers, it’s nearly an hour’s drive from Portland’s customer base. It was Cinelli’s mother in Yarmouth who had a bright idea: “Everyone I know around here wants to get good meat,” she said. “Why don’t you bring some cuts down here and I’ll have a party and invite them to come buy it.” And thus the first Meat Up was born.
“People were showing up with Radio wagons to get orders and hanging out in the driveway talking about recipes,” Slayton says. “We realized it was more than just a transaction, it was a social thing, and people were asking interesting questions like: How do you tie a chuck roast, and who are these farmers? There was really positive energy.”
Meat Ups now occur regularly on Thursday nights in a number of towns including South Portland and Damariscotta, but by the fall of 2013 Slayton and Cinelli realized they were running out of Thursdays. Around the same time, Farmers’ Gate received a $50,000 loan from Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) to buy beef cattle for the butcher shop to be raised by dairy farmers transitioning away from milk production. The loan was facilitated by Slow Money Maine, which found MFT an investor willing to put up the funds.
When Slayton realized he’d soon have more quality meat than he could sell, he began talking with Penny Jordan of Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth about combining forces to open a market in 2014 that would offer Maine meats, vegetables, bread, and cheese, as well as homemade soups, meat pot pies, salads, sandwiches, salsa, and chicken stock. The location on Ocean Street—near the bridge in South Portland—was selected because of the demand for Meat Ups in the area and the preexisting Jordan’s Farm customer base.
Slayton’s vision of a price point that makes it possible for everyone to prosper—animals, farmers, markets, and customers—is one he’s determined to make a reality.
“For too long value has stopped with the middle man and not trickled back to the farmers,” Slayton says. “Farmers’ Gate is working hard to reverse this by starting with the farmer. We ask them: What are your true costs of production to raise the animal right and make it work for you? We’ll pay that, and then establish the sale price and educate customers on the value.”
Pictured: Ben Slayton works with half of a pig at the Farmers’ Gate butcher shop in Wales
It was in 2001 that a 19-year-old girl named Marada Cook came from Aroostook County to apprentice with my dad at Four Season Farm. By way of a head full of red curls, big ideas, and lively personality, she made an impression on everyone she met, and my dad said she’d surely go on to do great things, which turned out to be true. She thinks big.
“I’d really like to be working on a 100-year vision for food distribution in Maine,” Cook says now. “How can we get toward a more sustainable and interconnected way of providing our own food? It’s like running play trains around a track— you keep making the track smoother and better with each pass.”
Her father, Jim Cook, was a potato farmer in Grand Isle who found himself limited by the distance of his farm, Skylandia, to pretty much everywhere else. In 1995 Jim and his wife Kate decided to start Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative (COMOC) to bring carrots and potatoes from ‘The County’ to Boston markets.
When Jim passed away in 2008, Marada found herself compelled to carry on the family business. Her sister Leah was already involved and together they sought to refine the business model with assistance from the Small Business Development Center. Slow Money Maine participants helped secure loans for inventory and lines of credit from Rudolf Steiner Social Finance and the Coop Fund of New England by connecting COMOC to loan guarantors.
COMOC relocated to the site of the former Kennebec Bean Factory in North Vassalboro in 2010 and began renovations on a 1939 building that has evolved from woolen mill to bean processing plant to now, a warehouse for local food distribution. It serves as the storage and transition point for goods from 200 food suppliers, including Aurora Mills & Farm in Linneus, Heiwa Soy Beanery in Belfast, and Misty Meadows Organic Farm in Grand Isle, as they travel to over 350 customers in all corners of Maine and beyond, including Blue Hill Co-op, Growing Concern, and Colby College. COMOC has grown from $380,000 in sales in 2008 to $1.76 million in 2013, but the Cook sisters are always striving to make things cleaner and more efficient.
“We’re not looking to eliminate areas because they’re rural,” Marada says, “but are asking: How can we build a cluster of farms in an area? It’s about increasing activity across the miles that the food travels and working with more suppliers in each region.”
In addition to the distribution portion of the business, the Cooks launched a food processing arm called Northern Girl in 2011 and bought Fiddler’s Green Farm in 2013, a mail order company selling organic stone-ground cereals and baking mixes sourced from COMOC suppliers Aurora Mills and Morgan’s Mills.
In 2012, Chris Hallweaver, co-founder of Maine Kombucha Company and a mentor to the Cook sisters, moved from Yarmouth to Caribou to take on management of Northern Girl. With the help of a $300,000 state grant and a range of creative financing from individual investors, Northern Girl’s tagline ‘Bounty from the County’ represents the mission of processing beets, broccoli, potatoes, rutabaga, turnip, and carrots for farmers in the County to sell to other markets through COMOC; again, always refining those train tracks.
“We work with both sides of the equation to get to something that’s a match,”Marada says. “We’re setting a standard and helping people rise to that standard.”
As with any movement, new ideas breed like rabbits and generate numerous offspring. Just ask Bonnie Rukin of Slow Money Maine (SMM) and she’ll rattle off a dozen or so food-related efforts in the works, many receiving assistance from SMM and Maine Farmland Trust (MFT). Community efforts in Bowdoinham, Eastport, and Topsham, and more in Washington and Aroostook counties are all in various stages of facilitating the processing, aggregation, and sale of local grain, seafood, meat, and vegetables.
The buzzword ‘food hub’ is generally used to describe such efforts—defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as “a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.”
One prime example in Maine is the Somerset Grist Mill, which opened its doors in 2012 as home to the Maine Grains’ stone mill, as well as Skowhegan Farmers’ Market, and the Pickup Cafe and CSA—all in downtown Skowhegan’s renovated jailhouse. Grains are sourced from Maine farms and ground by stone in the mill. The cafe, which utilizes food from over 40 local producers, is open Friday and Saturday evening for dinners and Saturday and Sunday morning for brunches, and serves wood-fired pizza on summer Wednesdays at CSA pick-up time.
The new hub is the celebrated result of five years of heavy lifting by co-owners Amber Lambke, executive director of Maine Grain Alliance, and Michael Scholz, baker and founder of Albion Bread Farm, with the financial support of the Somerset Economic Development Corporation and Skowhegan Savings Bank. SMM also helped raise part of the $1.6 million dollars in start-up costs and provided legal and technical assistance. “Maine is quite distinctive in having this kind of base and support to make this happen,” says Rukin.
My sister, Clara Coleman, a farm consultant and founder of Four Season Farm Consulting, first told me about the creation of the Unity Food Hub because she’s part of an MFT proposal to help participating farms develop year-round food production capabilities with the addition of moveable modular tunnels and other high tunnel structures.
As I later learned, this was just one limb of an extensive business plan developed by MFT to build a food hub in an abandoned grammar school for farms and consumers within a 15-mile radius of Unity, which is about 40 minutes from the Somerset Grist Mill.
The goal here, says MFT’s John Piotti, “is to create a tool for others in the state—a model to emulate. We’ve put a lot of effort into our business plan, which we freely share, and we’ll be operating the hub as an open book—so anyone interested in this stuff can learn.”
Currently in the renovation stage, the hub is scheduled to open under MFT management in January 2015, with loading docks, cool storage in the basement, a cleaning and packing area, a meeting place for multi-farm CSA pick ups, and a commercial kitchen for events and possibly catering. MFT is investing the $1.3 million into the building, but the hub will operate as a separate for-profit business, paying rent back to MFT. “We’re helping to recreate infrastructure for the local food community,” Piotti says, “but it’s got to conform to business realities to be successful.”
And that’s really the point here, overall. The evolution of local food systems is about meeting the needs of the customer, farmer, and community with smart business plans and clever innovations, all in the effort to make Maine’s food distribution train track as efficient as possible.
By John Piotti
Photographs by Bridget Besaw
Russell Libby had a head for numbers. An economics major at Bowdoin who later served as statistician for the Maine Department of Agriculture, he could spot patterns and trends in figures not everyone saw. I witnessed this repeatedly when we reviewed agricultural census data together.
But one fall day in 1995, Libby was applying his skill with numbers differently. We were driving south on the Interstate in his pickup truck, on our way to Boston for a first-of-its-kind Northeast Food System Leadership Congress, and Libby was checking license plates to see if he knew any drivers. To my amazement, he twice predicted who we would see behind the wheel, based solely on his memory of plate numbers. This was the kind of parlor trick that could only work in a place like Maine, where people you know are likely to be driving the highway with you, but I was impressed Libby could do it at all. I took this as a sign that he was the right kind of person to tackle the seemingly impossible. Good thing, too—because for most people back in 1995, the idea of revitalizing farming in Maine seemed impossible.
Libby and I were committed to farming’s future. At the time, Libby was the new executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), and I had recently launched the Maine Farms Project at Coastal Enterprises Incorporated (CEI). We knew how farms in Maine had declined in the last generation; yet we firmly believed that farming here could grow. We were inspired by organic innovator Eliot Coleman, chef Sam Hayward, and other Mainers who were leaders in a national movement advancing local food; we were impressed by all the Maine farmers doing their part on the ground. And now we were off to Boston to dream and plan with peers from other states.
Back in the mid 1990s, only a small circle of people saw a bright future for local food. The buzzword of the day was ‘globalization,’ and the talk in Maine was all about call centers. Farming seemed downright anachronistic. The common view back then, the view that most people held, was that farming here was dead.
Fast-forward to today and you can see the difference. It’s now commonplace for Mainers to shop at farmers markets, participate in CSAs, and seek out local produce at stores and restaurants. Parents push school boards to incorporate local farm products into school lunches. State and local officials who once scoffed at the very idea of farms as viable businesses now promote farming as smart economic development. Candidates for governor talk about how Maine can be the food basket of the Northeast.
The statistics support this optimism: From 2002 to 2012, the number of farms in Maine grew by 13.5 percent. From just 2007 to 2012, the value of Maine’s farm production increased by 24 percent. During that same period, the number of young farmers (under age 34) in Maine soared, up nearly 40 percent.
It’s clear that good stuff is happening here, on multiple levels. But still, Maine is no Iowa. Is it realistic to think that farming in Maine— or any other part of New England—could ever be more than just a sideshow?
That’s the question addressed by Brian Donahue of Brandeis University, who assembled a team of researchers (including Libby) to explore how much of the food that New England eats could be supplied locally—given population trends, dietary habits, climatic conditions, and land availability. The resulting just-released report, A New England Food Vision, shows how the region could, by 2060, produce half to two-thirds of all its food (meat, fish, dairy, vegetables, fruit, grain, sweeteners, oils, and beverages), up from about 10 percent today. Doing so could yield significant economic, environmental, and social benefits throughout the region, but would require a major ramp-up in the amount of New England that is farmed: from 2 million acres today to 6 million acres or more by 2060. A good chunk of that land would need to come from Maine.
This vision is promising and possible, yet not supported by today’s economic realities. Maine has the needed land, yet cannot cultivate another million acres (let alone another 3 million acres) without also cultivating new markets. While there is great and growing demand for food produced close to home, there is not yet sufficient demand for that much local food at prices that work for farmers. That’s the nut that needs cracking.
Some people say that local food costs too much. A fairer statement may be that a lot of the food brought here ‘from away’ costs too little. Consider, for instance, how fruits and vegetables grown in California rely on water systems—and come east via transportation systems—built and maintained with government funds. Consider, also, how the transporters pay less for fuel than its true cost. At present, some fruits and vegetables grown in Maine are cost-competitive with food from away and some are not. (It depends on the crop and time of year.) But more Maine food would become cost-competitive, if more of the true cost of producing and transporting food was incorporated into its price.
Other price distortions result directly from federal farm policies. For example, the federal government sets the price paid to any dairy farmer who sells to a conventional processor like Oakhurst or Hood, and that price is often below the farmer’s cost of production. (The situation changes somewhat for organic dairy farmers and the handful of dairy farmers who sell direct retail; but even here, federal pricing constrains what’s possible.) Meanwhile, federal subsidies hold down the price of commodity crops that are principally grown out West (like corn, wheat, and soy), which drives up the relative cost of products well suited to the Northeast (like grass-fed meat). Ultimately, these federal policies help neither farmers nor consumers. (Even for low-income consumers, the best approach is not to hold costs down artificially; it’s far smarter to improve these consumers’ buying power.)
As food costs rise—and they will—it’s likely that the cost of food from away will rise more than the cost of food from Maine. If the relative cost of Maine food drops enough, consumer demand will soar. Maine could then see millions of acres of former farmland produce food once again.
We can take steps to reduce the relative cost of Maine farm products by helping smaller farms scale up. In the last decade, we’ve seen rapid growth in small, diversified farms that sell directly through farmers markets, farm stands, and CSAs. Some of these farms now want to expand modestly, to increase efficiency and be able to sell at least some products wholesale. That’s good news if we are serious about getting more Mainers to eat locally, because the majority of consumers are going to get most of their food from supermarkets and institutions (entities that principally buy wholesale), not from direct retail venues like farmers markets. Many small farms are now exploring various ways to enter wholesale markets, including participating in ‘food hubs’ that pool products from multiple farms. These hubs—which come in many forms—begin to re-create the community-scale infrastructure that once existed throughout Maine, back when small canneries, creameries, and slaughterhouses were common.
Maine farms will also become more competitive with changes to federal policy. With a new farm bill just passed, major reform is not coming soon; but reform will come, because the public will demand it. Awareness has now grown to a point where it will not be suppressed, spread as it has on so many levels, from author Michael Pollan to the local farmer who interacts with attentive customers.
Beyond what may happen in Maine or Washington, D.C., we are witnessing larger forces at work in this direction. The relative cost of food from away is slowly but methodically rising, driven ever upwards by numerous factors, including increasing fuel costs, more frequent droughts and crop-damaging storms, and the alarming depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer (which supplies 30 percent of the groundwater used for irrigation in the United States).
There’s no question that the economic realities in place a generation from now will bolster the competitive position of Maine farms and support the kind of robust local food system advanced by A New England Food Vision. But what happens between now and then? What happens in the interim, when the most profitable use of a 10-acre parcel with prime farm soils is to drop a new house in the middle of it, with no regard for that land’s potential to feed us? What happens when current market forces do not reward farmers adequately? What happens when new farmers cannot afford to buy transitioning farmland?
If—during this critical time—we lose much more land to short-sighted development, or if we lose farming know-how because we aren’t helping existing farmers remain in business or new farmers get started, then farming here will never realize its promise.
For close to 20 years, I’ve been an unabashed supporter of farming in Maine, talking up the future whenever I can. I’m still doing that. But now— amid all the excitement about farming—I make a point of stressing that not all economic forces lead in the right direction. The future we want will only be realized if we take deliberate steps to protect more farmland and provide key services to farmers—and only if we do so now, while we still have the opportunity.
When Russell Libby passed away in late 2012, many of us lost a dear friend and colleague who we relied upon for so much. In my case, I also lost someone I could talk to about the numbers. Numbers are important: they frame what’s possible. In the 1880s, Maine farmed 6.5 million acres. Today, the figure is about 700,000 acres. Of the remaining 5.8 million acres, only about a million acres have been lost to development. Much of what’s left has grown up in alder and pasture pine. With the right steps, that land could transform farming in Maine.
In winter 2009, Libby and I attended a gathering of farmers and researchers at Spannocchia, a farm in Tuscany, where my roommate was Brian Donahue and where I—as always—talked up Maine. At first, Donahue was skeptical that Maine had the potential to feed so much of New England, but that changed the more he spoke with Libby, who held in his head all the numbers needed to make the case. “Let’s look at this closer” they said—and A New England Food Vision was conceived.
Yet numbers never capture the whole story— far from it. Libby, also a poet, knew that well. In this excerpt from his poem, “At Spannocchia,” he conveys both promise and urgency:
Yes, Maine could once again feed itself and more. But just because this could happen, doesn’t mean that it will. The future of farming here hinges on what we do now. It’s time for the people of Maine to build an expansive and enduring terrace, a foundation worthy of who we are, and then upon it, tend a bountiful garden.
The so-called ‘Ag Art’ movement may prove as important to farming’s future as land protection and food hubs, because art has the power to get us to think differently. And that—at heart—is what’s needed to rebuild our food system. Ag Art takes many forms. In 2013, artist and educator Lucinda Bliss was one participant in a group exhibition, Farming | Environment | Art, at Maine Farmland Trust Gallery in Belfast.
To describe how Lucinda Bliss created the work in her Boundaries series is simple: She called farmers. She asked if she could run their property lines. She showed up. She ran while logging her route on a GPS device. Then she returned to her studio, studied the map she’d made by her movement, and painted: six times, six different farms throughout the state.
Of course, that’s surface level, what’s easily seen and understood. Just as you can admire the beauty of crop rows, you can appreciate Bliss’ work for its formal qualities. But especially when taken as a series, Boundaries (among other things) asks the viewer to unpack their ideas about what a farm is, what their personal associations are, and what place agriculture holds in society.
“I’m a more conceptual artist than people first realize when they look at the work,” Bliss says. Her runs create a narrative structure that allows her to combine representation with abstraction, challenging viewers to linger longer than they might with a realistic depiction of the same place and experience.
Bliss’ work—both the act of making it and the final pieces—confronts the pastoral myth and ideas of ownership. Most farmers understand that you don’t truly own land, that you simply steward it for a time. Bliss says she knew she was “onto something” when she finished a run at Old Crow Ranch in Durham. She tried to thank farmer Steve Sinisi for allowing her eccentric project to take place—for making the space to think about one additional thing amidst the never-ending to-do list of a farm—and instead he thanked Bliss: “He said, ‘People come here all the time. They want to have a view of a farm, a real farmer, to take a picture of a pig, of the beautiful scene. But you, in doing this project, get that I take care of the air, the soil—the whole land. You and this project honored that.’”
Bliss is interested in how we “compartmentalize things on land and in ourselves,” including our ideas of what farming should look, smell, and sound like. In discussing another farm, Bliss relays how formerly friendly neighbors objected when pigs were brought in: “People love the idea of a farmer,” Bliss says, “and not so much the manure. It helps me realize how much farmers’ jobs can involve negotiating dialogue, getting in the good graces of their neighbors. Even though farming doesn’t happen in community as much anymore, they have to behave as if it does.”
In conversations before the run, Bliss would begin to build a sense of place through the way the farmers spoke about the land; it was a reminder of the intimacy that builds over time. Bliss says, “A farmer might tell me, ‘You’re gonna see an old stone wall, turn right. Run until you get to the old-growth cedar forest…’ but a farmer knows their land really well. I got lost on almost every single run.”
Back in the studio, Bliss would draw and redraw the contours of her GPS route until she had internalized the shape—the emblem—of that farm and experience. Bliss’ previous work has dealt with the themes of intimacy, personal boundaries, and the body: One of her most well known projects involved investigating desire with her mother, a poet. At first blush, this work may not seem aligned with that past, but the primal act of running ties it all together. Running is a way to bring you back to the body, back to nature, and in this case—back to the land. Bliss is painting relationships as much as places.
Lucinda Bliss, Boundaries: Tide Mill, graphite pencil and watercolor on paper, 22″ x 30″, 2013, courtesy Aucocisco Galleries
Lucinda Bliss, Boundaries: Broadturn, graphite pencil and watercolor on paper, 22″x 30″, 2013, collection: University of New England Art Gallery