Category Archives: 2016

FOREVER FARM: South Paw Farm


It had been many months since I’d left the coast. It’s easy to forget that so much of the state is farmland; much of it fallow. Some stretches of road are ghostly with abandoned farmhouses, broken-down tractors and decaying agricultural buildings. Others showcase a commitment to keeping agricultural traditions alive, such as Route 137 running through Waldo County.

When I pulled off Greeley Road in Freedom onto the dirt driveway of South Paw Farm, I was greeted by four dogs, two of them pups and all of them some mix of collie and shepherd. A tall, quiet fellow named Santiago greeted me and shooed the dogs away. He called out for Meg Mitchell, co-owner of the farm, before getting back to work himself.

When Meg and I sat down at a weathered picnic table to begin our chat, a little girl no older than ten approached Meg to ask if she could help on the farm for the day, as she was saving up for something special.

Meg had an entire crew to manage and lots to accomplish, but she explained to the little girl that she could tag along if she kept up and took her job seriously.

Meg is kind and honest by any measure. She is also patient, thoughtful, and passionate. Passion in farming can be fleeting, but in Meg’s case, her commitment to that passion carries her steadily along.

At the age of 18, while in school in Atlanta, Meg attended a semester school reunion in North Carolina. While at a diner, Meg met a man named Daniel Price who had just finished school at College of the Atlantic and gone on to purchase a farm in Freedom with his wife, Ginger Dermott. They had aptly named the new venture, Freedom Farm. Before the reunion was through, Daniel offered Meg the opportunity to move to Maine and work on Freedom Farm. Meg took the job and spent four years familiarizing herself with the land, the soil, the drainage and the potential for growth.

In 2008, armed with her experience at Freedom Farm, Meg set out to own and operate her own business, which had always been her goal. She bought a “squirrely little piece of land” (Meg’s words) in Unity and named it South Paw Farm. As she worked the land, she came to better understand the local market as well as the economic model for the business. Meg quickly realized that while going to farmers markets across the state diversified South Paw Farm’s customer base, she sold the vast majority of her produce at the Portland Farmers Market. It was in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park, selling vegetables, that Meg met her future business and life partner, Ryan Mitchell, who at the time played in a punk band. Then, towards the end of 2014, Daniel and Ginger decided to move to North Carolina and offered to sell their farm to Meg and Ryan.

A few years prior, Meg had enrolled in the Maine Farms for the Future program, where she had written a business plan to grow the vegetable production capabilities of South Paw Farm. When Daniel and Ginger decided to sell Freedom Farm, Meg and Ryan were able to redirect the grant funds Meg received toward securing the land in Freedom. Maine Farmland Trust purchased an easement on the Freedom Farm land, which lowered the purchase price and made ownership possible for the young farmers. For the 2015 season, Meg and Ryan operated under the moniker South Paw at Freedom Farm as they transitioned, taking advantage of the business Daniel and Ginger had built, but giving it their own stamp as they developed a strategy for sustainable growth.

It takes years to understand what your strengths and weaknesses are as a farmer on a particular piece of land. As Meg tells me stories of her challenges over the years running a farm, I pick up on a sense of accomplishment in her voice, despite the struggles. She explains, “One season, cabbage laid to rot in the fields due to an overambitious planting; another there weren’t enough peppers to keep up with demand.” In the past, poor irrigation has led to extremely thirsty crops. But from these mishaps comes wisdom. For example, Meg consulted with the Natural Resource Conservation Service to determine how to prevent leaching with new technology. Now she has more suitable irrigation methods. “Always keep records,” she says with certitude. “You simply can’t improve your farm without them.”

In a state like Maine, running a diversified farm can be critical to long term sustainability.  South Paw is 55 acres of land, much of which is woodlot, and 22 acres of which is either cultivated or pastured. Of that, 18 acres are vegetables. Meg and Ryan recently leased another 8 acres across the road, with an eye toward purchasing that land in the future through a similar arrangement with Maine Farmland Trust.

Seventy percent of South Paw’s business is gener-ated by sales at the Portland Farmers Market, twenty percent is wholesale accounts, such as restaurants and Rosemont Market, and about ten percent is devoted to a small but committed CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). The farm has a significant hoop house operation, growing a variety of tomatoes and peppers, basil, and ginger. Meg recently acquired a chili roaster, which tends to be a draw to their booth at the Common Ground Fair. The fragrant mix of hot and sweet peppers tosses in an iron cage over an open fire; a conversation starter on cold days. Meg and Ryan have also established a substantial perennial operation, with over ninety heritage apple trees, peaches, elderberries, and raspberries. As another side project, they are on their sixth round of raising dairy cows for calf stock.

I asked Meg if she faces challenges recruiting labor, as this is a common industry struggle. She said that there is a core team that has been there for a while: Santiago (“Santi”) Zamudio Quiroz, Mike Showalter, and Kelly Murray, without whom they couldn’t possibly make the place run. Farmhands are often traveling folks who head south for the winter months to work in agriculture, hospitality, or other seasonal positions.

It’s the kind of job some people quit fast: demanding responsibility, responsiveness, and serious stamina. While farming has romantic undertones, the reality is that many people aren’t cut out for it, physically or mentally. Luckily, this is a quick discovery for most.

But even for farmers who own their land, a second job is often the norm. Meg and Ryan work for Fedco Seeds in the off season: Meg does most of their potato seed purchasing and Ryan helps with bookkeeping.

Meg has a lot of energy, but her journey hasn’t been a race. Her approach has been measured and carefully executed. I asked what advice she has for future farmers. “Stay as organized as possible,” she said, “and take smart risks. Don’t plant 3 acres of potatoes if you don’t have potato digging equipment, for example.”

She adds that new farmers also need to be prepared to broaden their skill set. Being a farmer means being a carpenter, a welder, an electrician, and a bookkeeper, because farmers don’t make enough money to hire special services or pay someone to fix everything that breaks. As a reward, there is the quiet satisfaction in knowing you can do it yourself.

Meg and Ryan were married in October of 2015. The ring bearer was their cow Madeline and the couple still did farm chores the day of the wedding. They asked a friend from the general store who fills their tank with diesel every week to officiate. From time to time, Meg and Ryan go to the local grange to see friends and other community members. There are other competing farms just down the road, but the prevailing sentiment in town is that they are all part of a movement, helping each other further the mission.

It’s a good life, that of a farmer—not just a job. It is a commitment to a greater purpose that pays in the knowledge that all day, every day, you are contributing to the health and happiness of others. You see progress through your physical work, but also through the betterment of your community. And for Meg and Ryan, there is no better work or life, than this. |

Lacinato Kale, Avocado, and Cilantro Salad

When I asked Meg what crops were her finest in late spring and early summer, she enthusiastically replied, “lacinato kale, last year’s shallots and cilantro!” In an effort to embrace all three, I’ve written a recipe that celebrates the early summer gems of South Paw Farm.–AA

For 4 servings

1 shallot, minced

1 clove garlic, roughly chopped

Juice and zest of a lemon

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1 bunch cleaned cilantro leaves and upper stems, roughly chopped

⅓ cup olive oil

Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

Red pepper flakes

1 bunch lacinato kale, cleaned

1 ripe avocado

2 tablespoons pepitas

1 In a blender, buzz the shallot and garlic with a touch
of salt, before adding any liquid. Use a spatula to
scrape the mixture off the sides afterward. Then
add the lemon juice and zest, Dijon mustard, sherry
vinegar, and cilantro and blend to a consistent
texture. Add olive oil, salt, pepper, and red pepper
flakes and blend once more. Season to taste.

2 If you are using baby kale, there is no need to cut
it. If your kale is adolescent, cut it across the stem
into thin strips. If it is full grown, pull the leaves
backwards off of the stems and then cut it into thin
strips. If it is particularly tough, you can massage
the cut kale between your hands to tenderize it.
It works! Place kale in large wooden bowl.

3 Cut avocado in half, remove pit and slice across the flesh
every ½ inch, without penetrating the skin. Then make
one, long perpendicular cut through the center, without
penetrating the skin. Use a spoon to release the flesh from
the skin into the kale. Do the same for the other half.

4 Spoon about half of the dressing on the kale and avocado
and gently massage it in. Taste for salt and pepper and
add more if necessary. If you like a heavy dressing, which
is often very nice on a kale salad, add the remainder.
Otherwise, save it for another use. Sprinkle the pepitas
on top of the salad. To make a meal out of it, serve with a
fried egg on top and a hunk of crusty bread on the side.


Annemarie Ahearn is the owner of Salt Water Farm cooking school in Lincolnville. |

Winterberry Farm Photo Essay


Life at Winterberry Farm is the only life Sage has ever known. When her mother, Mary, moved to the farm it had been dormant for twenty years. Mary’s dream was to revitalize the forty acre farm so she could live there with her family and earn a living from the land. With the help of her oldest daughter, Kenya; her son, Gil; Sage, and farmapprentices, Mary has realized this dream.

The organic farm provides food for 50 local families through its CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). It also has a farmstand, equipped with a commercial kitchen, where the family cooks and sells goods from the farm. In December 2012, Winterberry Farm became a “Forever Farm” through an agricultural easement held by Maine Farmland Trust and the Belgrade Conservation Alliance, ensuring that the farm will remain a farm in perpetuity.

Sage spends much of her time outside helping to run the farm, and is intimately connected to the land and animals. She plays and explores with the wonder of a child, but works with the strength and maturity of an adult. What is it like to be this now ten-year-old farmer?

This work looks at the life of a family farm through the eyes of a young girl whose only home has been this land that her mother credits for giving her and her children safety, security, and a living. | |

Back to the Land

FICTION by Bill Roorbach

Bill Roorbach is the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction, including the Flannery O’Connor Award and O. Henry Prize winner Big Bend, as well as Into Woods, Temple Stream, and the bestselling Life Among Giants. The 10th anniversary edition of his craft book, Writing Life Stories, is used in writing programs around the world. His work has been published in Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, the New York Times Magazine, Granta, New York Magazine, and dozens of other magazines and journals. |

Many decades ago as my junior year in college bumped to a close I put a few shirts in my canvas Boy Scout rucksack and climbed into Hank Martin’s station wagon along with Carol Luxbaum, his longtime girlfriend. Hank and I were twenty, roommates at Ithaca College, class of ’75. Carol was nineteen, and drove me crazy, always wrapped in a towel. We were from Jersey and New York City and in my case, Connecticut. We’d all been reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living The Good Life, and had got an itch: We were going back to the land.

Hank’s old high school pal Kevin Kellogg had bought twenty acres on a pond near Plymouth, Maine. But in the dead of winter Kevin hadn’t noticed that it was the bog end of the pond, ten acres of mosquitoes and mud, densely tangled alder, impassable.

We hiked in, passed through a handsome old stone wall and suddenly stepped into a pretty meadow, remains of an old farm field, still poignant, and still touched by spring, nascent milkweed every-where in the sour, abandoned soil, also wildflowers: orange hawkweed on tall stalks, Johnny jump-ups in patches of purple, dandelions uncountable. Down in the far corner we spotted Kevin’s Army-surplus MASH tent, hard to miss with that red cross on top.

Our host shouted from somewhere, emerged suddenly as if from the earth itself, muddy and soaked. “I’m digging a well!” he called.

He’d been on the land since April, when there’d still been snow, surprising him. He’d lost weight, looked weary. He hugged us each. He smelled of woodsmoke and stale clothes. A woman emerged from the tent carrying something. A baby.

Kevin said, “You got to meet Jenna. I picked her up hitchhiking first days here, like an omen. We fell in love. Truck’s out of gas. But the woman’s still running!”

Jenna made her way to us, calm as a tree stump, faint smile, baby riding her hip. She said, “We were picking trout lily.” She showed us her basket of tender leaves. Mother’s milk had leaked into her t-shirt, I did not fail to notice. Moxie, the shirt said. Carol’s negative judgment was plain on her face, thoroughgoing: Did back to the land mean babies? Hank and Kevin embraced, punched one another: they were the real friends.

The baby’s name was Birch. Jenna put him down, shook our hands. Baby Birch was big at fourteen months. He wasn’t a strong walker, but he could butt-scoot through the grass and weeds like a pro, headed for that well. His mother caught him up, a lot of giggling, both of them.

That evening we built a big fire by the future site of the cabin, drank my entire stash of Utica Club beer, finished our road bologna, slaughtered a startling salad of blanched dandelion clusters Jenna said), with onion grass and trout lily leaves, baby garden greens (none familiar)—also some kind of thready mushrooms Jenna had found, dressing of thin yogurt. I mean, startling because it was delicious. That was Jenna. She’d be our teacher. She’d wean us from the world.

Kevin outlined the misadventure so far: back in winter he’d pictured himself floating around in the pond, pleasant hippie lassitude. Instead it was all work. Really hard work.

“And therein lies the pleasure,” Jenna said warmly.

I held Birch a long time, hadn’t touched a toddler like that since my little sister was new, the sweetest thing, his big little hands tugging at my mustache. Late, Carol and Hank slipped off to his car. That’s where she meant to sleep, not in any stinking army tent, no matter how big. Kevin and Jenna and baby Birch seemed happy enough not to have to share, made their way down the moonlit meadow, the very vision of my homestead dream. Near the fire, I assembled my old pup tent, climbed in.
By the time the rest of us got up, Jenna had had time to make a couple dozen coarse biscuits with wild mushrooms and greens, spot of flour on her nose. Kevin came out of the tent in a t-shirt, no pants. Birch climbed up naked on my lap, happily ate four biscuits in a row, maple syrup from a Mason jar, his little double chin dripping.

“Ew, mushrooms,” Carol said, spitting out a mouthful.

We had a meeting, sitting in a circle on big logs. Jenna wanted us all to pool our money. I was in, contributed what was left of my cash, fourteen dollars. And Hank was in, twenty-one dollars, a man of means. Carol, I knew, was sitting on something like six hundred bucks, plus free use of her father’s credit card.

Carol?” Kevin said, acting as treasurer.

“I’ll put in the average of what the boys put in,” she said shrewdly. So that was another seventeen.

It went without saying somehow that Kevin’s share was the land and Jenna’s her knowledge, and that Birch’s maintenance was everyone’s responsibility.

Carol wandered off, supposedly to take a walk, but in a minute you could hear Hank’s car starting far up there on the road. No matter: Hank and Kevin got in the well and I brought them rocks from an olden farmer’s fieldstone pile nearby, two or three at a time in an antique wooden wheelbarrow. The work went slowly, my friends standing knee deep in muddy water. Kevin was supremely confident, ordered us around.

Jenna, meanwhile, worked in the garden while Birch contentedly patted the fresh soil she turned up. Lunchtime, nearly, and Jenna hoisted Birch and carried him into the forest across the stone wall, returned in an hour with an impressive pile of what she said were ramps, or wild leeks: greens, bulbs and all, super fragrant. And with brown rice from a huge bag marked “surplus” and more of the oyster mushrooms, also a sauce made with peanut butter from an enormous surplus can, that was lunch.

Afterwards I helped Jenna in the garden, like taking a class, Birch in and out between our knees and arms, naked as a baby mole. Mother and son smelled the same: pine needles and syrup and mother’s milk. Hands dirty, Jenna wiped the mud from her cheek on my shoulder, intimate work.

Dinner was two enormous pizzas Carol had bought someplace. She’d got her hair cut, too, and looked freshly showered: a day-spa in Bangor, half an hour or more away.

And our first days were like that, Carol wandering off to museums and department stores and famous beaches, the rest of us laboring, happy when she brought treats, which depended on her mood. Kevin was very unhappy with her, let us know it, let her know, too. And after two weeks she’d had enough. They didn’t even have to pack, as everything was in Hank’s car. But she must have felt guilty anyway, gave us a hundred dollars. “This is never going to work,” she said for the millionth time, even in the midst of a tearful goodbye. Hank said he’d be back, but I knew him pretty well, and Kevin did too, and we agreed he’d never come back, not without Carol.

Suddenly it was July. Kevin and I had gotten the well lined about halfway, miserable work, but then overnight after a heavy rain it collapsed, disaster. Kevin went into a rage, stormed down into the woods to hack at his cabin logs with an ax.

The second Tuesday of the month was surplus day at the town office, not to say welfare. Anyway, he state handed out surplus food to the elderly, also huge bags of powdered milk to nursing mothers, sometimes along with other donations like oil, flour, cheese, and sugar. Jenna had to appear in person, so I drove her in Kevin’s old pickup, the baby in her lap. First stop was for gas, and there went three dollars, all we could manage. Jenna wrote the amount in a little notebook she carried in her overalls.

At the town office, properly contrite, she collected her handout. At the little store with the gas pump she bought a single yogurt. “Culture,” she said. And wrote the cost, thirty cents. I had no clue what she meant, culture, but laughed with her. The joke, I guess, was her thrift, and that she made whole gallons of yogurt with the powdered milk. She was distressingly beautiful, the smartest person I’d ever met. In the truck she put Birch to her breast. I just looked out the windshield at the pretty day.

“You’re so quiet,” she said.

“I’m trying,” I told her.

She said, “But let’s talk. You’re in college?”

“College, yes.”

“And what do you love about college?”

I had to think a long time. “I had a film class once, that was good. But I couldn’t get into the program. Otherwise. I don’t know. I’m a history major. Pretty dull.”

“So why do you do it?”

A little later, on the way home, she told me to take a right on an unmarked road that descended a steep hill, the broken pavement turning quickly to dirt, then mud. At the top was an olden farm. A cheerful old man, seventy or more, trundled out of the spavined barn, his face lit like a kerosene lamp. “Our Alton,” Jenna said. “He came over with his team back in April to see how he might help. Kevin said we didn’t need any help. But Alton tilled the garden spot with me. And a lot more, when Kevin’s not watching.”

Birch was thrilled to see the old man. We tumbled out of the little truck. I felt conspicuous with my long hair. But Alton had no judgment in him, just shook my hand, kissed Jenna on both cheeks, kissed the baby. “Ah, you got some real help, now,” he joked. Me, he meant.

He had jars of preserved beans and beets and tomatoes. He filled my arms with boxes—seven or eight trips to the truck. “I hardly ate the half of it,” he kept saying. “I know you can use it even as your garden comes in.” Alton was in the slowest hurry I’d ever seen, kept consulting his ancient pocket watch—there was a church meeting in town he needed to get to. Back down in the barnyard I helped him harness his matched Belgians, kindest tones for both me and the horses, which he hooked to an olden buckboard, and off he went, like 1806, or really any year but 1973.

On the way home, Jenna filled me in: he’d lost his son in Vietnam. His wife had died at home of a disease never diagnosed, likely cancer. They’d never had electricity or plumbing, so never missed it. “Kevin barely tolerates him,” she said, “and that’s a mistake we can’t afford. Ignoring your elders, I mean.” And, “Don’t tell Kevin where we got all this stuff, okay?”

August came and Alton Beaver turned up, un-announced, though I got the impression Jenna had invited him. That team of Belgians was amazing, and helped finally haul the logs for the cabin, Kevin acting all superior, like Alton was just some old fool.

But Alton offered his bucksaw and log dogs and homemade charcoal line and broadax and adze and drawknife to plane the logs out— Kevin hadn’t thought about all that prehistoric stuff. As Alton demonstrated technique and I tried to learn, Kevin scoffed and ordered us around, pointing with his hardware-store ax, outlining his plans for building. Alton politely stopped him—those piers weren’t frost deep, not in Maine. The cabin wouldn’t last its first winter. But Kevin had read how deep piers needed to be set, read it in a book.

And Alton very respectfully said, “Maybe the book was about another part of the country. No sense in building on piers that will fail.”

Kevin lost it: “Listen, you old hillbilly. You take your horses, you get off my land! And don’t ever come back!”

I was shocked and mortified at the insult—hillbilly!—but Alton just held his head high, calmly walked his Belgians out of there, the wages of kindness. Earlier, he’d suggested building a log cradle so we could notch the huge timbers one by one without danger of their rolling. I was all for it. But now Kevin had something to prove. He went to work in a fury, capable guy. But no log cradle. And so the third log rolled and he missed the joint, swung that razor-sharp new ax straight full force into his knee. He screamed like a wild animal, tumbled off the log and to the ground.

Jenna, as always, knew what to do. She tourniqueted his leg, eased it off every minute or so. Kevin vomited, passed out. His pickup had run out of gas long since—Alton and his horses had towed it home from town. So I sprinted up the right of way, ran down the paved road, waved my arms to stop the only traffic, an elderly woman who knew Alton and said she’d fetch him.

Within half an hour he was there, and with one of his horses and a cart he wheeled Kevin to the road where the same woman met us and drove our casualty to the hospital in Bangor.

Kevin’s dad arranged to have him flown to a hospital in Jersey by helicopter. Our boy had developed sepsis, almost died, wouldn’t walk for a year.

Jenna and I worked on the garden, just kept going. She had tomatoes coming in. We ate them greedily standing right there in the beds, no real way to preserve them, fed them to the baby. I was pretty worried, said as much when she finally asked.

And Jenna said, “Alton will take us in. We wouldn’t have survived the winter anyway. Not here. Alton will love to have us.”


I dropped the idea of college right there. And took to sleeping in the Army tent with Jenna and Birch, all snuggled in their covers on the noisy mattress she’d made of swamp madder and cedar bark. I felt I loved her and on the third or fourth night I told her so.

“Survival of the fittest,” she said. And even though it was a joke, I was pretty proud of myself. Plus, by morning, we were lovers. True love, and always.

Alton took good care of us, and in our turn, we took good care of him. We worked his farm beside him, and then worked it as he had. He died very quietly at ninety-four after a day moving boulders with his team. His last will and testament was written on an envelope stored at the judge’s house in town. And that’s how we found out he’d left us the farm. And three new kids later, a couple of them through college, Birch and our youngest still home on the farm, Jenna and I remain a good matched team. We often comment on the accidents of fate, that Kevin never returned, for example. In the late nineties, though, he did gift us his plot of land, and after some hard work behind that second set of Belgians, it makes nice spring pasture for our milkers, though it’s never been much for hay.

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Maine’s Hard Cider Revival

by Chelsea Holden Baker, with contributions by Todd Little-Siebold                        photographs by Greta Rybus

There was a time when Mainers drank cider: more than coffee, more than milk, more than Allen’s Coffee Brandy, sometimes more than water. And this was the hard stuff, not the cloying fresh juice we call “cider” now. Sometimes fizzy, sometimes tart, sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet, the one thing cider always was, was fermented, meaning: alcoholic.

Early American colonists planted apples from English seeds (some sources trace the year to 1623), and were soon pressing cider. The drink was relatively cheap to make and easy to produce, but in addition, for the several hundred years before refrigeration and filtration came along, it was a safe choice—often more sanitary than water, or at least perceived that way.

Cider’s ubiquity was not unique to Maine. You could devote a whole book to cider’s role in American politics. Both George Washington and William Henry Harrison doled out free cider as part of electoral campaigns in their early careers (a relatively common practice known as swilling the planters with bumbo”), and John Adams is rumored to have drank a tankard a day to keep the doctor away. (He lived until 90 and liked to take cider as breakfast.)

Cider was a drink for morning, noon, and night:a customary refreshment to offer guests, a beverage also consumed by children (albeit in a watereddown form called ciderkin). And it was a point of national pride. Thomas Jefferson tended apples at Monticello, dismissing Old World apples as inferior. Travelling abroad, Jefferson wrote from Paris: “They have no apple to compare with our Newtown Pippin.” (Indeed, Benjamin Franklin had Newtown Pippins shipped to him in London in 1759, kicking off the fruit export industry.) Jefferson also boasted that an apple known as Taliaferro (which he planted in abundance at Monticello but is now lost to history) was “the best cyder apple existing,” writing to a friend that it was “more like wine than any other liquor I have tasted that was not wine.”

And that’s one of the interesting, understated things about hard cider: it is—or at least can be—complex, a reflection of the huge varieties of fruit and yeasts (wild or added) that may go into it, as well as its particular conditions of fermentation. A hard cider’s nuances can be appreciated like a fine wine or coffee, and particularly when drinking a locally produced batch, the drink can offer—to borrow a term from viticulture—an experience of terroir.

“One of the beauties of cider is its natural pairing with a wide range of foods,” says David Buchanan of Portersfield Cider in Pownal. “Full-bodied, tannic ciders in particular go best with a meal. If you love Maine food, this is your native drink.” So why did Maineʼs native drink disappear? And who is driving its comeback?

Nationally, cider is on track to be a billion dollar industry in the next few years, the fastest- growing segment of the beverage market. According to the Chicago-based market research firm IRI, cider sales ballooned 75.4 percent to $366 million between November 2013 and 2014 and signs point to exponential increase. Across Maine, thousands of new trees are being set out, and a vibrant agricultural sector is emerging. Cider, largely abandoned as a commercial product in the 1830s, is resurging; and that means that old apple varieties used for cider are being replanted in numbers not seen in over a century.

The story of cider in Maine is the story of agriculture in Maine, a microcosm of larger shifts. From the time of the first European settlers here, apples were standard fare on subsistence farms: just about everyone outside of cities planted apples from the 1600s into the early 1900s. Before the American Revolution, cider apples were not just used for drink, but apple cider vinegar (an essential for food preservation), apple syrup or molasses (both terms for a boiled-down fresh cider used as a sweetener in a time when sugar was hard to come by), and as livestock feed.

By the early 1700s, annual cider production in New England topped 300,000 gallons and records for Massachusetts show that by the middle of that century, the state’s average resident was drinking 35 gallons of cider per year. Cider was such a staple that by America’s founding in 1776, one out of every ten farms in New England ran its own cider mill, often a gathering place for the surrounding community.

The home production of cider and the local trade and barter economies around it were part of the everyday fabric of life in rural Maine. Going “down to cellar” with your neighbor to drink their cider and catch up on local goings-on was a ritual that survived well into the 1970s in some parts of the state.

“What went on in the world of apples from 1700- 1900 mimics a lot of what went on in all of agriculture,” says John Bunker, Maineʼs preeminent heirloom fruit expert and preservationist. “Well into the 19th century most of the apples were planted from seed.”

This is an important detail both because trees planted from seed tend to produce small, astringent apples (well suited for cider, less well suited for fresh eating), and because if you plant a seed from a McIntosh expecting a McIntosh you’ll be disappointed. The resulting tree is unlikely to yield tart, red and green fruit with white flesh that’s ripe in September. Instead, the profile of the new tree and the fruit it bears will represent a variety of traits picked up from untold generations of parent trees that have cross-pollinated; perhaps some characteristics of McIntosh will come through, but more likely not. From seed, every apple tree is new and unique. The way to replicate a McIntosh is by grafting a small portion of an existing tree onto the appropriate rootstock for your needs.

What Bunker is getting at is that starting in the late 1700s, American farmers essentially became apple breeders. As they were doing with all crops grown from seed— whether squash or corn or beans—farmers were making choices and selections about what they wanted and needed from their apple trees and began propagating to that standard while still pressing seedling apples (again, each unique) for cider.

However, the formation of the land-grant universities in America after the Civil War began to formalize breeding programs with a larger agenda in mind: a commodity form of agriculture. As the rural, diversified farm model fell apart and was replaced by the larger commercial farm, which was in turn replaced by the commodity farm, it “was all mimicked—or exemplified—by what happened to apples,” Bunker says. Today the land grant breeding programs are, in Bunker’s words: “now all but dead and being replaced by international conglomerates that are breeding plants that are then trademarked and patented.”

But that’s the story of agriculture writ large. Commercial cider production hit its peak between the 1770s and 1830s. There is no singular cause of its ensuing decline, but a concatenation of events from social reform movements to shifting demographics and later, regulatory factors, suppressed the commercial production of cider and relegated local producers to private cellars.

Some of these events proved more directly damaging than others. The collapse of the cider industry, particularly in Maine, seems closely associated with the growth of the temperance movements of the 1820s and 1830s. As the home state of Neal Dow—known interchangeably as The Napoleon of Temperance and The Father of Prohibition—Maine was an epicenter of anti-alcohol social reform, and the first “dry” state. The message from some preachers was that by growing apples and selling cider, farmers were contributing to the downfall of their fellow man. In response, some of the more zealous farmers in New England took torches and axes to their own orchards and—on occasion—those of their neighbors.

Economic and demographic shifts in the 1800s, along with the maturation of agriculture in Maine and the abundance of apples bred not just for cider, but fresh eating, preservation, and shipping, led to an explosion of diversity as local farmers began growing hundreds of new varieties; some they discovered and named themselves, while others they chose from nursery catalogs or itinerant salesmen who travelled the countryside promoting their stock like Johnny Appleseed (who was in fact largely growing cider apples from seed). By 1845, Andrew Jackson Downing and Charles Downing’s classic book, The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America, listed close to 1,100 different named apples that had originated in America (about ⅐th of all known apple cultivars). Around 150 of these varieties likely came from Maine.

At the same time, the diversity of America’s people increased. Waves of immigrants from grape-growing and ale-loving countries in Europe brought new pro-clivities and knowledge, which had an effect not just on the market for alcohol, but farming as well.

Maine was sending ships across the pond too: By the late 1800s, the state was renowned as an exporter of high-quality apples for the British market. Maine shipped from 1.5 to 2.5 million barrels a year to Liverpool and other British ports, keeping local apple farmers busy even as the demand for cider declined at home.

As the 20th century approached, orchards in-creasingly morphed from seedling apples used for ci-der to a more diverse mix of “choice kinds” of fancier fruit, ideal for different uses such as eating, baking, storing, and drying. In Bar Harbor, then known as Eden, the local fair gave premium prizes for dozens of these varieties (some now lost) with evocative names like Sweet Russet, Bell’s Early, White Beauty, Maiden Blush, Winter Banana, and Fameuse. These and likely a thousand others blossomed across the home orchards and farmscapes of Maine.

While cider mills persisted in rural areas, they lost their prominence as hubs of commercial pro-duction while the beer, rum, and whiskey industries ramped up in America’s cities. Although Prohibition came a century after cider’s fall from favor began, it all but ensured the end of cider orchards. And with-out the apples, there would be no cider resurgence.

Prohibition lasted from 1920–33 and was capped off by the frigid, damaging winter of 1933–34, a coup de grâce to orchards that had escaped the second wave of anti-alcohol ax-wielders and torch-bearers. Apples are not an ideal crop for a quick rebound, unlike the barley that fueled the beermakers’ swift return to market. Another disadvantage for cider was that grains are cheaper and simpler to ship and store than fruit. Not to mention that the beer and liquor makers in America’s cities had an easier pivot to soda or complementary products during the 1920s, when most of the remaining cider mills simply shut down.

When Prohibition ended, beer and liquor were quick-ly back online. Of course, soda itself filled the niche of a sweet, effervescent, and stimulating tonic—once part of hard cider’s domain—in the marketplace. And the industrialists supported this switch: better to have workers pepped up by Coca-Cola than drunk on cider.

In addition, the Volstead Act (which enforced Prohibition) included limitations on fresh, non-alcohol-ic cider. Orchards were only permitted to produce 200 gallons of fresh cider a year. On top of the cap on fresh cider production, federal alcohol regulations prohibited the sale f hard cider across state lines if the drink contained added preservatives. Beer and wine, while sometimes treated with added preservatives just like cider, were exempt from the restrictions. While the regulation was a clear impediment to any possible resurgence of a national cider industry, no strong evidence of a beer-wine-soda collusion has ever come to light. But as Bunker puts it: “Whether inadvertently or on purpose, it was in the interest of other alcoholic beverages not to have the competition from cider.”

In a single generation, commercial cidermaking all but disappeared, and the practice of pressing cider was relegated to local markets and home producers in rural locales.

Then came the 1960s and 1970s. Back-to-the-land homesteaders flowed into Maine, bringing their curiosity and gumption in the nick of time, before the old apples and the old timers with heirloom knowledge disappeared. John Bunker was among the transplants, pressing cider himself as he went down the rabbit hole of seeking out
“lost” apple varieties. He was interested in apples as a route to a living wage for farmers, as part of a vision for a new agricultural economy in Maine. Through the ’70s and ’80s, as Bunker traveled the state from his home base in Palermo, he not only learned about apples at the local level, but the cur-rent state of the larger apple market. “Back then,” Bunker says, “I would go to commercial orchards and they would tell me about the hundreds or even thousands of bushels that they were selling for pennies to the applesauce companies, or in some cases, just not even picking them.” It was too expensive to pay for the labor.

Bunker had a hunch that reviving hard cider might be the answer not just to reinvigorate the orcharding sector, but to attract more people to farming and make it profitable at the same time. But Bunker’s primary interest was in the apples themselves, not alcohol, and as he began to explore around Palermo, moving farther and farther afield following rumors and remembrances, he continued to uncover and resuscitate lost varieties. His book, Not Far From the Tree: A Brief History of the Apples and Orchards of Palermo, Maine 1804–2004 includes vignettes about these rediscoveries, which have happened in all sixteen counties of Maine.

In 1984, Bunker started the tree division of Fedco Seeds, where he still works today. At his own farm in Palermo, he grows over two hun-dred varieties of apples and he’s now sharing these fruits with a wider audience through the new heritage orchard at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Common Ground Fair grounds in Unity. (Bunker is a past president of MOFGA.) There, a band of volun-teers is slowly planting six hundred apple va-rieties (and likely more in time) that were once grown in Maine. The site is a former gravel pit, restored and transformed into a meeting place for public education and outreach, not just for apples, but a variety of tree fruits.

“You can’t buy good cider apples the way you can buy top-quality beer ingredients,” Bunker says. “No matter how much money you have, you can’t buy good cider apples because they aren’t out there.” While this aspect of cider production could be seen as a challenge, from Bunker’s vantage, it’s driving interest and excitement in planting orchards, unlike any he’s seen in his lifetime—and he’s now in his 60s. “If you want to do good cider,” he says, “either you or your friend, someone has got to grow the apples.”

One of the first people to bring back hard cider production in 20th century Maine was Tom Hoey of Brooksville. Hoey began home-produc-ing cider in 1983 and commercial production in 1991. Under his Sow’s Ear Winery label, Hoey not only crafts hard cider, but wines from a variety of local berries, including blueberries, choke cherries, cranberries and grapes. His massive hand-powered press evokes the days when orchards were common in the region.

Hoey has refined techniques like the French méthode champenoise for making exquisite, carbon-ated off-dry hard cider. The dégorgement—removing sediment from the bottle—is still done by hand. He describes his sparkling cider as having a “crisp, tart, natural style” that comes from the wild yeast picked up in the fermentation; no sugars or sulfites are added. The 60-gallon oak barrels aging in the huge split stone cellar of Hoey’s 1870 house connect his present-day offering with almost-lost traditions.

And that is at the heart of the cider quest: combining old knowledge with new discoveries, or as the case may be, rediscoveries. Noah Fralich started Norumbega Cidery in New Gloucester using local apples, as well as traditional English, French and American varieties, to make a range of hard cider styles. He tends to use the traditional varieties for bitterness or tannins that contribute complexity and depth to the cider produced by more acidic, local apple varieties.

Fralich says, “For me, planting older, rarer, more cider-specific varieties is an opportunity to explore the past and reestablish an old American tradition.” It also provides an opportunity to work with local ingredients that he understands intimately. “My approach to cidermaking is simplicity of ingredients,” Fralich says. “The higher the quality of the fruit and wider breadth of varieties, the less one has to compensate with additives.” While there’s always room for experimentation, Fralich adds that his main focus is on the apples, that he thinks of his cider as an agricultural product as much as a beverage.

Bunker backs that up by saying that because good fermented cider has just one ingredient, the onus is on its maker to choose wisely. “It’s like the difference between an orchestra and solo guitar player,” Bunker says, comparing cider to beer’s multiple ingredients. “With the orchestra you can blend it all together and hope that your violin doesn’t sound too bad, but when you’re on stage by yourself, that’s all there is. If your only ingredient is apples, then the apples you use become really, really important.”

Getting what Fralich calls “interesting” apples into the mix is the challenge for enterprising cider-makers as they work with what’s locally available while waiting for their own young trees to mature and produce. Fralich started in 2011 by clearing forest on his family’s property and planting cider apples by the hundreds. In 2013 he built and inau-gurated a new ciderhouse, and started selling and distributing his cider throughout the state.

“We’re only just beginning to explore cider in this country,” says David Buchanan of Portersfield Cider, which he refers to as a farm-based conservation center. “There’s a big gap between commercial production using only dessert apples and the flavors we find in small quantities from old and abandoned trees.” Buchanan’s orchard in Pownal is comprised of hundreds of heirloom apples painstakingly collected, researched, and propagated over years, planted alongside a wide variety of elderberries, aronia, and other fruits.

“This is a lifelong commitment,” says Buchanan, the author of Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter, a book about how we can reconnect to the tastes of the places we live. “It can take over ten years to evaluate and bring back into production a single promising variety, and there are always wrong turns along the way.”

Buchanan tries out apples from all over that might give his cider a new twist. To see how things grow under his farm’s conditions, he’ll trial varieties with different rootstocks placed in areas of deeper soil or more moisture. He is attuned to the need to simultaneously experiment with heritage fruits and give them new life and relevance.  “There’s usually little to no available information about American heirloom cider apples,” Buchanan says. “I’ve spent seven years building a collection and learning about the trees, but cider season only comes around once a year. Instant gratification this is not.” But soon, there will be the gratification that comes with sharing and conversing over the beverage: Buchanan plans to open Portersfield Cider’s new tasting facility out of a post-and-beam barn within the year.

“Some people are upset about the Angry Orchards and Woodchucks,” says Bunker, citing two of the biggest brands in commercial cider. “But I don’t believe there would have ever been a craft beer revival if it weren’t for Budweiser and Coors and the other big beer makers. They drove an interest in beer in the U.S. Sooner or later it was going to happen, someone was going to finally say: you know what, I’m going to do something a little bit different, a little more complex.” Bunker acknowledges there has been a contiguous cider movement, small pockets of people (his mentors among them) keeping traditions, knowledge, and trees alive, but those makers just weren’t recognized by a broad public. Cider dropped out of consumer consciousness for most of the 20th century. Craft beer modeled a path for its return.

Today, awareness seems to be pushing toward a tipping point: as hard cider takes up more space on shelves, as more tap handles from the likes of Angry Orchard and Woodchuck appear in pubs, the more consumers are likely to seek out ciders of all kinds.

In 2014 alone, Angry Orchard, the king of commercial hard cider, sold 14.5 million cases. (Angry Orchard is owned by Boston Beer Co., the makers of Samuel Adams.) While Maineʼs artisanal cider houses make a small-batch product that hews to traditional standards of craft and taste, they are also experi-encing dramatic growth. Across the state, cider is showing up on shelves and menus where a year ago it would not have had a place. And small producers are opening tasting rooms, inviting people in not just to taste cider, but to partake in the tradition of social drinking while learning more about local farming.

“I really like the idea that there are, in particular, a bunch of younger people making a living with trees, producing a fruit, and growing a product,” Bunker says. “I want to see people staying on their own pieces of property and making a living there; to see a revival of agriculture in Maine.” He points out that the revival won’t be based on apples alone, but that again, as they have been before, “apples are simply one example of what can happen in some parallel way in other areas of agriculture.”

And Bunker loves that these new cider makers are out scouring the landscape for the next great cider apple. “The genetics are here,” he says, “you’ve just got to go out and find them.” Wild seedlings continue to spread throughout Maine, ripe with the potential to add the qualities someone is looking for in their cider. “The cider maker now becomes like that farmer of 200-250 years ago,” Bunker says, “who is out in the landscape looking for new varieties. In a way, we’ve come full circle.”

Hard cider is no longer an underground movement. It’s come out of the cellar and into a spotlight that lights up vibrant rural traditions, agricultural diversity, and new opportunities for farmers to connect with the land—and consumers.

And that means it’s time to drink up.

A Selection of Maine Cider Houses That Welcome Visitors

Bar Harbor Cellars, Bar Harbor
Blacksmiths Winery, South Casco

Cayford’s Hardened Cider, Skowhegan
Maine Mead Works, Portland
Norumbega Cidery, New Gloucester
Oyster River Winegrowers, Warren
Portersfield Cider, Pownal (coming soon)
Ricker Hill Hard Cider, Turner
Sow’s Ear Winery, Brooksville
Urban Farm Fermentory, Portland

Featured Ciders
Under a thoughtful producer, cider can take on exciting dimensions. Here are three Maine-made labels
found at specialty grocers and beverage stores, tasted by Peter and Orenda Hale, owners of Maine & Loire
(Wine Shop) and Drifters Wife (Wine Bar) in Portland.
Portersfield Dry Cider original dry
nose candied apples, vinous aromas taste like it smells, with delicate bubbles, bittersweet,
clean finish
Oyster River Winegrowers organic cider nose straw, apple skins, honeysuckle nectar
taste tannic, full body, pleasantly sour and tart, playful, long savory finish
Whaleback Farm Cider traditional dry nose vanilla, lanolin, wild flowers, ripe orchard fruits
taste bright bubbles, ripe apples and toastiness, delicate and subtle, finish is long and dry

The business of seeds

by Hannah Holmes    photographs by Stacey Cramp   shot on location at Johnny’s Selected Seeds

The soil in the hoop houses at Johnny’s Selected Seeds should be stone-hard in mid-December. But inside, rows of winter chicory unfold glossy leaves of mottled green and maroon. The door stands open to the sullen, gray sky. “Look, this one has a lot of frost damage,” Dr. John Navazio observes cheerfully.

“Look at all the ladybugs on that one. It must have aphids or something. Ideally, 80-85 percent of these will die.

”By pitting these radicchio plants against the cold, renowned plant breeder Navazio hopes to unmask a few variations that can take winter on the chin. He’ll let the survivors go to seed, then send that seed through another winter for an additional round of selection. By the same ancient process that produced such varietal extremes as black tulips and Labradoodles, winter chicory will become Maine-winter chicory.

With Mainers craving a locally grown menu that stretches from soup to nuts and includes a tasting flight of beer, the need for Maine-worthy plant varieties is sending seed breeders back to the well of diversity. They need to come up with seeds that thrive in a climate that’s in the throes of climate change, and still more seeds suited to the hydroponic and hoop house systems their customers are investing in.

A century ago, this wouldn’t have presented such a challenge. Many farmers saved their own seeds, choosing them from the individual plants that performed best on their particular patch of ground. What seed they couldn’t grow they could buy from small, regional seed dealers who were familiar with the local peculiarities of pests and soil. But decades of consolidation in the national seed industry have reduced seed diversity to a few varieties that work the best for the most. Maine, with short growing seasons and wet autumns, isn’t among “the most.”

Hence Navazio’s experiment: he bought a packet of radicchio seeds from Italy, where consolidation has made less headway. At Johnny’s research farm in Albion, he gave them room to express themselves. The plants are remarkably varied, with some forming firm heads, some flat as dinner plates, some frost-browned and dispirited. Only time will tell if one holds the genetic key to Maine—four to seven years’ time, at least. But the result?

“If farmers make money on this in midwinter, that’s my goal in life,” says Navazio, who came to Johnny’s to address the need for better seed. “Gettinga salable crop through the winter: that’s new.”

In experiments large and small across the state, farmers and plant breeders are now tinkering in earnest in a quest for appropriate seed. In a greenhouse next to Navazio’s, Emily Rose Haga is pushing the limits of tomatoes and peppers. As farmers yearn for more hardy and disease-resistant vegetables, Haga is producing a crop of crossbred seed to field-test next spring.

In addition to the plant breeders, a team of trial technicians at Johnny’s is testing still more plant varieties, including some that will perform in greenhouses and hydroponic systems. In closed gardens, higher humidity and stagnant air encourage a new coterie of diseases. And human tenders who walk among the close-packed plants can brush mold spores off one plant and deposit them on another as they pass. So, to the list of traits any northern-plant breeder must incorporate—flavor, vigor, disease resistance, yield, low-light tolerance—add “upright architecture.”

“There’s a huge, and a growing, demand for new varieties,” Haga says. “Our customers are experimenting out ahead of us.” Haga crossbreeds plant varieties in hopes of combining their traits in the next perfect tomato: the disease-resistance of this parent, the flavor of that parent, and perhaps color variation from another contributor.

The time and expense of this work is considerable. In 2015 Haga was shepherding six new tomato types through real-world testing to reveal one new seed offering. And 37 pepper varieties, plus nine lettuces. All told, Johnny’s had dozens of species in some stage of development in 2015.

The slow pace of vegetable life contributes to the expense. Vegetables are decidedly seasonal beings; loathe to sprout a new generation before their seeds are stimulated by the customary day length and temperature. Only rarely is it possible to shorten an experiment by assessing immature plants, says Haga. She did recently breed a new tomato whose resistance to disease was linked to a distinct “marker gene” in its DNA. In such a case, she can send seedling samples out for genetic testing to see which contain the coveted gene. But for the most part, nature dictates the speed of this science.

“The time and cost of developing just one variety means we can’t be too local,” Haga notes. “We’re trying to identify plants with wide adaptation and appeal, while providing more of that locally sourced seed.”

One enthusiastic source of assistance is the community of Maine farmers. When Haga has nursed a few generations of a new variety in the greenhouse, she sends the next generation out for trialling. Local farmers voluntarily take about 20 of the plants to see how they fare in the real world, and in real farmers markets.

Haga seeks out farmers who are using organic soil practices and crop rotation, in the hope of testing her plants against a range of challenges. Maine has the fastest growing population of young farmers under age 35, giving her excellent options:“We had a lot of talented and passionate growers that helped us test our new tomatoes this year.”

Another source of support is farmers outside of Maine. Although Johnny’s was founded in 1973 to locate and distribute seeds to cold-challenged New England farmers, the company quickly became known across the northern latitudes for high-quality seed. So paradoxically, in this “buy local” era, Johnny’s is expanding its trialling network to a number of far-flung farmers who are just as eager as Maine farmers to serve their own “eat local” customers. And this network now extends into the South, Northwest, and Canada. If a plant that grows well in Maine can also perform well in Georgia, that helps to spread the cost of development.

Although the bright vegetables of farmers markets or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms are the most visible elements of the locally grown menu, the demand for homegrown grains is just as intense. And just as challenging.

Sean O’Donnell exemplifies the kind of farmer who is pushing the limits of local production. As the Parkman farmer puts it, “I have a giant
green thumb, and I like to be very diverse. If I think I can grow it, I’ll try it.”

O’Donnell was growing grain to feed his livestock at Rusted Rooster Farm when he decided to try saving his own barley seed instead of buying it each year. That worked so well that he was soon supplying seed to Fedco, another Maine seed company. He tried new grains and expanded his acreage. When a Belfast tofu maker sought local soybeans, O’Donnell was happy to plant some of that, too. And when he heard someone was looking for farmers interested in breeding a better wheat, he fired up his tractor.

Like most staple crops, the wheat plant originated in a very un-Maine-like part of the world. Its colonization of the temperate world is the result of farmers carrying it around for thousands of years, gradually breeding new strains to suit each new location.

But wheat struggles in New England. The weather is too wet, winters too cold, and the fusarium fungus too bold. What’s more, modern wheat varieties were bred for an agricultural system that spoon-feeds them fertilizer, and applies herbicide to kill competing weeds. Organic farming requires a wheat plant to jump out of the ground on its own power and throw big leaves over the weeds. It’s a tall order to breed such a wheat, nevermind “rogueing” each seedcrop to remove any plants that stray from the genetic game plan, and harvesting the seeds at the ideal moment: Hence a new model of plant breeding, which brings professional researchers into the field.

Lisa Kissing Kucek, a PhD student at Cornell University, is heading up a “participatory breeding program” to help New England farmers like SeanO’Donnell shape the wheat seed they need. Kucek’s colleagues and farmers have spent a few years crossbreeding candidates, hand pollinating the plants and tying a bag over each precious head to prevent the wind from meddling in the process.

From 2014 to 2015 O’Donnell and four other organic farmers grew 25 brand-new lines of wheat on their farms, watching for the plants that performed the best. In 2016 these favorites will be more widely grown and tested by bakeries. O’Donnell, however, is not done tinkering. He has boggy spots on his acreage that are crying out for a wheat that is still more waterproof. And the winter wheats he has tried to grow still can’t be called Maine winter wheat. O’Donnell plans to continue the selection process solo, until he can add a strain of wheat to his own seed offerings. “It’s time consuming,” he says. “But I’m willing to take the time and the risk. If I can produce a variety that works well here, I can make money selling it to other farms.”

The demand is certainly there, says Amber Lambke, co-owner of Maine Grains (a Skowhegan gristmill) and co-founder of Maine Grain Alliance. “What I see at the mill is a doubling of the number of growers every year. Oats, wheat, emmer, rye, spelt, buckwheat, triticale, red fife—the diversity, the acreage, and the number of farmers are all growing.”

Just ten years ago, Maine bakers began shopping for Maine grains—and found none. The non-profit Maine Grain Alliance was born, to bring together farmers, bakers, maltsters, and researchers. Lambke has been in the middle of it all, barely keeping up, and seeing nothing but amber waves of Maine grain that stretch into the future. She says, “The next decade is going to be a really exciting time.”

Alice Percy, who heads the Organic Growers Supply division of Fedco, agrees. Fedco saw a doubling of grain seed sales to farmers in the past few years, coinciding with a rise in demand for food with an organic, local pedigree.

Will the trend last, or will Mainers drift back to consuming beer from the Midwest and cabbages from California?

“I don’t think this is a fad,” says Percy. “Given the amount of good land available, and the fact that a young generation of farmers is interested in exploring new crops, I think this is sustainable.” 


Hannah Holmes is the author of several science books; the most recent,
titled Quirk, is an exploration of personality variation. |

A Changing Climate and Maine’s Farms: a real threat, matched by real promise

by John Piotti – photos by Kelsey Kobik

All the peach farmers I know lost their crop last year. Growing peaches in Maine has always been iffy—a hit or miss sort of thing, historically dependent on how cold it gets mid-winter. But as we contemplate global warming, we tend to think that crops associated with southern climes, like peaches, could flourish here in the future. And indeed they might. But last year, something about the vagaries of the weather—notably that warm early spring— prevented the fruit from setting. In today’s world, Maineʼs peach harvest may be threatened as much by ill-timed warmth as extreme cold. Not all the impacts of a warming climate are what we might expect.

A few months ago I found myself at a forum on
climate change speaking to a room of environmentalists about farming. Given limited time, I chose to focus on a single topic: how I’m alarmed to increasingly hear Mainers say that a warming

climate, which they dread in so many ways, would at least be good for our farmers. I was eager to know if others in the room were hearing the same, and wondering if this group of activists had suggestions on how we might better inform the public about climate change’s very real threat to farming in Maine.

Instead, my words surprised many in the audience; and their words, in turn, surprised me: many of these environmentalists thought that climate change would, on balance, help Maine farmers.

I think most people understand how a warming climate will cause impacts that go far beyond just rising temperatures, because rising temperatures, in and of themselves, bring about other changes. For instance, we have become accustomed to think that a hotter planet will raise sea levels, intensify hurricanes, and threaten millions who live on vulnerable coastlines.

And we certainly comprehend that, due to rising temperatures, farming may no longer be possible in many hot and dry places that will become even hotter and drier. But in cool and relatively wet parts of the world, the potential impact of climate change on farming seems bearable. Here in Maine, where we perceive the growing season to be so short compared to bountiful agricultural regions like California, it can be easy to imagine a silver lining.

But in truth, a warming climate will do more than lengthen Maineʼs growing season—and none of it is good. Climate change is already exposing Maine crops to new pests (insects, weeds, diseases), disrupting the timing of natural pollinators, and increasing the frequency of severe storms that wash out newly-planted seeds, damage growing crops, and erode soil. These impacts are only expected to increase. Meanwhile, longer and drier summers will threaten crops that aren’t irrigated—the vast bulk of what Maine grows.

And warm spells occurring anywhere between November and April will force fruit trees and other perennials to bud early, putting those crops at risk. (Last November’s record-high temperatures caused apple trees to blossom in parts of southern Maine. The impact on this year’s harvest will likely be modest; but if this kind of weather becomes more frequent and widespread in the future, the negative impacts will escalate.)

At the same time, any hoped-for benefits of a longer growing season may prove ethereal. Gaining extra weeks in spring and fall may not help farmers at all if those weeks correspond to the amount of time in midsummer when—because of high heat or lack of water—nothing is growing. And the arrival of warmer temperatures earlier in the year does no good if heavy spring rains keep tractors off fields at precisely the time farmers want to plant.

Beyond that, it’s worth noting that the current length of the growing season is not a major barrier to Maineʼs agricultural production. If I asked Maine farmers to list the top ten items adversely affecting their operations, the length of the growing season would not appear on many lists. Indeed, the current growing season is well-suited to potatoes, Maineʼs largest crop. And higher temperatures won’t help dairy, Maineʼs second largest agricultural sector.

True, a longer growing season would theoretically help farmers who focus on warm season vegetables. But I wonder how useful this will really prove, given that smart and simple strategies that allow farmers to extend their seasons already exist— trategies which often bring additional benefits. For instance, hoop houses enable farmers to manage water and temperature in ways that would never be possible on an open field. Ironically, I expect that global warming, which will increasingly result in more extreme and less predictable weather, will push many vegetable farmers to raise more crops in controlled environments, where any benefits that might result from a longer growing season would not be needed—or utilized.

Simply put, the negative impacts of climate change on farms in Maine are real and growing, while the one potential benefit—a longer growing season—may not be much of a benefit at all. But donʼt be too discouraged. There may well be a silver lining, just of a different sort.

Farming—whether in Maine or beyond—has the potential to help mitigate climate change by recapturing carbon in the soil. Not all farming reduces atmospheric carbon. But the right farming practices applied in the right places can make a real difference.

Both cause and potential remedy

Agriculture and climate change are interwoven in powerful ways.

On the negative side, agriculture is a leading cause of climate change. Roughly half of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions (44–57%) result from our food system: either through direct farm production (11–15%); land-use change (15–18%); processing, packing, selling food (15–20%); and food waste (2–4%).01

Agricultural-related emissions result frommultiple activities. We burn fossil fuels to operate farm equipment and irrigation systems, as well as
to transport, process, and store our food. We use a wide range of chemicals and fertilizers that—through both their manufacture and use—release greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Meanwhile, our livestock and their manure piles emit methane.

Beyond all that, we release carbon from our soils into the atmosphere. This occurs as a direct result of a wide range of agricultural practices, from the tilling of fields to short-sighted methods of clearing land. A staggering one-third of all the carbon in our atmosphere has been released from the soil—and most of that has been released since 1850.02 

The good news is that we can take steps to reverse the flow of carbon, recapturing it into our soil from the air. By some estimates, our fields and forests—if managed to maximize carbon sequestration—could reduce atmospheric carbon over the next century by 75 parts per million (ppm) or more. (Atmospheric carbon recently passed 400 ppm; many scientists say we need to return to 350 ppm to prevent catastrophic warming.)

Farming with a specific goal of recapturing carbon could make a real difference mitigating climate change. Coupled with aggressive emission reductions, it provides a practical way—andperhaps the only way—to reduce atmospheric carbon to acceptable levels.03

The concept of “carbon farming” was elevated to broader public awareness last fall in a Washington Post article by Debbie Barker and Michael Pollan entitled, “A Secret Weapon to Fight Climate Change: Dirt.” But the idea is far from new. It’s embodied in the practice of regenerative organic agriculture that the Rodale Institute has advocated for decades, and in a multitude of other farming practices that have been utilized, in some cases, for centuries.

Carbon farming is a good heading for all such practices that rebuild soil carbon. The term puts the connection to climate change front and center, so that rebuilding soil carbon is viewed not just as a good farming practice, but as a meaningful response to our planetʼs most pressing challenge. This perspective will encourage the agricultural community to optimize questration as it refines and improves these practices over time. Carbon sequestration then becomes a primary goal, not just a secondary outcome of farming practices that principally aim to produce food more sustainably.

At its simplest, carbon farming is about rebuilding soil through various well-known techniques, such as the active use of cover crops, planting methods that minimize or eliminate the need for tillage, wider use of perennial crops, and interspersing different types of crops—including trees—in creative ways. Sequestering carbon not only improves soil health, but also builds resilience in cropping systems, enabling farmers to better cope with heavy rain and drought.

But at the same time, carbon farming is inherently complicated. One reason is because many of the techniques which restore carbon to the soil are themselves complex. Compared to monoculture, managing land for multiple crops requires more of farmers—broader knowledge, new investment, and a willingness to take on different kinds of risks. Intensive use of cover crops takes more work and special skills. And no-till planting requires farmers to buy new equipment and adopt new methods.

The practice of carbon farming is further confounded because the science is so young. We know that many of these techniques work for growing food, because they have been used for this purpose, sometimes for centuries. But we don’t yet know, with enough specificity, how well various techniques work to capture carbon in the soil. From research undertaken to date, it appears that techniques which work well at capturing carbon on one site may not work so well on another, due to soil type or terrain. Early research also shows that a given practice’s ability to sequester carbon can vary greatly depending on rainfall and temperature—so that a practice that might work well for growing crops in two regions may not work nearly as well at capturing carbon in one of those regions, due to climatic differences. This is all complicated enough, but even more so in a world where regional climates are changing.

Beyond that, we have not yet fully developed some of the types of crop that would be ideal for carbon farming. For instance, the vast majority of the grains we eat are annuals, not perennials, and annuals require plowing that disturbs the soil and emits carbon. Wes Jackson of the Kansas-based The Land Institute, along with other pioneers of sustainable agriculture, has made great progress over the last few decades breeding new perennial grains, but more research and refinement is needed before we can expect widespread adoption by farmers.

What all this means is that most farmers are not yet in a position to farm in a way that maximizes carbon sequestration. Few farmers know which practices would work best on their land. And even where that is clear, farmers seldom have all the tools, skills, and financial resources they need to implement those practices to the degree that would be most beneficial.

Part of the issue is that—at least here in the U.S.—there’s no mechanism to compensate farmers for the benefits they bring by sequestering carbon. A few programs that use carbon credits to pay farmers are being pilot tested, mostly abroad. Here at home, no government program does this. Nor is there enough federally funded research into carbon farming. But because the public is increasingly demanding that the government take a different approach to farming, I don’t think it will be too long before federal policy shifts.

Still, we don’t need to wait until then to make progress. One of the lessons learned from the local food movement is that informed consumers are willing and eager to buy food from farmers who practice farming in ways they appreciate. In Maine, which has led this movement, many farmers have already adopted environmentally sound practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and no-till production. Couple this with the fact that farming here is of a scale that lends itself to further innovation, and Maine is poised to leap forward.

Maine can play a leading role

Goranson Farm in Dresden is one of many Maine farms that employ farming methods that build soil carbon and help mitigate climate change.
The family cultivates about 80 acres on which they grow a full array of organic vegetables, plus raise meat—all sold locally. They manage their livestock to help build soil fertility. And for over 20 years, they have practiced a four-year rotation involving two years of vegetable roduction and two years of cover crops. This practice—coupled with concerted efforts to reduce tillage—has resulted in significant improvements in the soil’s health.

A few years ago, one of the family’s sons bought a horse. Ever since then, the farm has utilized horsepower—strategically, where it makes the most sense—to replace tractor use. Last year, the family planted 23 acres of cover crops with horsepower. They also use horses in tight spots where a tractor might do damage, and to cut hay. The family is now working toward establishing a seven-year ley rotation, which will involve three years of grazed sod, two years of cover crops, and two years of vegetable production. They are constantly experimenting, moving ever closer to an optimal system for their land.

Why does Goranson Farm take these extra steps? One reason is that these practices rebuild soil, which is key to the sustainability of their farm. Another is that these farmers care deeply about the environment. Beyond that, their loyal customers appreciate what they do. Probably few of their customers fully understand all the steps the family takes to be good stewards of the land, but the family’s overall commitment to stewardship is clear.

After a century of decline, farming in Maine has grown dramatically in the last 15 years, spurred primarily by small and mid-size farms that serve local markets. Not all of these farms do as much as Goranson Farm to capture carbon and rebuild soil, but most follow good practices and are open to doing more. Maine can not only feed itself, but help feed the broader region. That’s because Maine boasts millions of acres of formerly farmed land that could be used to grow food once again. But as Maine reclaims this former farmland, it’s
important to both learn from the past and move beyond that past. We have a special opportunity to “get it right,” to follow forward-looking practices that sequester carbon—including forest farming, silvopasture, and management-intensive grazing. 04

Much is riding on what Maine does next. In the face of the many threats brought by a changing climate, both our public policies and our personal energies must be directed to helping farmers transition to practices that give them a better shot at thriving in the future. But the reason to do so is not just because we want to maintain local food production or vibrant rural communities. As important as those goals may be, what’s more important is that we advance farming to where it fulfills its promise to combat climate change.

Maine is poised to test, refine, and model various carbon farming practices—and it is far better positioned to do so than other regions with similar climates. For one thing, Maine possesses so much former farmland that could be reclaimed anew, and in ways that enable testing of different strategies. For another, so many of Maineʼs farmers not only want to do their part, but have the inventive spirit these times demand. And finally, so many of Maineʼs consumers are willing to pay a little more for local food—not only because the food tastes better, but because of all that our farmers do for us.

Maineʼs farmers not only raise the food that sustains us, but steward the fields and woods that we cherish for hiking and hunting, scenery andsolace. Beyond that, with the right resources and support, our farmers can help restore our planet.

This is the great story of our time. Maineʼs farmers are central to the action. But all of us who live here have a role to play. There is too much atstake not to make this a personal priority. 


01 The Carbon Farming Solution, by Eric Toensmeier, Chelsea Green
Publishing, 2016, page 12.
02 ibid
03 “A Secret Weapon to Fight Climate Change: Dirt,” by Debbie
Barker and Michael Pollan, The Washington Post, December 4,
04 “Reclaiming Maineʼs Lost Farmland,” by John Piotti,
Maine Farms, 2015.
john piotti,

Read the full 2016 Maine Farms journal

We started this journal three years ago with the gutsy goal of capturing the heart of Maine’s farming and food movement.

We knew going in that this was a tall order. There is so much happening, so many stories to share.

At first glance, the stories in this journal may seem disparate. There’s an article about climate change next to a work of fiction, followed by a history of cider next to a photo essay about a young girl raised on the land. What do these stories have in common? Everything. From our perspective, a history lesson on cider connects directly with how climate change affects the future of farming; and a fictional story of going “back to the land” illuminates the relationship between people and the land that we see time and again in our work, even among children.

By shining light on small facets of the whole, we hope to cultivate a curious and informed community, one that sees the threads which tie our food system together. By striving to uncover the deeper stories, we are gathering up the pieces, knocking them against each other, and finding where they overlap.

While we might not fully understand the intricate pattern of issues that make up our food system, we are not afraid to face that complexity. To make change, we need to tackle the system; and to do that, we need to consider all the pieces—and all of the stories—that root this system to the earth.