Category Archives: Stories

An Interview with Elizabeth Hoy

Interviews & writing by Eliza Graumlich;  Photos by Susan Metzger

Applications for the 2018 artist residencies at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center are open!  There will be six visual art residencies (5 for Maine artists, 1 of which is reserved for an indigenous Maine artist; 1 for an out-of-state or international artist), one performing arts residency, and one writing residency. There will also be a seasonal position for a resident gardener with affinity for the arts. Apply here.

FMI or contact Denise DeSpirito, Fiore Arts Center assistant: denise@mainefarmlandtrust.org.

Before she published Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote about the ocean. Frequenting a quarter-acre salt pond in the Muscongus Bay and tidal zones near the mouth of the Sheepscot River, she accumulated observations that would later inform The Edge of the Sea. Elizabeth Hoy, one of August’s artists-in-residence at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center, thinks Carson might have ventured up to the Damariscotta area, too. “If we know that she was in one place, we know that she was around,” Hoy extrapolated. “She could have visited this lake.”

Hoy didn’t come to Jefferson planning to follow in Carson’s footsteps. For the past year and a half, she has been painting Superfund sites: locales that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined to be among our country’s most contaminated, and in grave need of national aid and intervention. (The EPA was founded in 1970, in response to the environmental fervor generated by Carson’s work.) However, upon arriving in Maine, Hoy started to revisit Carson’s writing. Learning of their proximity, she then began to visit and paint the same shorelines that had inspired Carson’s early research. Despite fifty years of distance, these zones remain largely unchanged.

True to Carson’s tradition, Hoy does most of her work outside, painting with oil and drawing with whatever materials might be at hand: pastel, watercolor or pen. “My paintings and drawings are pretty fast,” she confessed. “I feel like the further away I am from my experience, the more it can start to become something else.” More curated are Hoy’s sculptures, which mimic her paintings in both subject and form. “They’re on the wall and have a framing device,” she explained. “They’re almost like a little diorama or a stage set.” The sculptures are made out of found materials: scraps of fabric purchased at local church sales, carefully selected pieces of beach trash and more.

“What happens,” Hoy explained, “is really terrible but also sort of cool. Little bits of plastic get tossed with the rocks and end up looking like rocks themselves. Even Styrofoam cups look like pieces of shell or something.” She retrieved a fistful of synthetic treasures from the other side of the studio and arranged them delicately on the ground between us: an impossibly round sand dollar, a smooth stone, a necklace-grade piece of shell. “They’re really hard to find because they blend in so well,” she said.

The Superfund site nearest to Hoy’s home is Newtown Creek, a tributary of New York City’s East River that separates Brooklyn from Queens. Despite its designation, the area remains industrial. The riverscape features a recycling plant, petroleum trucks, barges that carry crushed cars and a colony of stray cats. No signs name the creek’s status as protected; Superfund sites are unmarked. Online there is a database that lists site names, but it lacks full street addresses. Hoy uses satellite images on Google Earth to locate sites she hasn’t yet visited, looking for large, empty pieces of land.

I asked Hoy how much explanation she liked to include in her labels given the abstract nature of her work. She tends to give very little context, she said, sometimes providing only the definition of a Superfund site, or a list of materials. She is more interested in seeing what effect her work has on its viewers: “If everybody’s thinking about one thing and you’re not thinking about that, maybe you should start.”

An Interview with Josselyn Richards Daniels

Interview and writing by Eliza Graumlich, photos by Susan Metzger

Applications for the 2018 artist residencies at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center open early December. There will be six visual art residencies (5 for Maine artists, 1 of which is reserved for an indigenous Maine artist; 1 for an out-of-state or international artist), one performing arts residency, and one writing residency. There will also be a seasonal position for a resident gardener with affinity for the arts. FMI or contact Denise DeSpirito, Fiore Arts Center assistant: denise@mainefarmlandtrust.org.

Josselyn Richards Daniels doesn’t wash her palette very often.  When all of the colors run together, they become a little closer to brown, she says, and a little closer to the dust and dirt that her subjects once inhabited.

Before she draws an insect, Daniels must first kill an insect, gently and without smashing anything. The freezer becomes a low-tech cryonics lab. After the bug thaws slightly, Daniels arranges its appendages, fashioning antennae and legs and elytra (wing casings) into a three dimensional Rorschach test. Limbs are bent to showcase joints. Wings are splayed open. Straight pins—the kind with a plastic bead of teal or magenta or yellow at the top—keep everything in place. When the bug has dried, Daniels removes all but one of the pins. The placement of this final pin is based in tradition and varies by species. For Daniels’ most recent specimen, the carrion beetle, it is the pin on the right side of the thorax that remains.

Of course, these steps are merely preparatory. Her desk has five slim paintbrushes, several shiny tubes of paint and a pencil sharpener, and all have yet to be used. Next, Daniels will tone her canvas with walnut ink and a hacky brush. She will sketch an outline of the beetle with a mechanical pencil and use a proportional divider to confirm scale lengths and widths. Then, there is watercolor, hatching, gouache and hand lettering, preferably in a Roman font.

Daniels began her residency at Rolling Acres Farm with the intention of designing a poster on garden-friendly bugs. However, upon arrival, she started drawing the living things that she found around her: wildflowers in the hay field, lupines out by the road, the aforementioned carrion beetle (found atop a dead snake that she hoped to sketch) and various species of bees. Previously, as a student at Laguna College of Art and Design in Laguna Beach, California, Daniels dedicated 60 hours per week to studying fundamentals and technique. Now, she hopes to build a portfolio.

Biological illustration is different from fine art, Daniels explains, in that the former explores the world while the latter explores the self. However, Daniels’ works seems to stand at a junction of the two genres. Her illustrations, captivating in their realism and handsome in their aesthetic, would be equally appropriate gracing the illustrious back cover of Cook’s Illustrated or the walls of a gallery.

Daniels’ residency in Maine completes a journey begun in her childhood. Her earliest memory of making art comes from a camping trip in Bradbury Mountain State Park when she was five years old. After sighting a barn owl illuminated in the light of the campfire, she asked her family for drawing materials. Though she accepted the pen she was offered, she eschewed the back of an old receipt in favor of birch bark. Later in her childhood, she made fairy houses in the lilac trees behind her Munjoy Hill home and attended a school on Mackworth Island—a piece of land donated to the state in 1946 by Governor Percival Proctor Baxter “as a sanctuary for wild beasts and birds.”

In the fall, Daniels will study Human Ecology at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. This program of study—the only one offered by the college—focuses on investigating the relationships between humans and their environments. Daniels says that her primary educational goal for COA is to gain an understanding of environmental sciences, in order to inform her artwork as a natural science illustrator.

An interview with artist Tanja Kunz

interview & writing by Eliza Graumlich, photos by Susan Metzger

Applications for the 2018 artist residencies at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center open early December. There will be six visual art residencies (5 for Maine artists, 1 of which is reserved for an indigenous Maine artist; 1 for an out-of-state or international artist), one performing arts residency, and one writing residency. There will also be a seasonal position for a resident gardener with an affinity for the arts. FMI or contact Denise DeSpirito, Fiore Arts Center assistant: denise@mainefarmlandtrust.org

Tanja Kunz says that she likes pretty places. She also likes light, wildflowers and the color green.

Her artwork—botanically-referenced yet abstract paintings and drawings—reads like photosynthesis distilled. Energy emanates from each canvas, as movement, illumination or both.

Kunz’ studio at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center is a mirror to the surrounding farmland: greens and yellows spotlighted in the July sun have another life indoors, in oil paint. Everything here is radiant. Kunz is unapologetic. Why not paint that which is already lovely? Paraphrasing the American abstract painter Agnes Martin, she queries: “What is wrong with the world? So suspect of beauty!”

The first painting of Kunz’ that caught my eye was from a series depicting Queen Anne’s lace—a flower perhaps more familiar as “wild carrot” or “bird’s nest” or even “bishop’s lace,” depending on where your mother grew up. On canvas, the delicate blooms seem to stretch slightly larger than life, though their size is ultimately ambiguous; the petals grow and shrink with a tilt of the head. Kunz describes this fluctuation as the work’s generosity to the viewer, and a quality of the paint that is impossible to reproduce in a photograph. Behind the flower’s precisely rendered umbels, broad streaks of light flood into an otherwise muted background. Here, there is a breeze. There is juxtaposition of focus and gesture, and a tension between abstraction and representation.

Also of note are Kunz’ field studies. They too feature Queen Anne’s lace, but this time acrylic on paper and monotone. Despite the limited color palate, they remain luminous, drawing the eye even from their placement in the corner of the room. Imagine cyanotypes but without the cyan. Each work is an exercise in form and line. Kunz says that her field studies are a way of returning to a subject with a different language. She thinks of everything she has ever painted as one large work in progress. A circle, not a line.

Unlike many artists, quick to intertwine explanations of their work with references to their own biographies, Kunz is decidedly private. She is interested in traditional and herbal medicine. She studied cell structure through painting to earn her MFA. She has lived in New Mexico and Texas and, now, Maine. This is all. What she has to say, she says through her art.

Maine Farmland Trust will soon be looking for a farmer to purchase 143 acres of land in Windham.

MFT recently bought a portion of the former Clark Farm, which includes 37 acres of open fields and excellent frontage on Swett Road. The farm will be protected with a conservation easement and sold to a farmer at a reduced price.

The property, which does not currently have any infrastructure, is located between Swett Road and Webb Road. There is extensive road frontage that allows good access to the fields along Swett Road and forested land access along Webb Road. Approximately 98 acres (70% of the property) is designated as either Prime Farmland Soils, Farmland Soils of Statewide Importance, or Farmland Soils of Local Importance.

Windham has a strong agricultural past, but given its proximity to Portland, the remaining active farms are threatened.

“Windham has a goal of balancing our relatively rapid growth with preserving the working farms that add so much to the character of the community,” said Ben Smith, Director of Planning for the Town of Windham. “The fields on Swett Road are what many residents consider to be the heart of rural Windham. In all of our planning work, these fields have been singled out for their iconic representation of Windham’s rural character.”

This is MFT’s second Buy/Protect/Sell project on Clark family land. In March 2011, MFT, in collaboration with The Trust for Public Land and the Windham Land Trust (now the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust), purchased, protected, and sold 217 acres to Clayton Haskell, who still currently owns the farm.

Representative Chellie Pingree Introduces the Local FARMS Act

On October 4, 2017, Maine’s own Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME), along with Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Representative Sean Maloney (D-NY), introduced HR 3941, the Local Food And Regional Market Supply Act (The Local FARMS Act). Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has also introduced a companion bill in the Senate. Maine Farmland Trust is proud to support this bill. As MFT President Amanda Beal stated at the time of the release, “Maine Farmland Trust is excited to endorse The Local Food and Regional Market Supply Act (The Local FARMS Act). This Act provides the financial support, infrastructure development, and technical assistance that farmers in Maine need to grow the local and regional food economies. At the same time, it increases access to fresh, healthy, and locally-grown food for low-income communities in Maine. Simply put, the tools in this bill will strengthen our economy and nourish our communities. We are grateful for the sponsors of this bill, and especially Representative Chellie Pingree, for working to include these important changes in the next Farm Bill.”

Although the U.S. agricultural economy has experienced an economic downturn in recent years, growing interest from consumers has enabled farmers in Maine and across the country to connect with expanding local and regional markets and find economic success. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2015 over 167,000 U.S. farmers sold $8.7 billion worth of food to local consumers, retailers, institutions, and distributors. In addition, these local and regional food markets can have a significant impact on revitalizing rural communities and keeping families on the farm. However, despite this economic potential, there are barriers that prevent farmers and food entrepreneurs from fully participating in these markets. Such barriers include a lack of infrastructure (e.g. storage, aggregation, transportation, and processing capacity), as well as a lack of associated technical support (e.g. training, marketing, and business planning services).

The Local FARMS Act removes many of these barriers and helps to unleash the potential for greater growth of local and regional food economies in Maine and beyond by:

  • Creating a more comprehensive and efficient program called the Agricultural Market Development Program that merges the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and Value-Added Producer Grants Program. The new Program includes support for farmers’ markets, farm to retail marketing, local food enterprise development, value-chain coordination, food hubs, planning and feasibility studies, producer-owned value-added enterprises, and regional planning through public-private partnerships.
  • Creating a new Food Safety Cost-Share Program to help family farmers comply with new food safety rules and regulations by upgrading on-farm food safety infrastructure and becoming food safety certified.
  • Expanding the Food Safety Outreach Program, the food safety training program for small and medium sized family farmers, by increasing funding and prioritizing projects led by community-based organizations.
  • Reauthorizing the Organic Cost-Share Program for farmers and handlers.
  • Expanding the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program to include low-income military veterans and increased program funding.
  • Piloting a new program called the Harvesting Health Program to demonstrate and evaluate the impact of fruit and vegetable prescription projects in addressing food insecurity, supporting local agriculture, and reducing health care costs.
  • Making it easier for schools to procure locally and regionally produced food by allowing schools to use “locally grown,” “locally raised,” or “locally caught” as a product specification.
  • Expanding the ability of Rural Development and Farm Service Agency grant and loan programs to be used to support livestock, dairy, and poultry regional supply chain infrastructure.

The text of the bill can be found HERE.

Maine Farmland Trust is currently working to create a more interactive webpage for our policy program. Sign up HERE to be alerted when the page is live, and to receive policy updates and action alerts.

FOREVER FARM: South Paw Farm

BY ANNEMARIE AHEARN     PHOTOGRAPHS BY MEREDITH PERDUE

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. | southpawfarm.net

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.

Enjoy.

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

Back field and Fiore House

Sarah Loftus presents the history of Rolling Acres Farm in Jefferson

Sarah Loftus spent six weeks this summer as the Historical Writing Resident at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center researching the history of Rolling Acres Farm and writing the “farm’s story.” She will present her research and the history of the farm Wednesday, October 25 at 6:30 pm at the Fiore Art Center in Jefferson. The historical writing residency was funded in part by a Maine Arts Commission Arts and Humanities Grant.

Loftus holds an M.A. in Archaeology from the University College London, London, UK, and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. “I journeyed to Maine two years ago to apprentice on a vegetable farm near the New Hampshire border,” she wrote in the application which won her the residency, “and I am still here, all sore muscles and stained hands soaked in New England soil.”

During her six weeks living at Rolling Acres Farm, Loftus frequented the Jefferson Historical Society and the Wiscasset Court House; she interviewed past owners of the farm on Punk Point Road and met with neighbors; she dug through countless books on the region’s history and rummaged through the rusty tools under the barn looking for clues to the farming activities of former inhabitants.

Loftus remarked at the close of her residency that it was interesting how one can see the story of America reflected back in the fields of Rolling Acres. What she found most striking, however, was how the local community treasures and embraces their history. “Everyone was so willing to share their stories with me, even though I’m someone coming in from the outside.”

“I think Sarah’s research is not only of benefit to us and our program – we hope it’s also a gift to the community,” says Anna Witholt Abaldo, Director of the Fiore Art Center. “Knowing the details of a place, past and present, enriches one’s sense of place and in turn, one’s connection to that place.”

Rolling Acres Farm is home to the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center, a program of Maine Farmland Trust that actively connects the creative worlds of farming and art making. The Center offers exhibitions and public educational events, supports research and development of ecologically sustainable farming practices, and hosts residencies for artists on a working farm. MFT is also working to establish a food forest at Rolling Acres Farm, which will provide nutritious food to area food pantries through MFT’s Veggies For All program.

The facility is handicap accessible. FMI visit https://www.mainefarmlandtrust.org/public-outreach-new/jaf-art-center/. To RSVP to this event, please email denise@mainefarmlandtrust.org.

Winterberry Farm Photo Essay

PHOTO ESSAY BY COLLIN HOWELL

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. | collinhowell.com | winterberryfarmstand.com

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. | billroorbach.com

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.”

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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