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Farm Fresh Experiences

Pitching in on afternoon chores and meeting the rambunctious goats and other animals is part of the package for guests who stay overnight on Heide and Greg Purinton-Brown’s Toddy Pond Farm.

by SOPHIE NELSON | photographs GRETA RYBUS

On a Friday afternoon in October, at a place called Toddy Pond Farm down a long dirt road in Monroe, Maine, a four-year-old boy named Ethan cannot wait to meet some pigs. His excitement lifts him up on his toes. “Can I also see cows?” he pleads with the farm’s owners, starting to hop.

Heide Purinton-Brown, who co-owns Toddy Pond Farm with her husband, Greg Purinton-Brown, laughs and nods. “C’mon,” Heide says, turning toward the barns and pastures. Ethan, his parents, and his younger brother follow along. The family is spending a long weekend at the Toddy Pond Farm Cottage and this—the opportunity to join Heide and Greg on a round of afternoon chores—is part of the package.

When Heide and Greg established Toddy Pond Farm in 2012, the property included the guest cottage (“house” is probably more apt—it’s big, warm, and well-built). Offering farmstays made sense; they had the infrastructure in place, as well as a desire to educate people about life on a small, diversified family farm and microdairy and how it feels to  eat “food you can feel good about.” The cottage is perched on a ridge overlooking a winding dirt path, rolling hills, and the pond that gives the farm its name. Guests also enjoy private access to Toddy Pond, hiking trails, and a peek into life on a working farm.

It turns out that a peek into life on a working farm is an experience more and more people are looking for. Maine farmers—and farmers across the country—are taking note and expanding into agritourism, trying everything from onsite farm cafes to pick-your-own berry patches to farmstays. (The term

farmstay is somewhat of a catchall; a farmstay can range from experiences where guests work in exchange for accommodations to leisurely, bed-and breakfast-style vacations in bucolic settings.) Between 2007 and 2012 (U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts its census every five years), income from farm-related agritourism and recreational services increased by 78 percent in Maine, and the number of participating farms increased by 141 percent.

For the past couple of summers, the Toddy Pond Farm cottage has been booked every night. The family’s primary source of income is the sale of their artisan dairy products like yogurts, kefir, and ice cream, but the farmstay has become an important component of the Toddy Pond Farm business model. It has inspired Greg and Heide to investigate other agritourism opportunities, such as the farm camp Heide’s sister has run for the past several summers, where, according to their brochure, the goal is to “connect kids ages four to eleven with their food and nature, through sustainable farming.”

“Everything has been a slow progression,” says Greg of Toddy Pond Farm’s evolution. “We’re always asking ourselves, what’s going to work here? What can this land support? How do we want to spend our time?” Heide and Greg are now working on expanding their small farm store and possibly opening the farm to visitors one day a week.

They know there’s interest in visiting the farm. All summer long customers ask about bringing their children and grandchildren by, and Heide and Greg find it hard to say no. “I want to be able to share this place, but most of the time we’re just too busy,”

The Toddy Pond Farm Cottage sleeps seven and offers spacious living and dining spaces with views of Toddy Pond to the south and the working farm to the east.

says Greg. They also have to be careful not to undermine their current business model. “Access to the farm is part of what our cottage guests and campers are paying for. It’s tricky to work out the right balance.”

What’s the value of access to a field of berries ripe for the picking? What about the value of sitting in a pen full of piglets? How about a more personalized and in-depth experience of a farmstay and private tour? It’s difficult to quantify, because along with putting additional, much-needed money into the pockets of small-scale farmers, the hope is that agritourism can help sustain family farms in the long-run, familiarizing more people with the unique challenges of farming and the benefits thriving farms bring to a community (cultural, health, environmental, and otherwise). Does a corn maze accomplish the latter goal? It’s hard to say. What about a farm tour? One would hope. The consensus seems to be that none of it hurts. Organizations and government entities committed to strengthening farming communities and promoting tourism are creating and throwing support behind open farm days, publishing agritourism maps (Maine’s came out in 2017), and resources for farmers looking to venture into this growing market.

There’s no question that Ethan values the experience his parents have gifted him. He’s delighted to run his hand across the wiry hairs on the backs of

Top Left In October, the sun sets early on Toddy Pond Farm in Monroe. Top Right Heide and Greg Purinton-Brown take the path leading from the Toddy Pond Farm Cottage to Toddy Pond where guests are invited to swim, kayak, canoe, and relax on a stretch of private waterfront. Bottom Left Heather Donahue of Balfour Farm in Pittsfield lived and worked on a large organic dairy in northern New York before moving to Maine where, along with her husband Doug, she began a more small-scale operation focused on value-added products, complete with a farm store and cafe. Bottom Right In their onsite creamery, the Donahues make a variety of beloved organic yogurts and cheeses. 

 

the piglets, and he laughs when Ida, the naughtiest goat, sneaks up behind Heide and pitches herself into a bucket of feed. He asks about the machinery and tools resting in the fields and learns why Heide and Greg keep the calves with their mothers while most farms separate them (less milk, happier cows).

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On Open Creamery Day, in a commercial kitchen attached to an old farmhouse in Pittsfield, Heather Donahue, who co-owns Balfour Farm with her husband, Doug Donahue, is busy spreading generous slabs of butter on blueberry muffins hot from the  grill, sliding sunny-side up eggs onto fat slices of farm bread topped with cheese and bacon, and sprinkling crumbles of bright white feta into wraps with roasted vegetables. Server Canaan Marble carries plate after plate out to cafe customers, many of whom stuck around for a one o’clock farm tour led by Doug.

Ten years ago, Heather probably couldn’t have imagined herself slinging egg sandwiches for cafe customers on a farm in Maine. She and Doug and their children were living and working on an organic dairy farm in northern New York, milking 50 cows twice a day and shipping the product to Horizon. They wanted to diversify, but the farm wasn’t set up for that. A move to Maine made a new way of farming—and a new way of life—possible.

“It’s a different market here. The consumer base is different here as well,” says Heather.

Doug Donahue shows guests around Balfour Farm on Open Creamery Day, an annual event put on by the Maine Cheese Guild.

 

Andrew White, left, welcomes guests to High Ridge Farm in Montville. He’s preparing fresh chicken for High Ridge’s Monthly Supper Club. He and partner Katee Lafleur also host a series of Taco Nights and Tastings, serving farm-grown food and drink in a beautifully renovated barn. 

“People are more aware of the value of farming beyond the business side of it. They understand the cultural value of having farms nearby, of seeing working landscapes.” They’re also more willing to pay for good, locally made food, like the yogurts and cheeses Heather and Doug make with the rich milk provided by their small herd of Normande cattle.

Instead of milking 50 cows twice a day, Heather and Doug are now milking around a dozen. And making yogurts and cheeses. And raising chickens and pigs. And selling their products at several different farmers markets. And running a farm store and cafe. And renovating their farmhouse to accommodate guests—Balfour’s next foray into agritourism. Their workdays are just as long as ever, but Doug will tell you they’re a whole lot more interesting and rewarding.

“We’re starting with the raw soil, we’re growing the feed, we’re growing the animal, we’re making the cheese, we’re selling that product directly to the customers in some cases,” says Doug. “It’s even better when we get to put a slice of that cheese on  a hamburger and serve it to someone. You see the person enjoying your food and they’re thanking you. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

It doesn’t taste better than that, either. “They’re doing something special here,” says one customer, who regularly drives the 35 miles to Pittsfield from Bangor—not just for the food, but for the chance to spend the morning on a farm and in the company of Heather and Doug, who answer her many questions about raising dairy cows and the benefits of raw milk.

She is part of a growing consumer trend toward spending money on experiences rather  than objects, and corporations and small business owners alike are taking note. Over the past 50 years, the amount of money spent on food prepared outside the home has nearly doubled. The combination of these and other factors, like the rise of the locavore movement among millennials, have created new market opportunities for farmers.

Whereas Heather and Doug came to the service industry later in their farming careers, Katee Lafleur and Andrew White from High Ridge Farm in Montville are beginning with their love of eating and serving good food and drink and growing from there. Katee and Andrew each worked on several different kinds of farms and learned cooking, food service, hosting, and marketing skills before establishing their own farm in Maine a couple years ago. They found the Belfast area a welcoming place for farmers. They also

Not far from the kitchen, where Katee prepares supper, is a simple, beautifully appointed bedroom available for rent on Airbnb.

realized it could be a difficult market for a small, diversified organic farm to break into, with so many excellent producers already selling food at local farmers markets, to restaurants, and through CSA shares.

“We’re pivoting away from that kind of farming,” says Katee. “I never really loved packing up the food and saying goodbye without seeing it to the end. I want to see the experience that someone has with my product.” Instead of investing in a tractor and manual labor to harvest vegetables like beets and carrots, which sell well at farmers markets, they focused on restoring the barn where they now host weekly Taco Nights and a monthly Supper Club, serving the vegetables and meats grown on the farm.

A few hours before their last Supper of the 2017 season, the psychedelic-soul music of Solange fills the barn while Katee picks end-of-season whole plants and flowers to make a display for the barn entrance and Andrew strings fresh chickens to cook over an open fire. They are industrious but calm, interspers- ing food prep with daily afternoon chores. Since it’s a pre-registered event, they know how many they’ll be feeding tonight (they’re expecting 18 guests), but Taco Nights are anybody’s guess. In their first season, they had as few as three people show up (“We ate a lot of tacos over the next week,” says Katee) and as many as 100, including kids running gleefully around the gardens and visiting the pigs in the woods.

“We’re trying to make a livelihood farming, growing healthful food and stewarding this land, whatever that looks like for us,” says Andrew. It looks beautiful—the rolling landscape as well as the house. Their farmhouse renovations have revealed old plaster walls with textures and colors reminiscent of those you’d expect to find in the French countryside rather than Waldo County. Their kitchen is big and airy, filled with vintage appliances and collected pots and pans along with herbs, curing onions, and dried peppers that will end up in homemade hot sauces and salsas served on Taco Nights.

As of a few months ago, two rooms in the house are now open for visitors. Online reviews suggest that the guests who appreciate it the most are those capable of seeing beauty, also, in the scrappiness  on display, the omnipresent reminders of life and death in the gardens, now bursting with bushy fall flowers, and in the old, gnarled apple trees. (Those trees are still producing, and Andrew harvests their fruit to make cider—wild fermented and stored in oak barrels—that he shares with dinner guests.)

“With the combination of Airbnb and our events, we are hoping to attract folks to come eat food where it was grown, cooked by the farmers who grew it, and to drink a couple of bottles of cider without worrying about getting in a car, knowing a comfy bed awaits them,” says Andrew. “Our version of agritourism.” A variety of people from several different towns show up for that last Supper. They spend the night mingling, asking questions about the homemade paté made with liver from the chickens, the mash of potato, rutabaga, and celeriac, and the kind of wood used to smoke and flavor the chicken. The table twinkles with candlelight as they pass around the bird, cutting portions for each plate.

“We’re trying to create a farm that reflects all our interests and experiences, one that feeds a person’s senses in a single place—on the farm. A farmer’s life isn’t extravagant, but it can be quite rich. We work like peasants but eat like queens and kings, and we’d like to share that experience with anyone who will come,” says Katee.

High Ridge Farm looks different from Balfour Farm which looks different from Toddy Pond Farm, but Katee, Andrew, Heather, Doug, Heide, and Greg have many things in common. They all want to share their lives, their home, their food. They all want to educate and inspire consumers, to remind them of the power of their dollar. They also want to keep farming, a livelihood that requires constant adaptation to meet customers where they are. Right now, it seems, they’re knocking on the barn doors, asking to come inside. o

After purchasing the 35-acre farm, Andrew and Katee prioritized renovating the barn to host guests for culinary gatherings. The barn is now filled with barrels of farm cider; handmade and collected furnishings, including a long farmhouse table; and twinkle lights.

note In December of 2017, after this piece was reported, a fire destroyed the kitchen, poultry processing room, and the attached farmhouse cafe at Balfour Farm. Heather and Doug and their animals were unharmed, as was the creamery where they continue to make their beloved dairy products sold at farmers markets and in stores throughout the state.

sophie nelson is a writer living by the Kennebec River in Bath, Maine with her dog, Arlo, and her husband, musician Max Garcia Conover.

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One of the original  walls of the Toddy Pond Farm Cottage is covered in messages from visitors that date back to the forties. Heide and Greg are keeping the tradition alive, encouraging farmstay guests to leave a note on the wall upon departure.

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