Tag Archives: Annual Journal

In blueberry country, two farms hand the rake to the next generation

by Rebecca Goldfine

Photographs by Sean Alonzo Harris

Blueberry season brings traffic to the remote barrens of Down East Washington County, and to Helen’s Restaurant, a Machias mainstay since 1950. At Helen’s, guests line up at the counter for the signature whipped cream-topped pie filled with a quart-and-a-half of fresh, uncooked berries. The berries in their nationally-famous pie are all tended to sweet plumpness from nearby Welch Farm’s foggy perch in Roque Bluffs. “Out by the ocean, the berries taste better,” Helen’s owner Julie Barker says of the hand-raked product Welch Farm delivers daily to the restaurant, in season. “They are always free of sticks and leaves, and never soggy.”

Washington County farms like Welch and nearby Moon Hill Farm constitute an otherwise mom-and- pop backbone of Maine’s 500-plus blueberry farms, working to transfer their enterprises to the next generation in an era of consolidation and depressed blueberry contract prices. Father-daughter duo Lisa and Wayne Hanscom run Welch Farm with help from relatives, including Wayne’s ex-mother-in-law. Their family has held the farm since 1912, when Wayne’s grandfather, Frank Welch, bought 1,000 acres. Frank initially raised livestock and grew grains. By the late 1920s, he had turned primarily to blueberries, once undervalued as commonplace like lobster, marketing his crop as “fog-nourished Bluff Point berries.”

Diversification has been critical to saving the farm. The Hanscoms are eagerly introducing agritourism and selling more “fresh pack” berries direct from their farm stand. Lisa and Wayne’s bond translates to a well-balanced business. When Lisa first suggested building tourist cabins on their land, Wayne was skeptical. When she proposed offering farm tours, he asked, “Why? Who would come?” But when a tour bus pulls in today, visitors enthusiastically pour out. And there is a further commercial side—after giving a farm tour, Lisa offers her berries and unbranded homemade jams for sale.

Welch Farm’s fresh-pack yield is still small— constituting just 12,000 of the farm’s total yield of 98,000 pounds in 2015—and Wayne plans to expand it. Instead of selling all their machine-harvested berries to frozen processors for only 38 cents a pound, Welch sets aside two to three acres to “spot rake” and sell directly for $5 a quart (1.5 pounds).

Due to financially-necessary waterfront land sales, Welch Farm has been whittled down to 340 acres. “I don’t want our farm to get any smaller,” Lisa stresses.

Lisa has always been Wayne’s obvious heir-apparent. Young Wayne was the same way when he trailed his grandfather Frank Welch around the farm making it clear Frank could pass it down with confidence. About a decade ago, Lisa started helping Wayne run the farm full-time. She hopes their efforts will allow her to pass on a durable farm to her daughter, Alexandra.

 

Twenty-five miles further Down East, the Beal family is sorting the certified organic wild blueberries they’ve raked since 1991 on Moon Hill Farm in Whiting. Only about 12% of Maine’s “wild” blueberries are organic, but “there’s a lot of potential” to grow this hot market through fresh sales, says University of Maine blueberry expert David Yarborough.

Tim Beal also has deep roots in Washington County where his family goes back four generations. Tim started raking blueberries when he was eight; his father, a Bangor Daily News bureau chief, took the month of August off each year when he put the family to work on his ‘vacation’ project. The Beals all worked for Wyman’s alongside a crew from Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq people. As they all toiled on the fruit, Tim’s dad assiduously reported on the blueberry business beat. In the early 1980s, he broke stories on the first mechanical pickers, as well as the wild blueberry industry’s transition from organic practices to its widespread embrace of pesticides to control the dreaded maggot fly.

Tim’s California-born wife, Lydia, met her husband at the University of Maine at Machias. As a young couple, they chose to homestead in Washington County. “We wanted land, and we wanted blueberry land,” Lydia said. “We wanted to be somewhat remote, to have space and the freedom to develop what we wanted to develop.” Their 260-acre farm is at the end of a dirt road; just at the moment you think that you must have overshot the place, a driveway curls up past the Beals’ 10 acres of blueberries to reach their barn and home.

Last winter, the Beals extended ownership of the farm to their children—Nick, Jay, and Clara, who grew up in the blueberry fields. The packing building walls still bear faint blue smears where as kids they threw berries at each other. With help from Maine Farmland Trust, the Beals recently formed an LLC, the first step in making each child an equal business partner. Both of the boys are building houses on the farm, ensuring, like the Hanscoms, that the business will be in local family hands for at least one more generation of blueberry production.

rebecca goldfine is a Maine native who reports on student life for Bowdoin College communications and writes the trail guide site | mainebyfoot.com

Additional reporting here by Laura McCandlish.

Fresh Blueberry Pie

The legendary blueberry pie at Helen’s Restaurant in Machias is made with Welch Farm berries

and was featured on Food52.com last summer. Helen’s owner Julie Barker, whose father processed blueberries on his Washington County farm, says this original recipe, handwritten and stenciled, is unchanged since Helen and Larry Mugnai opened the restaurant in 1950.

For 6 servings

 

BLUEBERRY GEL

3 tablespoons frozen blueberries

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

½ cup water

½ ounce cornstarch

 

PIE CRUST

3 cups flour

1 ½ cup shortening 1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons water

 

BLUEBERRY PIE

1 ½ quarts fresh Maine wild blueberries

1 cup blueberry gel

1 quart heavy whipping cream

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

 

 

1. Make the blueberry gel. In a double boiler over medium-low heat, mix together the frozen blueberries, sugar, water and Let simmer until thickened. Remove from heat and let cool.

2. Mix together the flour, shortening, salt, and water for the pie dough just until fi Shape into a 9-inch pie pan and crimp the edges and chill it for at least 30 minutes. Preheat your oven to 325°F. Then, once you are ready to bake, dock or prick the chilled dough all over with a fork and bake it for 25 minutes or until golden brown around the edges. Let cool.

3. Combine the blueberries and cooled gel together in a large bowl and add the mixture to the pie crust.

4. Whip the whipping cream with the sugar and vanilla and then spread a thick layer all over the top of the blueberries.

5. Garnish the whipped topping with extra blueberries. Chill until solid and can be easily cut with a Cut into six generous pieces!

 

Enjoy.

This article is from the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

Searching for Sustainable Scale

by Melissa Coleman

Photography by Greta Rybus

Having grown up on an E.F. Schumacher small-is-beautiful homestead, my heart can’t help but beat with admiration for the grit and self-confidence of the small farmer. Is it possible—we Schumacher types want to know—for these farmers to cultivate a viable business without losing that trademark grittiness and connection to the land?

This quest for the secrets of sustainable scaling up led me down winding country roads to the following Maine farmers. While growing their businesses in size and profit, they’re continuing to foster their communities, families, and land.

The Groundbreakers:

Stewart Smith in his carrot field in Starks, Maine.

Asked to name, off the top of his head, the efforts that have made the most difference for Lakeside when creating a viable business, Smith easily offers the following strategies.

First, he advocates choosing two or three high-volume crops to pay the bills, and a handful of high-value specialty crops to make a profit.

“You can budget a larger tractor with tillage equipment for your high-volume crops, but also use it on the supplemental crops,” he says.

This leads to the importance of finding the right equipment at the right price, and taking the time to maintain it. Big-ticket items include the irrigation system and root vegetable harvesters, which he advocates buying used from commercial farmers.

“Equipment is your biggest expense. You need to have the ability and technical knowledge to maintain it, and you need to enjoy being in the shop tinkering with it to keep it running.”

Finally, he stresses forming strong relationships with buyers, and making delivery a priority.

“Bigger buyers are not as flexible,” he says. “You have to get them the amount they want, marked the way they want it, at the time that they want it. And if anything changes, let them know ASAP.”

Leaving the glow of the Lakeside farmhouse, I can feel rather than see the fields spread around me in the darkness, settling into winter slumber as they have for generations. There’s hope that these fields will be productive for many generations to come.

Stewart Smith and Sarah Redfield Lakeside Family Farm

Heading to Lakeside Family Farm, I leave I-95 behind in the November dusk and enter the fertile farmland  of the Sebasticook Lake basin in Newport. What I notice first about Stewart Smith’s gently-aged profile is an assured wisdom in the curves of his smile. Recent accolades include a SOURCE Maine Elder Award for shaping “a locally focused, environmentally con- scious, 21st-century approach to Maine agriculture.”

As a third-generation Newport farmer, Smith determined while an economics undergrad at Yale that he would work in government, education, and farming over the course of his life. This he did at the USDA under Carter, the Joint Economic Committee of Congress under Clinton, and as a Maine Commissioner of Agriculture. In between, he taught and did research at Tufts and the University of Maine.

With wife and partner, Sarah Redfield, he returned to farming and founded Lakeside Family Farm in 2005. It has since become a role model for a successful mid-size sustainable farm that, while not certified organic, follows best practices to minimize the use of chemical inputs. Lakeside now provides 100-some vegetable options to buyers and distributors including Hannaford and Crown of Maine, restaurants such as The Black Birch in Kittery, and the University of Maine. They also deliver workplace CSA farm shares.

“I’m in charge of the farming and production, and Sarah works with the buyers,” Smith says, with evident gratitude for a partner who is dedicated  to the business.

Smith works with his crew to repair equipment used for harvesting carrots. As his midscale family farm grew, it became more productive to rely on equipment.

The Evolvers:

Chris Cavendish, Gallit Sammon, and their daughter Calliope take a moment to pose in their carrot field in Bowdoinham.

Chris and Gallit Cavendish Fishbowl Farm

The trip to Fishbowl Farm leads me, with photographer Greta Rybus, 45 minutes north of Portland to the inland estuary of Merrymeeting Bay, its soil rich in organic matter.

We track down curly-haired Chris Cavendish at a shared processing facility and are immediately drawn into his bright-eyed enthusiasm for this work. Following him to a 12-acre field that he leases affordably from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, we witness rows of carrots miraculously lifted from the ground by the tractor-towed Scott Viner harvester.

“I’m anticipating that with the new harvester, we can process 1,500 pounds in an eighth of the time, with two rather than three workers,” Cavendish says, though his data is still speculative.

While there are many inspirations and guiding forces that led Cavendish to Fishbowl Farm (meeting his wife and partner, Gallit; MOFGA; Russell Libby), there’s also the 1973 movie that inspired a runner up name, Seventh Wave Farm. As Cavendish tells it, Steve McQueen’s character Papillon, a prisoner on a remote island, notices that every seventh wave in a set is strong enough to carry a man out to sea, and he rides that wave to freedom.

The seventh wave for Cavendish and Gallit (formerly chef de cuisine at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport), has been the decision to focus on wholesale production of just a few favorite crops. These include greens (spinach, kale, arugula, lettuce mixes) and seasonal vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions).

After ten years in business and the birth of their first child, Calliope, Chris and Gallit were feeling the pinch. They didn’t want to sacrifice family life to the 80- to 90-hour-a-week demands of supplying farmers markets and their CSA.

The decision in 2012 to change direction led to a Maine Farmland Trust workshop with Jed Beach of FarmSmart, a Maine-based consulting firm that assists farms with goal-setting, record-keeping, and business planning. The following takeaways have stayed with Cavendish over the past four years.

Know the breakeven point for any given week. “Jed Beach helped to compile our budget, crop enterprise worksheets, and income projections to give me one important number,” he says. “That’s the number of cases a week that we need to sell during the 25-week grow- ing season to be able to end the year in the positive.”

“Chris put this large black number above his desk where he sees it every day,” Beach says.

Grow slow. “I found it important to identify and resolve problems before putting myself in front of a large audience,” Cavendish states. “The most important being creating production and harvest systems to efficiently produce high-quality product and developing easy and efficient ordering, order-tracking, and washing/packing/handling systems.”

Identify non-farm goals and place them before farm goals. “For me that means ensuring we have a certain degree of normal in our family life during the growing season,” Cavendish states.

“If a major decision will significantly and negatively impact our family balance, we don’t do it.”

The results have been commendable, with income tripling from 2013 to 2016. Fishbowl’s recognizable labels can be found on greens and vegetables at Rosemont’s markets and Bow Street Market in Freeport, among others, while bulk orders are sold to Maine Specialty Foods, Flatbread Company, and other Portland restaurants.

When Gallit and Calliope arrive to check on the progress of the carrot harvest, the Cavendish family poses for a photo, sitting together in the fields that sustain them. They appear happy and relaxed, comfortable with their lifestyle—a model farm family, riding that seventh wave to farm-family balance.

After Cavendish uses a harvester to gently uproot carrots, he and his family get to work collecting and cleaning them.

The New Guardians:

Phillip and Lisa Webster North Star Sheep Farm

Upon arrival at North Star Sheep Farm, I’m directed to the Welcome Center to meet owners Lisa and Phillip Webster. Well appointed with leather sofas and space for product sampling and hosting events, it sends the message to any visitor or buyer that North Star is a serious operation.

“People make the decision whether or not to do business when they first arrive,” Lisa tells me. “The impact of a well-maintained farm is key.” Blonde and of strong stature, she’s dressed in a smart business suit because she goes to Augusta to advocate for farmers as past-president of the Agricultural Council of Maine. The rest of the time, Lisa manages North Star’s sales and marketing, and Phillip, her tall and amiable husband and business partner, oversees the farm operations and employees.

Over 3,000 sheep roam the pastures at North Star Sheep Farm.

Chris Cavendish packages clean salad greens for distribution around Southern Maine.

While North Star has only become a go-to for grass- fed lamb in the past five years, the couple bought their first sheep in 1984. Fifth-generation sheep farmers, both Lisa and Phil’s families have raised breeding stock and meat lambs since the early 1800s. The decision to buy 225-acre Stevens Farm in 1997 brought with it the land for a bigger sheep operation and a $400K mortgage, so they decided to pay the bills with a landscaping business and keep the sheep at a loss.

It wasn’t until 2007, after their son graduated from college, that the Websters felt ready to downsize the landscaping business and upsize the sheep farm. They traveled the country to gather ideas from other farms and wrote a 10-year business plan. They banked on their finding that New England has the largest demand for lamb in the US, due to the high number of white-linen restaurants. So, the Websters reasoned, if you add in New York City and Washington DC, the buyers for 60% of all lamb purchased in the US were within their reach.

More Perspectives:

Phil Webster pauses while feeding his sheep.

Despite challenges around establishing viable harvesting, packaging, storage, and transporta- tion systems, in 2010 they secured a deal to sell Whole Foods 12 lambs a week, or more than 1,000 lambs a year, and everything began to fall into place. Foodservice distributor Dole & Bailey and the American Lamb Board began marketing North Star lamb, and they added pork and rabbits.

Today their products can be found at Portland restaurants and markets including Fore Street, Back Bay Grill, and Rosemont Market & Bakery, as well as throughout New England and in select DiCicco Family Markets in New York.

To meet the demand, North Star raises 3,000-plus sheep a year on their farm in Windham, as well as on Collyer Brook Farm in Gray (a property protected by Maine Farmland Trust) and Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. They cross-mate several breeds  that do well on pasture-based grazing in the Maine climate, to create an ideal whole-lamb product.

Phil and Lisa’s advice:

“Don’t let your guard down as you scale up,” Lisa says. “Keep the quality and standards at the same level no matter how you scale. We’re in this because we love sheep farming, not because we want to see how much poundage of lamb we can get to market.”

“You’ve got to love what you do,” Phil agrees. “You’ve got to be able to look across the pasture and feel good every day. If you’re not happy, change what you do, or get out.”

Most of all, Phil and Lisa are loyal to the legacy handed down by their family. “We use all the experi- ence of generations past to ensure that today will be successful and tomorrow there will still be a family farm here,” Lisa says.

Bonnie Rukin, the funding fairy godmother of Slow Money Maine, reminds me that scaling up isn’t just about the money. Bonnie has helped numerous small to mid-sized farms, fisheries, and enterprises to focus on larger infrastructure on the path to becoming not just self-sustaining, but sustainable.

“There is no denying the value of material and financial capital, but we don’t want to forget the value of community in the process,” Rukin says. “We’re seeing several farms that rely on people in their community and collaboration with other farms to bring quality produce to a larger number of people in a more consistent and satisfying way than through corporate markets.”

Fred Kirschenmann, president of the board at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture and winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from IFOAM, upholds a similar perspective to Rukin.

“We are now faced with transforming into a more ‘regenerative,’ resilient food and farming system that is grounded in community relationships designed in creating shared values,” he told me via email.

Kirschenmann is quoting from Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s article “Creating Shared Value” in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review. He also recommends John Thackara’s book How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today. It “describes how the transition from an indus- trial economy to the next ‘bioregional’ economy is not just about farms, but how we all need to work together in our own bioregions,” he says.

Businesses and individuals alike are in the process of evolving the understanding of what it means to “do business” in the 21st century. The farms mentioned here have found relative financial reward in their respective paths of growth, but they have also, as Rukin and Kirschenmann emphasize, kept a connection to the communities, families,  and acres that sustain them.

melissa coleman grew up on a back-to-the-land farm near Blue Hill, Maine. She is the author of a memoir about the experience, This Life is In Your Hands, and writes for publications including The New York Times, Boston Globe, Travel Weekly, and Maine Home + Design.

This article is from the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

Reclaiming Maine’s Lost Farmland

and rethinking how we farm

BY JOHN PIOTTI

Philip and Heather Retberg of Quills End Farm in Penobscot have a lot in common with other young couples I’ve seen repopulate old farms: a clear commitment to good farming practices and good food, to improving their community, and through it, our planet.

Yet different farmers take different paths. A decade ago, when I first met the Retbergs, they were doing something that was rare in those days: reclaiming former farm fields that had grown up in trees. Pioneers in more ways than one, the Retbergs were staking a claim on their future.

It’s easy to forget the vastly different perception of farming’s future held by most Mainers—including many farmers—just a few years ago. When I began working with farmers in the mid 1990s, conventional wisdom held that farming in Maine was dying.

The first statistics that hinted at farming’s potential re-birth appeared in the Federal Agricultural Census of 1997, with stronger signs evident in 2002. From 2002 to 2007, the number of farms in Maine increased by almost a thousand, from 7,199 to 8,136. By 2012, the value of farm production was up 24 percent over 2007, showing that new operations were not all small hobby farms, as some had suspected. Meanwhile, from 2007 to 2012, the number of beginning farmers jumped nearly 40 percent. Clearly, something positive was happening.

Yet these statistics, as informative as they are, can’t capture the complexities undergirding farming’s renaissance. A deeper look at farm operations would reveal that some farms are thriving, while others are struggling, and many more only remain in business because the farmers are willing to work exceptionally hard for little money.

While there is more to the issue, it is safe to say that farming in Maine is growing, if unevenly, and that public perception is more positive than it’s been in generations. There’s a newfound conviction that farming is here to stay.

 

farming more land

The idea that farming in Maine is poised to expand is nothing new, but it was thrust into the spotlight last spring with the release of A New England Food Vision. The widely-circulated study showed how New England could produce as much as two- thirds of its own food by the year 2060, but only  if the region expands its agricultural production by 3-4 million acres. A good chunk of that land will need to come from Maine, simply because it isn’t available anywhere else in New England.

But just because something could happen, doesn’t mean that it will—or that it will in a way that serves Maine well. As history shows, Maine farmers do not always benefit more from growing more. And clearing millions of acres of woodland for local food production could either help the environment or hurt it, depending on how it’s done.

The bottom line is that it will take real effort to get this right. And we won’t get it right unless we think differently and act smartly. We can’t expect that expanded farming will necessarily benefit farmers, unless we address some of the underlying issues that

prevent farmers from making a decent living. Beyond this, we can’t think about expanding farming simply by returning overgrown woodland into farm fields. For one thing, we can’t afford to cut trees without paying attention to carbon emissions and water quality. For another, we can’t succeed at any of this unless we see the big picture—how fields and woods can each play a role in food production, and how any sustainable food system relies on the health of the broader ecosystem.

Reclaiming former fields is clearly central to the future of farming in Maine. But we also need to move beyond our current thinking that fields are the only places where we can raise crops or livestock.

why reclamation?

Unlike a decade ago, today I know many farmers who are reclaiming former fields from woodland, and many more who are thinking of it. Farmland reclamation is driven by both current economics and future possibilities.

The market for biomass (i.e., the woody fiber that comes from cut trees and brush) is now such that a landowner can often clear a swath of land for no cost—even a swath of low-value species like alder or pasture pine. Overgrown fields also appeal to a subset of farmers: those who can’t outlay enough cash for an open parcel, but are willing to invest sweat

returning woodland to agricultural production. Meanwhile, the broader factor driving farmland reclamation is that Maine boasts millions of acres of once-farmed land that could be farmed again.

In the 1880s, 6.5 million of Maine’s 20 million acres was cleared land used for farming—either for growing crops or grazing livestock. Today, only about 700,000 acres of land are used in this way. Of the remaining 5.8 million acres, some has been lost to development, but probably not much more than a million acres or so. Over 4.5 million acres of once-farmed land has reverted to woods—and very little of that land is part of Maine’s great northern forest, on which our paper mills rely. Here is a way that Maine could contribute millions of acres to the emerging vision that New England might someday grow most of its own food.

Still, the goal should not be to simply transform millions of acres of woods into fields, but rather, to utilize that land for food production in new ways. There is a subtle yet important difference here, stemming from the fact that open fields are not the only way to grow food.

growing food in woods

Most of us acknowledge that woods are good places to collect maple sap and perhaps pick a few wild berries, but we seldom think of woods as a potential source of staple food products. And yet, many of the fruits and nuts we eat—though now harvested from orchards and fields—come from trees and woody shrubs with forest origins. Likewise, we may gather mushrooms or fiddleheads in the woods, but never think of raising traditional vegetable crops under a forest canopy. Yet many vegetables grow well in partial shade—including garlic, peas and greens.

We could utilize our woodlands to grow more fruit and nuts, while cultivating vegetables in the understory. This concept of intermixing food-bearing trees with understory crops is the idea behind “forest farming.” Rooted in practices that stretch back centuries, forest farming was formally advanced in the 1930s, and more recently embraced by some of the advocates of permaculture. Though still rare in Maine, forest farming fits well with our soils and growing conditions.

Woods can also feed livestock, which can thrive off the shoots of many trees, including poplar, locust, and beech. At one time in the South, mulberry was common fodder for pigs; while in Europe, pollarded willows were once customary winter feed for cattle. (In fact, the product was called “pollard hay.”) Slowly, greatly by using “management-intensive grazing,” in which animals are frequently rotated from one small area to another. This reduces runoff, while retaining nutrients and building soil carbon. It’s a smart practice, even if it does run counter to the romantic image of a farmer releasing sheep or cattle into a large pasture for the summer.

Another common notion we need to move beyond is that a field, once cleared, should stay a field. Farmers have become accustomed to the idea of raising crops on a rotating cycle of, say, three years; but there is also value in thinking about far longer rotations of a hundred years or more, during which the very use of the land would change, not just the crops. During such a long period of time, a suitable woodland parcel may be either partially or fully cleared for livestock and/or crop production. (The decision of how much to clear would be driven by many factors, including soil qualities.) The parcel could then be managed to revert back to a wood, though perhaps one containing more fruit and nut trees than it had before. Perhaps  50 years in the future, this land could be cleared in some fashion again, starting the cycle anew.

Such a system would bring with it some of the same kinds of benefits of short-term crop rotations, including reducing soil erosion and increasing organic matter, only on a whole different level.

It could also serve to sequester large amounts of carbon, since neither land clearing nor farming, if done right, need result in net carbon emissions.

In this light, the new wave of Maine land clearing that is now beginning could be viewed as the beginning of something much broader, and far more beneficial, than just creating new farm fields. Here  is an opportunity to craft a dynamic and innovative system for sustainably producing more food.

Maine should never have been farming 6.5 million acres in the 1880s—or at least not those particular 6.5 million acres in that manner. The landscape across much of southern and central Maine during that period was basically devoid of trees, except for orchards. Land was often cleared right up to the banks of rivers and streams. Pastures were often over-grazed and crops worked with little regard for soil conservation. As a result, we depleted our topsoil and despoiled our waterways.

It’s a common story for our species: We push things beyond where they can be sustained, until the point where they collapse. But it doesn’t need to be this way.

from best practices

to next practices

As Maine now moves to farm more, we need to learn from past mistakes. For instance, if we are to clear more land—whether fully or partially— it’s critical that we do so in ways that prevent soil erosion. Loss of topsoil not only constrains farming’s future, but results in the silting of brooks and streams, destroying spawning habitat for critical fish species. And if we are farming more, we need to be far more conscious of any fertilizers and pesticides we use, because their harmful residuals invariably end up in our waterways.

This makes good sense on more than environmental grounds: After all, if a major reason to expand farming in Maine is to grow more food, it’s foolhardy to grow more food on land at the expense of food that could be harvested from our waters. Yet as we expand farming, we don’t know exactly what practices to follow to ensure that we are doing things smartly. Consider, as just one example, how we can’t say with any certainty

what size buffer strip is required to maintain water quality downstream from a newly cleared farm field. It depends on so many factors, such as the vegetation in the buffer, the way the farm field is managed, the nature of the terrain, and more. Beyond this, it’s critical to design any buffer strip to not only meet the needs of today, but the needs of the future, when extreme weather events are likely to be more dire and more frequent. No standards of this sort have yet been developed, because the research has not yet been done.*

Farmers are used to the notion of “best agricultural practices,” various operational standards articulated in farm publications and, at times, in law. But when it comes to farmland reclamation, the standards that exist are insufficient, either because they weren’t designed to take the full ecosystem into account, or because they don’t respond to the realities of a changing climate. We need to move beyond our current “best practices” to what I call “next practices.”

One of many reasons to step up our game is that we can no longer ignore the impact of carbon emissions. It may seem that clearing woodland would result in a net increase in atmospheric carbon, but that need not be the case. Any wood that is suitable for lumber could be utilized in a way that ties up that carbon for 100 years or more. Some of the other wood could be converted into bio char, a soil amendment that sequesters carbon while increasing the fertility of the new field. And any remaining biomass could be used as heating fuel or to generate power, replacing fossil duel now used for those purposes. In addition, there’s a range of ways in which to clear land, each with a different carbon footprint. For instance, pigs can be pastured on partially cleared land as an alternative to using heavy equipment to remove roots. Beyond all this, any newly-created field could be farmed in a manner that sequesters more carbon than did the pre-existing woodland by utilizing no-till methods, aggressive cover cropping, and other regenerative practices.

restoring our planet

If we are smart about it, Maine could simultaneously advance local food production and environmental health, while also making strides to reduce carbon emissions. The strategy would involve clearing land—both fully and partially—in accordance with forward-looking environmental standards, and then pursuing production practices that wisely steward that land. Partially cleared parcels would become laboratories for forest farming and silvopasture. Fully cleared parcels would be farmed in ways that both produce high yields and sequester carbon. And wherever livestock are pastured, we’d see widespread use of management-intensive grazing. The whole system would be managed on a multi-generational rotation of 100 years or more.

Of course, that is only part of what’s needed. Despite increased demand for local farm products, there is not yet sufficient demand to support significant increases in production at prices that work for farmers. For an assortment of reasons, often political, many of our farmers don’t make enough money to cover their true costs of production. To abridge my extensive writing on this topic. I’ll simply say that I’m confident that more economically viable markets will develop over time. But until that happens, the last thing that makes sense is for those farmers to grow more.

Still, perhaps it’s good—in a way—that we have time to think things through before we reclaim millions of acres of former farmland, time to further study and refine “next practices.”

Maine has the chance to do something truly significant, something that is powerful on its own and even more powerful because it could be a model for others. Maine can do far more than feed itself and help feed New England: Through our farmers, Maine can lead the way to restoring our planet.

Heather and Philip Retberg were among the farmers featured in From the Land: Maine Farms at Work, my 2009 collaboration with photographer Bridget Besaw. In it, Philip offered these thoughts:

The farm itself is an ecosystem. Our crop is grass. Our harvesters are chickens and cattle and pigs and lambs and all the microbes and earthworms that live off what we do as we rotationally graze our animals. The entire ecosystem benefits… It increases the fertility of the soil, increases its ability to capture sunlight and do that incredible photosynthesis thing that feeds all life. Our job is to steward the land with the resources we are given: sunlight, water, earth, and photosynthesis.

Our future lies in farms like this.

 

*This is a focus of a PhD dissertation now being undertaken by Amanda Beal, a long-standing food systems advocate who serves as Maine Farmland Trust’s Policy and Research Fellow.

 

**Photos from the collections of nylander museum, courtesy of vintagemaineimages.com

This article is from the 2015 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

Moving the Needle on Rural Wellness

Personal Essay

by Stacy Brenner

Each winter, when the snow is deep on our quiet fields, I sit in meetings with “service providers.” Over the years the meeting topics vary: land preservation, ways to increase markets for local products, cooperative marketing, wholesale marketing, farm employment, rural development, food sovereignty, and the best sustainable farming practices.

The service providers—non-profit people, policy wonks, advisors, and academics—are thoughtful and working hard to align us all.

They ask my humble opinion as the farmer  in the room about topics I spend hours thinking about and discussing at the dinner table. We think collectively and then move back into our spheres to make good work happen. They glean farmers’ opinions and look at studies by university researchers. I keep cultivating and harvesting and Instagramming, trying to grow products and our markets. But change is slow and money is tight and human behavior is fickle. Sometimes we have successes and sometimes we realize we are still talking about the same issues 16 seasons later.

Sometimes, while I’m sitting in these meetings, I pull out my phone to check for emergency texts from the farm. I might check my Instagram feed (this is work, mind you!). Did I get any likes on that post about the pregnant cow? Do people like that flower arrangement with the peony? How are berries ranking? Puppies…good grief people love a baby animal! Social media is the outlet that many of us farmers are using to tell our story to customers. We market this rural goodness and these romantic tales of farm life in an attempt to garner support to maintain a cherished way of life. The majority of Americans are no more than five generations removed from farming for subsistence. Not long ago, we all had a connection to the great agrarian way of life. We had a purposeful need to engage with what we now call rural life. And, if you dig deep, most people still crave this connection.

We want our suburban home to be on the edge of farmland; we want to commute past agriculture on our way to somewhere. Our customers sit in their city offices and look at farming Instagram feeds, wondering what it would be like to cash in, leave it all, move to the country, grow flowers.

I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, in a development with 800 homes. Every fourth home looked the same, 200 of each variety. The land, developed in the ‘70s, was once a profitable farm, feeding larger South Jersey towns. The original farmhouse remained in the middle of a sea of suburban ubiquity. I would ride my yellow Schwinn banana seat bike past this farmhouse with my friends, stopping out front to stroke my handlebar streamers, make up stories, imagine a life that once was. I’d head home at dark and watch reruns of Little House on the Prairie. Farming was my dream.

Today, my husband and I, with our two daughters, farm and homestead in Scarborough. So I still live in the suburbs, defined as living within commuting distance to a city. Our little slice of preserved farmland is an oasis that rests at the gateway between the rural communities to the west, the tony beach communities to our east, and the small, vibrant metropolis of Portland 20 minutes northeast. If our land had been developed in 2004 when it was for sale, it would be similar to the neighborhood of my childhood. The farmhouse I live in now would be like the one I rode past and looked to wistfully as a child. The suburbs are something I know well. They are in my fabric.

As a farmer in the suburbs, I borrow time from rural neighbors, learning the roots of agriculture that have existed here since before this area was defined as a suburb. I listen to their stories, they lend us farm equipment, and I feel a sense of belonging in our shared vision of rural wellness. Together, we borrow technology from our urban comrades, using social media to sell the image of our rural lifestyle with a hope that the romanticism of farm work will sell our products. We are looking to create relationships; we are looking to build alliances, understanding, empathy, and awareness. At the root of it, farmers produce food to feed people, to alleviate hunger, and to invite one more person to the table for dinner. I need the knowledge and farming legacy of my rural neighbors and the financial support of my suburban and urban neighbors to continue the good work of agriculture in Maine and to develop markets to sell products.

All distinctions are relative, of course. According to the USDA, Scarborough is classified as rural with regard to economic development programs. It’s true that with our farm’s acreage protected by a conservation easement, folks visiting the farm from Portland are certain they’re in the country. But many of our farming colleagues from towns north and west of us would disagree. With its housing developments, commuter traffic, and tight zoning regulations, Scarborough is a prosperous suburb. When we look at demographic statistics, we note that 1.3 million people call the state of Maine home. Half a million of these residents live in the Greater Portland Metropolitan Area, which includes Scarborough. The bulk of the state’s remaining population hugs the coast. To compare, the population of the Boston metro area is 4.7 million people. Two hours south of our farm, there are three-and-a-half times the number of eaters than in all of Maine. To our Boston friends, Scarborough is rural and downtown Portland, with a mere 66,000 residents, is quaint.

From a policy perspective, the Farm Bill is the federal tool to fund agricultural programs. Initially, rural development (farming) and hunger relief (food welfare) were tied together as a way to achieve political buy-in from rural and urban factions. The idea was that if you built in the need for congressmen from both sides of the aisle, and all geographical regions, to cooperate, you would have more leverage.

To accomplish this, the food stamp program, which in its inception targeted urban poverty, was tied to farm subsidies. Politicians drawn to a social agenda of feeding America’s neediest citizens would collaborate with pro-big ag business politicians from the corn, soy, and cotton states. Initially, the number of qualifying households in urban areas far exceeded those in rural regions. Now, that’s changed. Since 1995, there has been a measurable increase in the number of rural households that access Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

By 2014, 14.6% of rural households received SNAP benefits compared to 11% of urban households.

The funding for most major rural development programming is written into the 2014 Farm Bill, amounting to two one-hundredths of 1% of the Bill’s $489 billion five-year budget. For the sake of comparison, nutritional programs, including SNAP, comprise 80% of the Farm Bill budget, and 19% is used to support and subsidize programs for farmers, including crop insurance payouts and conservation cost share programs. What  was historically designed as a tool to address rural development and urban poverty now struggles with a reality where rural poverty and urban development are both on the rise, and there is a grand disconnect between the two.

Without reiterating everything that has been written since the last presidential election, I will simply say yes, the disconnect is real. The lack of commitment to rural development programs is now painfully obvious. And yet, in what may be the most profound irony of all, those living in rural poverty, using SNAP, may themselves also be involved in agriculture. Perhaps the answer lies in tying SNAP money directly to farm businesses in our rural communities, for instance, providing cost-saving incentives to use SNAP to purchase local products.

Federal relief for rural communities, however,  is only one element of a solution. In Maine, where farming is experiencing a renaissance, there are young, talented entrepreneurs creating diversified businesses. Young farmers are re-populating Maine’s farmscape, offering promise. These young farmers bring social media know-how and story-telling skills. But reinvigorating rural communities with a fresh agricultural approach will only be successful if those new businesses have a market  for selling their products. Here, I see a real pos- sibility of bridging the disconnect between rural development needs and urban market demands.

Outside of federal support programs, the  most feasible route to rural development is a concentrated effort to bring urban and suburban communities into the discussion, mobilizing their eagerness to be connected to the land. It will take creativity to market the importance of rural wellness to the populace living in these metro areas. But, looking through the social media lens, I see a captive audience. Leveraging these new avenues of communication, and highlighting Maine’s rural landscapes rich with tillable land and clean water, would be a great step toward defining and connecting authentic values.

Portland, with its solid restaurant culture, is a fine start, but to move the needle Maine also needs to consider the Boston metro area as a major market. Returning Maine to its former status as the breadbasket of New England is a large-scale proposition; but if it is done with an eye towards diverse markets offering fair prices (with or without subsidy) our renewed farming culture will find huge opportunity. Growing successful farms throughout the state creates jobs. Sustainably scaled agriculture can be an economic driver for a region. This is rural development. As a farmer, the best way I can imagine this happening is through building relationships around food and farm products with a market large enough to support the farming potential of the great state of Maine.

As a state and a region, Maine and New England stand poised to lead the way in alleviating rural poverty through federal, state, and local initiatives. We have thoughtful, creative talent in our service organizations and our nonprofits. In Vermont, the Rural Vermont program provides a great example  of an effective partner service organization.

They have been successful at marketing the idea of rural wellness throughout the state and have created effective ways to fund their organization. They approach communities to determine their goals and aspirations and then work to leverage the talent within other organizations throughout the state to meet those needs. Maine is rich with organizations that have interest and intentions  to support our rural communities and address rural poverty. Unfortunately, the one organization focused solely on rural communities in Maine, the former Maine Rural Partners, closed when its funding dried up. But Maine Farmland Trust, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Maine Farm Bureau, and other like-minded groups have the potential to collaborate on a strong marketing campaign to attract the interest, money, and support of urban centers in Maine and in the Boston metro area, and build markets for Maine’s rurally produced products.

Marketing rural Maine will allow our urban neighbors to participate and be meaningful partners in our cherished heritage. If successful, the original goals of the U.S. Farm Bill, to connect rural development with urban health—to leverage the well-being of all our communities—might finally be met.

 

stacy brenner lives, farms, and flowers at Broadturn Farm in Scarborough with her husband, John Bliss, and two daughters, Emma and Flora. They raise cut flowers and organic vegetables, host weddings, and operate a summer day camp that connects a young community  with nutritious and sustainable food. She’s devoted to understanding and improving farmland preservation, farmland tenancy arrangements, and organic agriculture as an economic driver for Maine. Stacy has worked as a barista, an orchid greenhouse caretaker, a cotton farmer, and a nurse-midwife. She holds degrees in agriculture and nursing. She is a contributor to Taproot Magazine, and is a MOFGA Board Member. Stacy has been farming in Maine since 2002.

This article is from the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

Up in the County: From Spuds to Grains

By Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Photographs by Mark Yaggie

Up in Maine’s Aroostook County, farming is generational, part of the regional DNA: families proudly trace links to the land that go back sometimes for a century or more. Take Aurora Mills and Farm in tiny Linneus (population just under 1,000), not far from the Houlton county seat. At Aurora, the pitchfork is held high by veteran farmers Matt and Linda Williams, capably supported by their 30-something daughter, Sara, and her husband Marcus Flewelling. Marcus and Sara’s baby, Annabelle, represents the next generation. When I visited, Annabelle was fast asleep in a plastic baby carrier nestled next to her grandfather’s feet as he carefully maneuvered a rattling combine harvester through a sun-bleached field of ripening late summer oats, part of the 200 acres the Williamses have under grains.

The Williamses also harvest and mill wheat (including an experimental patch of hard durum, for pasta), emmer, spelt, and rye, all of it human-food grade, and most of it sold in Maine where a burgeoning market of brewers, bakers, chefs, granola producers, and home consumers demand whole grains, preferably organic and grown in-state. (Aurora’s organic oats do travel as far as Boston University’s mess halls, through Grandy Oats’ distribution networks.)

The Williams family are not the only grain farmers in The County. In Benedicta, an unorganized township on the outskirts of Baxter State Park, Andrew Qualey’s forebears have farmed potatoes since they arrived from Ireland in the 1840s. And potatoes remain a quintessential harvest on Qualey’s broad fields that slope westward to the brooding silhouette of Mount Katahdin. But today, partnering with his son-in-law Jake Dyer, Qualey has shifted to more valuable organically-farmed grains, as well as field peas, soybeans and Japanese black buckwheat.

Qualey and Dyer began their grain experiments  in 2008. Last summer’s drought ironically created near-perfect grain harvest conditions. The yield was light but the quality was high, Qualey said: “In general, we’re shooting for quality, not quantity.”

When I asked why the conversion, he laughed. “Our generation,” Qualey said, “ate potato chips. His generation”—he pointed to Jeff Dec, a lean, young baker who with his wife operates Brazen Baking in Camden and had accompanied me to The County—“they don’t eat chips anymore.”

I got the point. National potato consumption has declined in recent decades, although potatoes remain the number one vegetable consumed by Americans. For this and other reasons, potatoes are no longer the unchallenged mainstay of The County’s wealth. While no one would abandon the crop entirely, it’s time to look at productive alternatives, such as organic grains. But potatoes will always be important, admits Dyer, who works for the Potato Board developing crops for diversifying Aroostook potato farms.

Another advance in the Aroostook grain game is taking place in Mapleton, just west of Presque Isle, where the Buck brothers, Jake, Josh, and Jaret, are pioneering their Maine Malt House enterprise, pro- cessing barley into high-quality malt for the scores of sprightly breweries mushrooming in Maine. Malting is a complicated process that makes you wonder how beer was invented. First, grain is steeped in water to soak, then spread in a thick layer to germinate: the

germination is stopped by heating and drying  in a kiln. Enzymatic activity increases the sugar in the grain, lending sweetness to the beer and giving the yeast something to feed on.

Not every brewery uses local malts, but a growing number tout Maine-grown ingredients. Vaunted Allagash, Oxbow, and Rising Tide are among a good 20 breweries setting the pace for using Maine-grown grains, malts, and hops. Allagash brewmaster Jason Perkins is especially proud of “16 Counties,” a creamy, flavorful ale that boasts entirely Maine ingredients, including Maine-grown organic hops. Oxbow uses the Maine Malt House product in its forthcoming “Domestic” farmhouse IPA, and has a 100% local beer spontaneously fermenting for two-plus years underway, made of all Buck Farm, Maine Grains and Alna Hops-sourced ingredients.

From Left to Right. Katahdin rises above fields of oats at Benedicta Grain Co. In 1987, as the town’s population dipped to around 200 residents, Benedicta surrendered its plantation status and became an unorganized township.

Spelt in the auger. Spelt is an ancient wheat that is naturally lower in gluten.

Sara Williams Flewelling behind the wheel of a swather, cutting buckwheat into windrows so the grain can dry down in the field prior to being picked up for processing.

 Sara, Marcus, and baby Annabelle in a field of Japanese buckwheat. Aurora is working with Takahiro Sato, chef/owner of Yosaku in Portland, to develop a soba noodle made with Maine buckwheat. The noodles will be available in his restaurant this summer.

But while Oxbow is experimenting with Maine malts and grains, the brewery still sources most of its malt from France and Germany. “We’re working towards using more and more Maine grains—and malts,” Tim Adams, co-founder and head brewer at Oxbow, told me—a statement that holds true for many other breweries as well.

About a quarter of the Bucks’ 1,000 acres is planted to barley; the next step will be hop vines, another critical element in beer-making. “The potato market is mature,” Jake Buck explained as we toured the malt house. Like Qualey and Dyer, the Buck brothers are diversifying from total reliance on potatoes.  “We count on working with local farmers to spread the risks around,” Jake said. But they could do a lot more, he admitted. Right now, despite producing  240 tons of malt annually, they can’t keep up with in-state demand. And with just two maltsters in Maine (the Bucks’ place in Mapleton and Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls), there’s room to grow.

Coincidentally, on the day I watched Matt Williams harvest oats, I caught up with Amaral, there at Aurora to take pictures for his new cookbook celebrating 25 years of Borealis. “When you’re making bread, you’re basically working with just four ingredients,” Amaral told me, “flour, water, yeast and salt. So it’s important to understand where each of these is coming from.”

As far as consistency, moisture in the grain is a key factor. Wheat, for instance, harvested at 18% moisture, must be dried down to 12 to 14% for safe storage. Otherwise, the grain starts to sprout, leading to the development of amylase, an enzyme that is undesirable, especially for baking. Grain high in amylase produces sticky bread; too low, on the other hand, and the bread will be unacceptably dry. “Variations in protein levels are just the nature of small-scale milling,” says Jim Amaral, who established Borealis Breads (then known as Bodacious) back in 1993. Larger-scale millers can blend various flours to a steady consistency to satisfy bakers’ needs, but the scale of grain growing in Maine, he said, has not yet arrived at that point.

Black Crow Bakery in Litchfield, turning out some of the most stunning bread in Maine over the last 25 years, uses some Maine grains but consistency crops up in any conversation with baker Mark Mickalide. Mickalide is unusual because he himself grinds the flours he uses. The biggest problem is what he calls bitterness in Maine-grown grains: “It doesn’t ripen to a real strong sweetness,” he said, adding that to get the flavor he wants, he blends, in equal quantities, Maine-grown grains with sweeter wheat from the High Plains and ordinary unbleached white flour.

Blending, then, is an issue of capacity. Yes, Maine could grow a lot more grain to supply the needs of both brewers and bakers—and it might well lead to greater possibilities for millers to blend flours. But reaching that capacity is not a quick process, especially not for organic grains, which are what bakers require.

Anyone involved in this revival of Maine grain growing agrees the movement began with Aurora’s modest Matt Williams, in symbiotic relationship  with Borealis’s Jim Amaral. Amaral first got Williams involved in grains on a commercial scale. In the late 1990s with Borealis Bread a success, Amaral decided to enhance his line with a Maine-grown product.

“I kept asking, why aren’t we growing wheat in Maine?” Amaral recalled. Williams, who was then the Aroostook County Extension Service specialist in small grains, had been experimenting with grains in rotation on his Linneus farm. As Amaral pushed, Williams planted, first, a crop of hard red winter wheat harvested in 1998. With no milling capacity in Maine, the grain was trucked across the border to New Brunswick. That continued until the border crossing became difficult after September 2001, at which point Williams added a grist mill to his grain operation.

Amaral now uses Aurora wheat for all his sourdough starters, but he is particularly proud of “Aroostook,” a grainy loaf made 100% from Maine grains, mostly wheat, and mostly from Aurora.

Nor can you talk about grain in Maine without mentioning Amber Lambke and her vision of a “re- generative economy” for Central Maine. In 2012, she co-established the Maine Grains mill in Skowhegan in the old Somerset County jail, where Qualey Farms in Benedicta is among some 24 growers sending their grains in for processing. Maine has just two commercial stone grist mills, in Skowhegan and the one at Aurora. For a decade, Lambke, with a number of like-minded confederates, organized the annual summer Kneading Conference in Skowhegan. What the Common Ground Country Fair is for Maine’s organic farmers, the Kneading Conference has become for Maine’s grain farmers, brewers and bakers.

From Left to Right. Inspecting hops outside Maine Malt House in Mapleton. As the stalwart potato market continues to mature, young farmers like the Buck brothers are looking for ways to diversify, and Maine’s booming craft beer industry offers new market opportunities.

Jake Buck checks the “chitted” barley on the malting floor at Maine Malt House. The Aroostook County malt house is one of just two malt houses in Maine helping to bring locally-grown grains to Maine brewers.

Sara Williams Flewelling holds a prized French heritage wheat, ‘Rouge De Bordeaux,’ known for its excellent baking quality and superior flavor. Over the past few years Aurora has been restoring the grain seed to marketable quantities and expects to have it available to customers this fall.

Maine bakers like Jim Amaral of Borealis have paved the way for more local grain production. While working with local flour can be less predictable than the standard King Arthur, bakers and eaters are enthusiastic about using Maine grains in breads and baked goods.

The Kneading Conference spurred the Maine Grain Alliance, now headed by Tristan Noyes, another young Aroostook native who, with his brother on the family farm in Woodland, is experimenting with several grains, including Sirvinta, a hard winter wheat from Estonia whose potential has a lot of Maine growers excited.

Noyes is equally enthusiastic about a new project for the Maine Grain Alliance, an 8-month feasibility study to look at creating drying, storing, and sorting facilities in four separate Aroostook County locations. This will take the onus off the shoulders of individual farms and farmers, and incidentally take a lot of the guesswork out of grain production.

Here in Aroostook (as in other parts of rural Maine) local and farm-to-table are not just fancy terms to sprinkle on chic restaurant menus. Local means community and an inter-connected economy. But there is still not enough local grain being grown and milled to serve Maine’s needs. I think of those 18,000 fallow acres up in the County where the climate is so good for grains—cool nights make sweeter wheat—and where taller varieties with better flavor and better baking quality can be grown. “Our biggest challenge is simply getting more land in production,” Matt Williams noted. “And it’s been the challenge from day one.”

Allagash’s Perkins cites a statistic from the University of Maine at Presque Isle—there are 18,000 acres of fallow or idle agricultural lands between Presque Isle and Caribou, all suited to grain cultivation. In fact, Aroostook farmers havegrown grains for a very long time, but almost always in rotation with potatoes (sometimes legumes, too). Such crops are either turned under as green manure or sold as low-value feed for chickens, pigs and cattle. What’s new in recent years is the focus on food-grade (as opposed to feed-grade) grains.

In the last decade or so, Maine has been fortunate to see an explosion of artisanal bread- and beer-crafting. We’ve come a long way since enriched sliced white breads (the Cushman’s and Nissen’s of my Camden childhood) and Haffenreffer and Narragansett fizzy brews. As of last winter, Maine had about 85 craft breweries, members of the Maine Brewers Association, and an estimated 51 craft bakeries, according to the Maine Grain Alliance, producing densely-grained, whole-meal loaves, often from wood-fired ovens, like the superbly nutty rye bread made with Aurora’s rye  by Tim Semler at Tinder Hearth in Brooksville or the variety of breads and pastries at Standard Baking in Portland where, under Alison Pray’s direction in 2016, they used some 47,600 pounds of local wheat, oats,  rye, cornmeal, and spelt, which represents 15% of their total grain use; and the number is climbing annually.

So why aren’t all of Maine’s brewers and bakers using Maine-grown grains? The answer is complex, but it boils down to three factors: 1) capacity, 2) consistency, and 3) price. On that last point, flour from the Skowhegan mill, says Camden baker Jeff Dec, is double the price of King Arthur flour—“and they’re really giving a good price to farmers.” Making grain profitable for farmers is obviously an important piece of the equation, but when bakers and brewers, who operate on similarly slim margins, can get good-quality flour, or malted barley, for half the price, it’s hard to argue with the choice. Still, bakers like Dec, Semler, Pray, and many others acknowledge their customers recognize the value in locally grown grain.

This article is from the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

Young Dairy

Photographs by Jenny Nelson

Text by Ellen Sabina

in many ways, dairy farms are a cornerstone of Maine’s farming community. Dairy farmers steward large tracts of farmland for feed and forage, while supporting the equipment retailers, feed stores, large animal vets, and other agricultural services that all Maine farms rely upon. Yet, while there are indicators that farming in Maine is growing, Maine’s commercial dairy industry has not seen the same kind of growth. The number of midsized dairy farms has steadily decreased over the past few decades, as has the number of acres of farmland managed by dairy farms, due to the high cost of production, infrastructure, and the volatility of the milk market. The average age of Maine’s dairy farmers is 54, and within the next decade, many will be reaching retirement age. At the same time, very few young farmers are choosing to go into dairy farming, deterred by the unpredictable  price of milk and the high start-up costs inherent in the land base and infrastructure needed to establish a successful dairy farm. Without young dairy farmers, what will happen to all of the land currently in dairy, and to the infrastructure and communities that Maine’s dairy farms support?

The few young farmers who are bucking the trend and have decided either to become first-generation dairy farmers or to continue their family’s farm have a vital role to play  in ensuring that dairy farms remain a foundational piece of Maine’s farm and food system. These are some of those farmers.

the milkhouse

SOUTH MONMOUTH

Caitlin Frame, Andy Smith, with son Linus, first-generation dairy farmers

For Caitlin and Andy, producing good food “is extremely gratifying work. It’s amazing to think of all the people who are nourished by what we produce on our farm. All that milk, meat, yogurt—that incredibly rich, nourishing animal protein—starts with just sun, soil, grass, and water, and we get to be part of stewarding it.”

Caitlin and Andy feel fortunate to be able to pursue their dairy farming dreams. The support

of organizations like Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine Farmland Trust helped them access education, and eventually, a farm of their own. When they think about the future dairy farms in Maine, their hope is that “small and midsize dairy farms can become profitable again…we’re counting on it. And we’re counting on organizations like MFT to make the large land base necessary for such operations accessible.”

 

santy dairy

SKOWHEGAN

Brad Santy, second-generation dairy farmer

When he looks ahead to the future of his farm, Brad Santy is hopeful. He feels good about the decision  to be an organic dairy farmer, and thinks that will help put the farm in a better position for his kids, who he hopes will want to take over someday. “It’s tough to start a farm with such huge overhead involved—land, infrastructure, equipment, and a herd,” said Brad. “It’s incredibly hard to start small, too, with one tractor and 10 cows. I don’t really know anyone who started a dairy farm from scratch without taking on an

enormous amount of debt.”

Taking over an established family farm may be a bit easier than starting from scratch, but dairy farming will always be challenging. Equipment is expensive, milk prices go up and down, and access to enough land for pasture and feed is often a concern. And yet, if you love dairy farming as much as Brad Santy does, the decision to take on those challenges is an easy one. As Brad’s tattoo reads: “Farm on.”

fletcher farm

PITTSFIELD

Austin and Walter Fletcher, fifth and fourth-generation dairy farmers, respectively

Though Austin Fletcher grew up on his family’s dairy farm, he wasn’t always sure farming was what he wanted to do for a living. “There was a time in high school when I definitely wanted nothing to do with it,” he said. “I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think I wanted to do it.” But after leaving Maine and working other jobs and on other farms, Austin felt the pull back to his roots.

At 33, he’s happy to be back in Pittsfield, working alongside his dad, and preparing to continue the

family business. The plan is for Austin to take over the farm gradually as Walter transitions away from farming full-time. “There is a personal satisfaction,” said Walter, “a sense of accomplishment, when your children look at what you have done and see some- thing worthwhile. And when one of them says, ‘I see what you’ve done and I would like to be a part of it, to build on it and carry it forward,’ it is the greatest com- pliment that I could receive. It makes me very proud.”

bo lait farm

WASHINGTON

Conor and Alexis Macdonald, first-generation dairy farmers

While neither Conor nor Alexis grew up on dairy farms, they both “really love cows and love working with large animals, so we wanted to start a business doing just that,” said Alexis. “So many of our friends and family tell us they never would have thought we’d have become dairy farmers, but it seems to embody so many of the things that are important to us: animals, nature, hard work, community. It can be exhausting and maddening and frustrating at times, but it’s also empowering and rewarding.”

While their decision to become dairy farmers was relatively easy,

being dairy farmers is anything but. Without a background in dairy farming, their learning curve has been steep, and making it work is a constant challenge. “There’s so much to know when you’re running a farm. You’re a vet, plumb-  er, carpenter, accountant, manager, electrician, mechanic … the list goes on. Most dairy farmers we know still claim to have only learned the tip of the

iceberg, even with decades of experience under their belts. It’s no exaggeration to say we learn something new every day, whether we want to or not.”

This article is from the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

Land & Sea

A FRESH LOOK AT OUR REGION’S FOOD FUTURE

By Amanda Beal & Robin Alden

Illustrations by Sarah Wineberg

On September 29, 2016, the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries (formerly Penobscot East Resource Center) and Maine Farmland Trust hosted the Land & Sea Colloquium at Bowdoin College to explore a whole-system approach to increased food production in Maine. The discussion also examined the connections between economic growth potential in the food sector, good natural resource stewardship, and the overall health of our communities. More than 70 people were engaged in the discussion. The following is based on the transcript of the event (a video of the presentations and panel session can be viewed here).

Maine and New England food production is experiencing a renaissance. New farms are cropping up across the region and the average age of our farmers is declining, signaling that younger farmers are moving into the picture. Maine has a thriving inshore fishing fleet, and there is great interest in aquaculture expansion. Direct farm- and boat-to-consumer markets have expanded, and more and more eaters want to know where their food comes from. All of this is reinvigorating our rural landscapes and contributing to a growing local food culture.

Our region is widely viewed as a land of opportunity for increased land- and sea-based food production and harvesting over the coming decades. Maine is a national leader in river restoration, which is positively impacting marine systems, and has a significant amount of coastline adjacent to the Gulf of Maine. We have good farmland, a moderate growing season, and communities throughout the region that value locally grown and harvested food. Maine has the potential to be a major source for the New England food market, and many predict broad and positive economic impact.

But what exactly does sustainable expansion—economically and environmentally—of the region’s food production look like? How can major change take place in a manner that strengthens local communities, improves individual well-being, delivers economic benefit to producers and others along the food chain, and strongly supports the land and water resources upon which all production and harvesting depend?

All of these questions, considered simultaneously, create a complex and challenging puzzle that we must work to solve to ensure that we create real and lasting benefit for Maine’s people into the future.

MAINE PRODUCES

Currently, about 90% of the food we eat in New England comes from outside the region.(1) We have the potential to produce a lot more food in New England—perhaps half of what we eat or even more—but to do so, Maine needs to play a major role in expanding food production.

Over the past 25 years, Maine has seen a positive trend in the number of farms and land in farms reported by the USDA Census data. The last count, in 2012, reported 8,174 farms and 1,454,104 acres categorized as farmland. These numbers are encouraging, particularly after the long and steep decline that began in the middle of the 20th century, when Maine counted just over 42,000 farms encompassing 4.6 million acres. Meanwhile, we have done well in effectively managing our natural resources, recognizing that they are an essential foundation for increased production now, and for sustained production into the future.

With over 5,300 miles of coastline, Maine’s fisheries support approximately 5,000 commercial fishermen. In addition, about 90 companies operate 180 aquaculture farms, which employ approximately 600 more people in the fisheries sector.(2) It’s known that fishing can be an incredible economic engine, providing jobs that help to sustain coastal communities, but it’s also true that ongoing success for our fisheries requires a healthy environment. These two factors are inextricably linked. The ocean is downstream from all human activity; in Maine, we are fortunate that by global standards our water quality is still remarkably high.

We have many reasons to be excited about the potential for Maine’s food production to grow to feed ourselves as well as the region, and beyond, but for Maine’s food producers to achieve livable wages, while also supporting their stewardship activities and making sure the food they grow is accessible and affordable, it is clear that numerous shifts are needed within our current food system.

The potential to significantly expand Maine’s food production is real, and there are signs of progress in some areas. But it’s important that we not only look at the positive and exciting data trends that show growth in sales or pounds of food produced. For instance, we would not want to increase land-based production by reclaiming farmland in an area or in a manner that leads to runoff that would endanger the productivity of our marine waters or in a way that prohibits farmers from being able to cover their costs and pay themselves and their workers a fair wage, impacting overall farm viability.

This second example has been a long-standing issue in the commercial dairy sector, where farmers operate at the mercy of the fluctuating federal milk price, leading to an ongoing decline in the number of mid-scale commercial dairy farms. These farms are an important anchor for services that other farmers rely on, which will create challenges for all farmers if this trend continues. Likewise, overfishing a species when a new market emerges, as we did with sea urchins, may bring short-term economic benefit to a few, but limits the longer-term productivity of this fishery and affects the ecosystem for other important commercial species.

These are just a few examples of how looking at only one piece of the system without considering the whole can limit our ability to see the longer-term implications of our decisions and to foster an overall productive, viable, and healthy food system that works for all.

CURRENT CONDITIONS AND CHALLENGES

Farming and fishing in Maine today are benefiting from a more engaged public that has a growing interest in knowing where their food comes from, who grows and harvests it, and how they can play a role in supporting the producers’ efforts. More than at any other time in recent history, Mainers value food producers as important members of our communities. Yet, even with this level of support, we still have challenges to overcome to make sure that our food businesses can thrive now and in the future.

On land, many farmers still struggle to make a living, largely due to the rising cost of doing business and the small portion of the food dollar (which in 2015 reached its lowest level in a decade) that is paid to producers.(3) This economic trend of rising costs and lower returns affects the system on down the line, making it challenging to build and sustain the needed infrastructure to process and distribute farm products, to allow entrepreneurs to develop value-added products, and to make Maine-grown food more widely available to institutions and larger markets. Without the intentional will or some other force that inspires consumers to pay more for food, these challenges will continue to affect the future of our food system. Without addressing the underlying economic dynamic, it will be difficult to achieve broad economic benefits for the agricultural food sector as a whole.

In fisheries, if we look at the aggregate haul of Maine commercial landings, the overall trend looks really good. But looking more closely, we see that the majority of the upswing is due to lobster production, which in 2016 saw record-level landings of 130 million pounds, valued at $533.1 million.(4) It’s believed that the continued growth in lobster production can be attributed to a decades-long decline in lobster predators like cod, warming waters, and strong management and conservation efforts within the lobster fishery.(5) As a result, many rural coastal towns now depend almost entirely on lobstering to support their local economy. The lobster industry seems to be faring better than farming, but this dependence on one species creates a vulnerability in our fisheries economy. Also, lobsters have a cold temperature threshold, beyond which they cannot survive their larval stage, when they float on the ocean surface.

So, although we are currently in a sweet spot, the fact that the Gulf of Maine continues to warm raises concerns about how long lobster production can remain at the current, high level. Climate change impacts create uncertainty for both land- and sea-based food production. While the changes we see in the ocean include warming waters, increasing acidification, and some shifting of species habitat, on land we see changes to the growing season, less predictability of warming and cooling cycles, issues with water availability, new pests and diseases, and an overall heightened risk of crop failure due to these factors and others, such as increases in intense weather events. Because food production relies on an ecological foundation, as that foundation becomes less stable and predictable, our ability to project what food system changes are possible is increasingly challenged.

COMPLICATING THE PICTURE: CONNECTIVITY AND INTERCONNECTEDNESS

We are producing food in a profoundly complex and dynamic ecosystem that includes a complex and dynamic economy. We also know that Maine’s natural resource economy is the lifeblood of literally hundreds of Maine communities. It is vital that as we invest in the new agriculture economy, or modern fisheries and aquaculture opportunities, we do so in a way that takes into account the many system interactions and that supports values such as long-term sustainability, equity, and community health.

It is daunting to consider our food production from a systems perspective, and in the past we have not even tried. Policy is compartmentalized, with agriculture, water quality, aquaculture, and fisheries in separate agencies and university departments.

Agency and academic science have, of necessity, made assumptions to simplify the issues, to enable management schemes that are now, in a changing climate, no longer valid. Fisheries science for regulation setting, for example, has been treated like a math problem, predicting broad scale future abundance on the basis of random surveys and past patterns. Not only is this no longer wise in a rapidly changing ocean environment, but it also overlooks new knowledge about local ecology populations of fish and shellfish.

It is, of course, important to understand the functioning of each of the many systems as well as the individual components at play. But we also need to pay attention to key interconnections, otherwise the result will be that we operate with a skewed under- standing of the whole picture and we risk not seeing trends that may tell us an important part of the story.

When thinking about the food system, we need  to consider the markets—local, regional, national, international—and how they fit together. We need to recognize who, and what, drives change. For instance, policies can impact the food system as a driver, as can market demands, access to capital, and technology.

Remembering that our food system is, well, a system, we need to understand what ties these pieces together—the farmer, the delivery truck, marinas, etc.—and think about what effects any one action might have on these connected parts of the system. We need to acknowledge potential competition for resources, like land and space in the marine environment, and the fact that different places in the ocean have different ecological functions.

Finally, as we consider these and other questions, we must make ourselves aware of the consequences of any actions, intended or unintended. Keeping these questions and intersecting concerns in the forefront of our planning can increase our understanding of the underlying system, which can lead us to effective and meaningful change.

HOW TO MOVE FORWARD IN A COMPLEX SYSTEM

So, where do we go from here? How do we make and support changes in our food system that have real, positive impact and take into consideration the complexities of today and the unknowns about the future?

The Land & Sea Colloquium was a call for us all to go a step further in our thinking about how to navigate the complex interconnected human-natural system that is our food system. We know we must understand the components, and the relationship between them, within this dynamic system. It is important that we work to develop institutions that understand and embrace these interconnections, fostering thinking that cuts across sectors, holds multiple values at the center of decision-making, and establishes tight feedback loops that enhance our ability to adapt as things change, such as in a future of more agriculture, more aquaculture, restored river fisheries after dam removal, shifting markets, and climate change.

On land and sea, we would do well to take a management approach that allows for shared learning to provide the capacity for adaptation and adjustment along the way. We need to build flexibility into our regulatory structures and management strategies that allows for shifting ecological and economic conditions. Enabling flexibility and adaptability in any planning helps to minimize risk and swiftly respond to new opportunities in an unknowable future.

It is crucial that we look at various ways to accumulate and assess information. It is just as important to gather and understand farmers’ and fishermen’s knowledge as it is academic knowledge. Farmers and fishermen have a fine-scale understanding of their environment and the day-to-day conditions that impact their success. All of this knowledge taken together provides a powerful way to understand how changes to any part of the food system impact the whole.

On land and sea, different values and interests can lead to conflicts about how resources are best used. Taking a comprehensive look at overall goals for our landscapes, watersheds, and the people in them can help us to reconcile various viewpoints, and to connect otherwise isolated conversations about land and aquatic environment use. Although it is incredibly challenging, we should move toward coming up with multiple-interest and multiple-use guidelines for these resources.

We must also keep an eye on the whole system to avoid making unintentional trade-offs, and to increase the positive potential of our collective efforts. A powerful example of this is unfolding before us, as our understanding of the systemic impacts of damming rivers has become clearer. Beginning in 1790, we installed 202 dams in 210 years, almost a dam a year for two centuries. This has been problematic for several reasons, including the impact on fish that must travel upriver to reach their historical spawning grounds. We saw a significant collapse of forage fish after the Veazie Dam was built at the head of tide on the Penobscot River, where alewives, blueback herring, and other migratory fish once were plentiful.

According to an article in the New York Times last fall, two years since the removal of the Veazie Dam, nearly 8,000 shad were counted swimming upstream, along with more than 500 Atlantic salmon and almost two million alewives.(6) This gives us insight into the potentially significant impacts of ecological restoration, which could greatly benefit future generations by encouraging greater species richness and diversity in the Gulf of Maine.

It is not a given that we will realize the highest potential for Maine’s food producing future. Known and unknown challenges will require us to be adaptable, to actively share knowledge across our areas of expertise and immediate interest, and to work together strategically. As we think about opportunities to increase food production in Maine, it’s important that we rigorously address all of the values that we want to ensure are built into that growth. How will we address change and build a model of equity?

How can we assure that, while supporting growth, we still live within the bounds of our ecosystem, supporting the productivity of our connected land and marine systems to the highest degree possible?

Maine has an opportunity. By looking at our past mistakes and at the challenges other regions face where management of land and sea resources are at odds, we know that Maine can be an innovative world leader in building a robust environment for food production that addresses the whole system, and that can be sustained for generations to come. Maine Farmland Trust and the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries are committed to working together to continue this dialog. We invite others to join us, as we acknowledge that no one organization, business, or person can create and sustain the kind of systems change that is needed, and that ongoing connectivity is the key to helping us all to understand the broader picture while we each work to do our parts.

Amanda Beal is the president & CEO of Maine Farmland Trust and a Ph.D. candidate in the Natural Resources and Earth Systems Science program at the University of New Hampshire. Robin Alden is the founder and executive director (retired in 2017) of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries and a past Maine Department of Marine Resources commissioner under Governor Kings administration.

Other speakers at the Land & Sea Colloquium whose remarks contributed to this article included: John Piotti, past-president of Maine Farmland Trust and now president of American Farmland Trust; Tim Griffin, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment graduate program at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy; Bob Steneck, professor in the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine; and moderator Jo D. Saffeir

notes

  1. Donahue, Brian, and Joanne Burke, Molly, D. Anderson, Amanda Beal, Tom Kelly, Mark Lapping, Linda Berlin, A New England Food Vision: Healthy Food for All, Sustainable Farming and Fishing, Thriving Communities (Durham, NH: Food Solutions New England, University of New Hampshire, 2014)
  2. Bell, Tom, “Maine Aquaculture Industry is Snagging Investors,” Portland Press Herald, January 15, 2015, posted January 15, 2015, http://www.pressherald.com/2015/01/15/ maine-aquaculture-snagging-investors/
  3. USDA Economic Research Serv “Food Dollar Series.” Last updated March 16, 2017. https://www.ers.usda.gov/ data-products/food-dollar-series/
  4. Overton, Penelope, “Maine Lobster Catch Tipped the Scale at a Record 130 Million Pounds in 2016,” Portland Press Herald, posted March 3, 2017, http://www.pressherald.com/2017/03/03/ maine-lobster-landings-set-records-in-2016/
  5. Steneck, Robert , et al., “Creation of a Gilded Trap by the High Economic Value of the Maine Lobster Fishery,” Conservation Biology, Society for Conservation Biology, Volume 25, Issue 5, (2011): 904–912
  6. Carpenter, Murray, “Taking Down Dams and Letting the Fish Flow,” New York Times, posted October 25, 2016, https://www.nytimes. com/2016/10/25/science/ penobscot-river-maine-dam-removal-fish.html.

This article is from the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

Art

Jacinda Martinez:
dressing up with nature

by Britta Konau

 

Jacinda Martinez does not just make art about agriculture, but with it. Her alignment of human and vegetable forms shows a fine sensitivity to character and the aesthetic potential of both.

Since 2009, Jacinda Martinez has been creating her series Fashion in the Raw, sewing or braiding chard, radicchio, celery, cabbage, and much more, into complex dress forms. Parsley sprigs line up into a skirt; radishes form a bikini top, their tips threaded into a necklace; prickly layers of leaves and vines sweep dramatically around a model’s nude body.

It is important to Martinez that these  vegetables have bolted, come from a compost pile, or are otherwise unsuitable for consumption. “I don’t want to waste food but give it a second life,” she states. In her earliest photographs the models pose in nature, intensifying the suggestion of fecundity and growth. Martinez’s creations act as nurturing armor of abundance and generosity.

These are not just vegan versions of Lady Gaga’s raw meat dress or its 1987 feminist precursor by Jana Sterbak. Other artists creating plant-based dresses generally adhere to a standardized dress format and don’t subscribe to Martinez’s recycling impulse or put their creations to the test of wearability.

Martinez’s motivation and artwork eloquently speak of her personal journey. She was born in Brooklyn to a health-conscious Danish mother  who ran a fabric and craft shop, and a father from  the Dominican Republic who worked with high-fashion trimmings in Manhattan’s garment district. “My parents are fabric people,” Martinez says.  “There was always fabric around when I grew up.”

As a young adult, she expanded the range of her interests and artistic expressions by studying psychology and art (“with a hint of feminism”), taking weaving classes and apprenticing with a Scottish basket weaver who grows her own willows, and by working on organic farms, including three years as head farmer at Rockland’s award-winning restaurant Primo.

These transformative experiences have inspired Martinez to work in circles: growing, making, recycling. Although she feels closest to the creative dressing part of her process—“I crave making the dresses,” Martinez admits, “it’s like a catharsis to me”—the photography is increasingly important too.

Four years ago she began photographing inside barns and now shoots in a studio—a far cry from the plein air of earlier work where lighting control was limited. Current dress pieces are also more sculptural and the images themselves more deliberately composed. Each image is proof of Martinez’s attunement to the plants’ properties and growth patterns, and the models’ body type and appearance. Martinez feels female bodies offer creative possibilities; that women convey greater intimacy and vulnerability than men. A willingness to become vulnerable is certainly required from the models. Wearing cucumber and squash vines on your naked body provides questionable comfort.

It is probably not obvious to the non-gardener  that the plants are beyond their prime. The lush images still evoke nature’s fertility and may bring  to mind painter Sandro Botticelli’s barely clad, willowy maidens in his Allegory of Spring  (ca. 1482). It may be more appropriate though  to think of Martinez’s works as vanitas, reminders of mortality. In fact, Martinez is now combining fresh and desiccated materials and just started to rephotograph a particular dress and model while the plant is decaying. However, the works are  always gorgeous, inventive, and respectful of the women, their privacy and individual form, as well as the vegetables. These images capture a primal interconnectedness of all things natural in which humans can take on a nurturing and sustaining role. | jacindamartinez.com

ARTWORK

Top Garlic Scapes 1, 2014, photograph, 24 x 34 in.
Bottom Left Broccoli, Amaranth and Orach 1, 2014, photograph, 24 x 16 in.
Bottom Right Tatsoi 1, 2010, photograph, 24 x 16 in.

This article is from the 2017 issue of our Maine Farms journal. Make sure to look through our archives.

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

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

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