Tag Archives: Maine Farms Journals

Lucinda Bliss

Art: Lucinda Bliss

an artist explores the physical—and conceptual—boundaries of farms

by Chelsea Holden Baker

The so-called ‘Ag Art’ movement may prove as important to farming’s future as land protection and food hubs, because art has the power to get us to think differently. And that—at heart—is what’s needed to rebuild our food system. Ag Art takes many forms. In 2013, artist and educator Lucinda Bliss was one participant in a group exhibition, Farming | Environment | Art, at Maine Farmland Trust Gallery in Belfast.

To describe how Lucinda Bliss created the work in her Boundaries series is simple: She called farmers. She asked if she could run their property lines. She showed up. She ran while logging her route on a GPS device. Then she returned to her studio, studied the map she’d made by her movement, and painted: six times, six different farms throughout the state.

Of course, that’s surface level, what’s easily seen and understood. Just as you can admire the beauty of crop rows, you can appreciate Bliss’ work for its formal qualities. But especially when taken as a series, Boundaries (among other things) asks the viewer to unpack their ideas about what a farm is, what their personal associations are, and what place agriculture holds in society.

“I’m a more conceptual artist than people first realize when they look at the work,” Bliss says. Her runs create a narrative structure that allows her to combine representation with abstraction, challenging viewers to linger longer than they might with a realistic depiction of the same place and experience.

Bliss’ work—both the act of making it and the final pieces—confronts the pastoral myth and ideas of ownership. Most farmers understand that you don’t truly own land, that you simply steward it for a time. Bliss says she knew she was “onto something” when she finished a run at Old Crow Ranch in Durham. She tried to thank farmer Steve Sinisi for allowing her eccentric project to take place—for making the space to think about one additional thing amidst the never-ending to-do list of a farm—and instead he thanked Bliss: “He said, ‘People come here all the time. They want to have a view of a farm, a real farmer, to take a picture of a pig, of the beautiful scene. But you, in doing this project, get that I take care of the air, the soil—the whole land. You and this project honored that.’”

Lucinda Bliss, Boundaries: Tide Mill, graphite pencil and watercolor on paper, 22" x 30", 2013, courtesy Aucocisco Galleries

Bliss is interested in how we “compartmentalize things on land and in ourselves,” including our ideas of what farming should look, smell, and sound like. In discussing another farm, Bliss relays how formerly friendly neighbors objected when pigs were brought in: “People love the idea of a farmer,” Bliss says, “and not so much the manure. It helps me realize how much farmers’ jobs can involve negotiating dialogue, getting in the good graces of their neighbors. Even though farming doesn’t happen in community as much anymore, they have to behave as if it does.”

In conversations before the run, Bliss would begin to build a sense of place through the way the farmers spoke about the land; it was a reminder of the intimacy that builds over time. Bliss says, “A farmer might tell me, ‘You’re gonna see an old stone wall, turn right. Run until you get to the old-growth cedar forest…’ but a farmer knows their land really well. I got lost on almost every single run.”

Back in the studio, Bliss would draw and redraw the contours of her GPS route until she had internalized the shape—the emblem—of that farm and experience. Bliss’ previous work has dealt with the themes of intimacy, personal boundaries, and the body: One of her most well known projects involved investigating desire with her mother, a poet. At first blush, this work may not seem aligned with that past, but the primal act of running ties it all together. Running is a way to bring you back to the body, back to nature, and in this case—back to the land. Bliss is painting relationships as much as places.

artwork

Lucinda Bliss, Boundaries: Tide Mill, graphite pencil and watercolor on paper, 22″ x 30″, 2013, courtesy Aucocisco Galleries

Lucinda Bliss, Boundaries: Broadturn, graphite pencil and watercolor on paper, 22″x 30″, 2013, collection: University of New England Art Gallery

Future: Feeding A Vision

Maine could produce more than enough food to feed itself. But will it?

By John Piotti

Photographs by Bridget Besaw

Russell Libby had a head for numbers. An economics major at Bowdoin who later served as statistician for the Maine Department of Agriculture, he could spot patterns and trends in figures not everyone saw. I witnessed this repeatedly when we reviewed agricultural census data together.

But one fall day in 1995, Libby was applying his skill with numbers differently. We were driving south on the Interstate in his pickup truck, on our way to Boston for a first-of-its-kind Northeast Food System Leadership Congress, and Libby was checking license plates to see if he knew any drivers. To my amazement, he twice predicted who we would see behind the wheel, based solely on his memory of plate numbers. This was the kind of parlor trick that could only work in a place like Maine, where people you know are likely to be driving the highway with you, but I was impressed Libby could do it at all. I took this as a sign that he was the right kind of person to tackle the seemingly impossible. Good thing, too—because for most people back in 1995, the idea of revitalizing farming in Maine seemed impossible.

Libby and I were committed to farming’s future. At the time, Libby was the new executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), and I had recently launched the Maine Farms Project at Coastal Enterprises Incorporated (CEI). We knew how farms in Maine had declined in the last generation; yet we firmly believed that farming here could grow. We were inspired by organic innovator Eliot Coleman, chef Sam Hayward, and other Mainers who were leaders in a national movement advancing local food; we were impressed by all the Maine farmers doing their part on the ground. And now we were off to Boston to dream and plan with peers from other states.

Back in the mid 1990s, only a small circle of people saw a bright future for local food. The buzzword of the day was ‘globalization,’ and the talk in Maine was all about call centers. Farming seemed downright anachronistic. The common view back then, the view that most people held, was that farming here was dead.

Russell Libby photograph by Jean English for MOFGA
Russell Libby photograph by Jean English for MOFGA

“We need to be thinking beyond just saving [existing] farmland, and also be thinking about how we can return a million acres or more to production.”  Russell Libby

Fast-forward to today and you can see the difference. It’s now commonplace for Mainers to shop at farmers markets, participate in CSAs, and seek out local produce at stores and restaurants. Parents push school boards to incorporate local farm products into school lunches. State and local officials who once scoffed at the very idea of farms as viable businesses now promote farming as smart economic development. Candidates for governor talk about how Maine can be the food basket of the Northeast.

The statistics support this optimism: From 2002 to 2012, the number of farms in Maine grew by 13.5 percent. From just 2007 to 2012, the value of Maine’s farm production increased by 24 percent. During that same period, the number of young farmers (under age 34) in Maine soared, up nearly 40 percent.

It’s clear that good stuff is happening here, on multiple levels. But still, Maine is no Iowa. Is it realistic to think that farming in Maine— or any other part of New England—could ever be more than just a sideshow?

That’s the question addressed by Brian Donahue of Brandeis University, who assembled a team of researchers (including Libby) to explore how much of the food that New England eats could be supplied locally—given population trends, dietary habits, climatic conditions, and land availability. The resulting just-released report, A New England Food Vision, shows how the region could, by 2060, produce half to two-thirds of all its food (meat, fish, dairy, vegetables, fruit, grain, sweeteners, oils, and beverages), up from about 10 percent today. Doing so could yield significant economic, environmental, and social benefits throughout the region, but would require a major ramp-up in the amount of New England that is farmed: from 2 million acres today to 6 million acres or more by 2060. A good chunk of that land would need to come from Maine.

This vision is promising and possible, yet not supported by today’s economic realities. Maine has the needed land, yet cannot cultivate another million acres (let alone another 3 million acres) without also cultivating new markets. While there is great and growing demand for food produced close to home, there is not yet sufficient demand for that much local food at prices that work for farmers. That’s the nut that needs cracking.

Six Rivers Farm

Some people say that local food costs too much. A fairer statement may be that a lot of the food brought here ‘from away’ costs too little. Consider, for instance, how fruits and vegetables grown in California rely on water systems—and come east via transportation systems—built and maintained with government funds. Consider, also, how the transporters pay less for fuel than its true cost. At present, some fruits and vegetables grown in Maine are cost-competitive with food from away and some are not. (It depends on the crop and time of year.) But more Maine food would become cost-competitive, if more of the true cost of producing and transporting food was incorporated into its price.

Other price distortions result directly from federal farm policies. For example, the federal government sets the price paid to any dairy farmer who sells to a conventional processor like Oakhurst or Hood, and that price is often below the farmer’s cost of production. (The situation changes somewhat for organic dairy farmers and the handful of dairy farmers who sell direct retail; but even here, federal pricing constrains what’s possible.) Meanwhile, federal subsidies hold down the price of commodity crops that are principally grown out West (like corn, wheat, and soy), which drives up the relative cost of products well suited to the Northeast (like grass-fed meat). Ultimately, these federal policies help neither farmers nor consumers. (Even for low-income consumers, the best approach is not to hold costs down artificially; it’s far smarter to improve these consumers’ buying power.)

As food costs rise—and they will—it’s likely that the cost of food from away will rise more than the cost of food from Maine. If the relative cost of Maine food drops enough, consumer demand will soar. Maine could then see millions of acres of former farmland produce food once again.

Some people say that local food costs too much. A fairer statement may be that a lot of the food brought here ‘from away’ costs too little.

We can take steps to reduce the relative cost of Maine farm products by helping smaller farms scale up. In the last decade, we’ve seen rapid growth in small, diversified farms that sell directly through farmers markets, farm stands, and CSAs. Some of these farms now want to expand modestly, to increase efficiency and be able to sell at least some products wholesale. That’s good news if we are serious about getting more Mainers to eat locally, because the majority of consumers are going to get most of their food from supermarkets and institutions (entities that principally buy wholesale), not from direct retail venues like farmers markets. Many small farms are now exploring various ways to enter wholesale markets, including participating in ‘food hubs’ that pool products from multiple farms. These hubs—which come in many forms—begin to re-create the community-scale infrastructure that once existed throughout Maine, back when small canneries, creameries, and slaughterhouses were common.

Maine farms will also become more competitive with changes to federal policy. With a new farm bill just passed, major reform is not coming soon; but reform will come, because the public will demand it. Awareness has now grown to a point where it will not be suppressed, spread as it has on so many levels, from author Michael Pollan to the local farmer who interacts with attentive customers.

Beyond what may happen in Maine or Washington, D.C., we are witnessing larger forces at work in this direction. The relative cost of food from away is slowly but methodically rising, driven ever upwards by numerous factors, including increasing fuel costs, more frequent droughts and crop-damaging storms, and the alarming depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer (which supplies 30 percent of the groundwater used for irrigation in the United States).

Six Rivers Farm

There’s no question that the economic realities in place a generation from now will bolster the competitive position of Maine farms and support the kind of robust local food system advanced by A New England Food Vision. But what happens between now and then? What happens in the interim, when the most profitable use of a 10-acre parcel with prime farm soils is to drop a new house in the middle of it, with no regard for that land’s potential to feed us? What happens when current market forces do not reward farmers adequately? What happens when new farmers cannot afford to buy transitioning farmland?

If—during this critical time—we lose much more land to short-sighted development, or if we lose farming know-how because we aren’t helping existing farmers remain in business or new farmers get started, then farming here will never realize its promise.

For close to 20 years, I’ve been an unabashed supporter of farming in Maine, talking up the future whenever I can. I’m still doing that. But now— amid all the excitement about farming—I make a point of stressing that not all economic forces lead in the right direction. The future we want will only be realized if we take deliberate steps to protect more farmland and provide key services to farmers—and only if we do so now, while we still have the opportunity.

When Russell Libby passed away in late 2012, many of us lost a dear friend and colleague who we relied upon for so much. In my case, I also lost someone I could talk to about the numbers. Numbers are important: they frame what’s possible. In the 1880s, Maine farmed 6.5 million acres. Today, the figure is about 700,000 acres. Of the remaining 5.8 million acres, only about a million acres have been lost to development. Much of what’s left has grown up in alder and pasture pine. With the right steps, that land could transform farming in Maine.

Six Rivers Farm

In winter 2009, Libby and I attended a gathering of farmers and researchers at Spannocchia, a farm in Tuscany, where my roommate was Brian Donahue and where I—as always—talked up Maine. At first, Donahue was skeptical that Maine had the potential to feed so much of New England, but that changed the more he spoke with Libby, who held in his head all the numbers needed to make the case. “Let’s look at this closer” they said—and A New England Food Vision was conceived.

Yet numbers never capture the whole story— far from it. Libby, also a poet, knew that well. In this excerpt from his poem, “At Spannocchia,” he conveys both promise and urgency:

After seeing the terraces of the gardens,

level imposed on steepness below,

steps connecting each level at each end,

realizing this represents a thousand years of continuity,

of a shared understanding of what is to be done,

passed through time and changed through situation,

the most important step for any of us may simply be

to place the first stone.

Yes, Maine could once again feed itself and more. But just because this could happen, doesn’t mean that it will. The future of farming here hinges on what we do now. It’s time for the people of Maine to build an expansive and enduring terrace, a foundation worthy of who we are, and then upon it, tend a bountiful garden.

Olivia's Garden

Business: Changing/the/Food-Chain

Mainers are transforming markets for growers and consumers, from farm stands to food hubs and beyond

By Melissa Coleman
Photographs by Greta Rybus

The saying goes that there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them, and the same could be said for changes to local food systems. Maine has evolved from individual mom-and-pop farm stands and CSA shares, to the all-in-one farmers ‘super’ market, to present-day models of distribution and retail that look something like souped-up versions of the old mom-and-pop model. What’s most interesting are the ways in which these old stories are being told anew, right now.

THEN TO NOW

Growing up on a rural farm in the 1970s, my family’s primary source of income was, at first, a serve-yourself farm stand resembling the ‘Doctor is In’ structure from Peanuts, with a hanging scale and honor-system money box in place of Lucy. Word spread of tomatoes and strawberries as sweet as those of distant memories, and our small stand soon grew to a freestanding building filled with fresh vegetables in colorful displays on shelves covered with smooth pebbles wetted to stay cool.

As Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) came into being in 1972, these stands were the best income option for small farms. There was only one farmers market in the state, in Portland, and not even one food coop, as best I can tell. The first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares in Maine wouldn’t be available until 1989. As these things go, by the time I moved back to Maine and settled in Freeport in 2002, there were lots of farmers markets and CSAs across the state, but few obvious local farm stands near my home. A writer not a farmer, I was seeking a consistent day-to-day connection to local food—a place to run in a pinch for a head of fresh lettuce or local pork chops. I’d visit my dad, Eliot Coleman, who with my stepmom Barbara Damrosch was planning to open a bigger version of that childhood stand at Four Season Farm. Whenever I said there still wasn’t a place like that in my area they’d send me home with bags and coolers full of vegetables.

What puzzled me was that there were a number of big farms near my home and lots of enthusiastic customers, but there was only a once-a-week opportunity to meet at farmers markets. I’ve since learned others were thinking the same thing—that this brave, new local network needed redefining. The following trailblazers are some of the many who did something about it.

Pictured: Tomatoes and a variety of greens grow inside the New Gloucester greenhouses of Olivia’s Garden, a year-round supplier of vegetables distributed by Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative

THE FARM/DISTRIBUTOR/FARM-STAND MODEL

Farm Fresh Connection
Farm Fresh Connection
food hub

It was the summer of 2003 or 2004 when I first spotted a Farm Fresh Connection (FFC) truck in Portland and struck up a conversation with the driver, Martha Putnam, then a 20-something go-getter from Houlton with a blonde ponytail and quick smile. I asked how I could access local farms in the Freeport area and she told me John Schwenk at Wealden Farm was planning to open a stand on Pleasant Hill Road—one that would look a lot like the Peanuts stands of my childhood.

She also mentioned she’d received a $10,000 grant from Common Good Ventures to start a nonprofit distribution company under the umbrella of Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society to help Maine farms access new markets. As a result, she was delivering produce to Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby colleges, as well as other wholesale customers.

“I noticed a lot of us here in Maine didn’t have access to local food,” Putnam says now, reflecting exactly what I was sensing at the time we first met. “It’s being grown down the street, but we can’t get it.”

In what would make for a superpowers merger, Putnam and Schwenk fell in love and married in 2006, effectively joining Wealden Farm and FFC. By 2008, renting storage space from large commercial distributors had become limiting, so Putnam and Schwenk resolved to put up a timber-frame building at Wealden Farm to serve as both market and warehouse.

The benefits were many. The attractive red barn-like structure has refrigeration so produce can be stored during transition, and heat so the indoor market can operate from May to December, supplemented, of course by bounty from FFC’s partners.

“To have a good business, you have to provide more than you grow,” Putnam says. “Honey, bread, cheese, raw milk from Bisson’s, and butter, are the things people want on a regular basis. People stop for these and crops like corn that we don’t grow, but while here they buy green peppers that we did grow.”

FFC is now an LLC, grossing over one million dollars in 2013. It buys both organic and conventional fruit, produce, meat, dairy, honey, and syrup from a network of more than 100 farms, including R. Belanger & Sons Farms, Bowden’s Egg Farm, Backyard Farms, Hahn’s End, and of course Wealden Farm; and delivers to 300-some schools, buying clubs, restaurants, and markets from Portland to Bath and beyond, such as Rosemont Market and Bakery, Jordan’s Farm, and Wealden’s own market; and even provides vegetables to commercial distributors like Sysco.

Putnam and Schwenk’s model of farm/market/distribution under one roof is similar to that of larger operations like Pineland Farms, but they prove it can be done successfully on a mom- and-pop (Martha and John) scale as well.

Looking forward, Putnam believes the best thing investors can do to help local food distribution is give money to schools: “Schools are a guaranteed buyer, and with donations they can pay for large quantities of local food at a price that makes it possible for the farmer to grow it,” she explains. “We need to find ways like this to pay the farmers enough money to keep farming.”

Pictured: John Schwenk is the chief farmer at Wealden Farm and is married to Martha Putnam, founder of Farm Fresh Connection, the local produce distribution company now based at the farm

THE BUTCHER/MEAT-UP/MARKET MODEL

Farmers' Gate Market
Farmers' Gate Market
Farmers' Gate Market

By 2013 Wealden Farmstand had a freezer full of beef and pork from Luce’s Meats and chicken from Maine-ly Poultry; and Bow Street Market had Wolfe’s Neck/Pineland Farms beef, but everyone I knew was going in on half a pig or cow. In this spirit my dad decided to gift his children with half a pig each, as well as some roasting chickens.

If not for this good fortune, I would have sought out Ben Slayton of Farmers’ Gate Market in Wales. Opened by Slayton and his wife Erin Cinelli in 2010, Farmers’ Gate is a specialty butcher shop that cuts from the rail pasture-grown, humanely raised and slaughtered animals from Maine farms with environmentally sound practices.

When I met Slayton at his shop, his calm good looks, easy manner, and passion for his work instilled confidence that he not only cuts a filet mignon exactly right, but in the best way for customers, the animal, and the whole community. To this end, his goal of transparent meat production means sharing with customers exactly where and how their meat was raised, slaughtered, and processed.

However, while the Farmers’ Gate location—along

a rolling farm road in a town of 1,300—is near animal raisers, it’s nearly an hour’s drive from Portland’s customer base. It was Cinelli’s mother in Yarmouth who had a bright idea: “Everyone I know around here wants to get good meat,” she said. “Why don’t you bring some cuts down here and I’ll have a party and invite them to come buy it.” And thus the first Meat Up was born.

“People were showing up with Radio wagons to get orders and hanging out in the driveway talking about recipes,” Slayton says. “We realized it was more than just a transaction, it was a social thing, and people were asking interesting questions like: How do you tie a chuck roast, and who are these farmers? There was really positive energy.”

Meat Ups now occur regularly on Thursday nights in a number of towns including South Portland and Damariscotta, but by the fall of 2013 Slayton and Cinelli realized they were running out of Thursdays. Around the same time, Farmers’ Gate received a $50,000 loan from Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) to buy beef cattle for the butcher shop to be raised by dairy farmers transitioning away from milk production. The loan was facilitated by Slow Money Maine, which found MFT an investor willing to put up the funds.

When Slayton realized he’d soon have more quality meat than he could sell, he began talking with Penny Jordan of Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth about combining forces to open a market in 2014 that would offer Maine meats, vegetables, bread, and cheese, as well as homemade soups, meat pot pies, salads, sandwiches, salsa, and chicken stock. The location on Ocean Street—near the bridge in South Portland—was selected because of the demand for Meat Ups in the area and the preexisting Jordan’s Farm customer base.

Slayton’s vision of a price point that makes it possible for everyone to prosper—animals, farmers, markets, and customers—is one he’s determined to make a reality.

“For too long value has stopped with the middle man and not trickled back to the farmers,” Slayton says. “Farmers’ Gate is working hard to reverse this by starting with the farmer. We ask them: What are your true costs of production to raise the animal right and make it work for you? We’ll pay that, and then establish the sale price and educate customers on the value.”

Pictured: Ben Slayton works with half of a pig at the Farmers’ Gate butcher shop in Wales

THE DISTRIBUTOR/PROCESSOR/MAIL-ORDER MODEL

Food Hub
Olivia's Garden
Farmers' Gate Market
Farmers' Gate Market

It was in 2001 that a 19-year-old girl named Marada Cook came from Aroostook County to apprentice with my dad at Four Season Farm. By way of a head full of red curls, big ideas, and lively personality, she made an impression on everyone she met, and my dad said she’d surely go on to do great things, which turned out to be true. She thinks big.

“I’d really like to be working on a 100-year vision for food distribution in Maine,” Cook says now. “How can we get toward a more sustainable and interconnected way of providing our own food? It’s like running play trains around a track— you keep making the track smoother and better with each pass.”

Her father, Jim Cook, was a potato farmer in Grand Isle who found himself limited by the distance of his farm, Skylandia, to pretty much everywhere else. In 1995 Jim and his wife Kate decided to start Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative (COMOC) to bring carrots and potatoes from ‘The County’ to Boston markets.

When Jim passed away in 2008, Marada found herself compelled to carry on the family business. Her sister Leah was already involved and together they sought to refine the business model with assistance from the Small Business Development Center. Slow Money Maine participants helped secure loans for inventory and lines of credit from Rudolf Steiner Social Finance and the Coop Fund of New England by connecting COMOC to loan guarantors.

COMOC relocated to the site of the former Kennebec Bean Factory in North Vassalboro in 2010 and began renovations on a 1939 building that has evolved from woolen mill to bean processing plant to now, a warehouse for local food distribution. It serves as the storage and transition point for goods from 200 food suppliers, including Aurora Mills & Farm in Linneus, Heiwa Soy Beanery in Belfast, and Misty Meadows Organic Farm in Grand Isle, as they travel to over 350 customers in all corners of Maine and beyond, including Blue Hill Co-op, Growing Concern, and Colby College. COMOC has grown from $380,000 in sales in 2008 to $1.76 million in 2013, but the Cook sisters are always striving to make things cleaner and more efficient.

“We’re not looking to eliminate areas because they’re rural,” Marada says, “but are asking: How can we build a cluster of farms in an area? It’s about increasing activity across the miles that the food travels and working with more suppliers in each region.”

In addition to the distribution portion of the business, the Cooks launched a food processing arm called Northern Girl in 2011 and bought Fiddler’s Green Farm in 2013, a mail order company selling organic stone-ground cereals and baking mixes sourced from COMOC suppliers Aurora Mills and Morgan’s Mills.

In 2012, Chris Hallweaver, co-founder of Maine Kombucha Company and a mentor to the Cook sisters, moved from Yarmouth to Caribou to take on management of Northern Girl. With the help of a $300,000 state grant and a range of creative financing from individual investors, Northern Girl’s tagline ‘Bounty from the County’ represents the mission of processing beets, broccoli, potatoes, rutabaga, turnip, and carrots for farmers in the County to sell to other markets through COMOC; again, always refining those train tracks.

“We work with both sides of the equation to get to something that’s a match,”Marada says. “We’re setting a standard and helping people rise to that standard.”

THE AGGREGATOR/MULTI-FARM CSA/FOOD HUB MODEL

Food Hub
Backyard Farms
The Pickup Cafe
The Pickup Cafe

As with any movement, new ideas breed like rabbits and generate numerous offspring. Just ask Bonnie Rukin of Slow Money Maine (SMM) and she’ll rattle off a dozen or so food-related efforts in the works, many receiving assistance from SMM and Maine Farmland Trust (MFT). Community efforts in Bowdoinham, Eastport, and Topsham, and more in Washington and Aroostook counties are all in various stages of facilitating the processing, aggregation, and sale of local grain, seafood, meat, and vegetables.

The buzzword ‘food hub’ is generally used to describe such efforts—defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as “a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.”

One prime example in Maine is the Somerset Grist Mill, which opened its doors in 2012 as home to the Maine Grains’ stone mill, as well as Skowhegan Farmers’ Market, and the Pickup Cafe and CSA—all in downtown Skowhegan’s renovated jailhouse. Grains are sourced from Maine farms and ground by stone in the mill. The cafe, which utilizes food from over 40 local producers, is open Friday and Saturday evening for dinners and Saturday and Sunday morning for brunches, and serves wood-fired pizza on summer Wednesdays at CSA pick-up time.

The new hub is the celebrated result of five years of heavy lifting by co-owners Amber Lambke, executive director of Maine Grain Alliance, and Michael Scholz, baker and founder of Albion Bread Farm, with the financial support of the Somerset Economic Development Corporation and Skowhegan Savings Bank. SMM also helped raise part of the $1.6 million dollars in start-up costs and provided legal and technical assistance. “Maine is quite distinctive in having this kind of base and support to make this happen,” says Rukin.

My sister, Clara Coleman, a farm consultant and founder of Four Season Farm Consulting, first told me about the creation of the Unity Food Hub because she’s part of an MFT proposal to help participating farms develop year-round food production capabilities with the addition of moveable modular tunnels and other high tunnel structures.

As I later learned, this was just one limb of an extensive business plan developed by MFT to build a food hub in an abandoned grammar school for farms and consumers within a 15-mile radius of Unity, which is about 40 minutes from the Somerset Grist Mill.

The goal here, says MFT’s John Piotti, “is to create a tool for others in the state—a model to emulate. We’ve put a lot of effort into our business plan, which we freely share, and we’ll be operating the hub as an open book—so anyone interested in this stuff can learn.”

Currently in the renovation stage, the hub is scheduled to open under MFT management in January 2015, with loading docks, cool storage in the basement, a cleaning and packing area, a meeting place for multi-farm CSA pick ups, and a commercial kitchen for events and possibly catering. MFT is investing the $1.3 million into the building, but the hub will operate as a separate for-profit business, paying rent back to MFT. “We’re helping to recreate infrastructure for the local food community,” Piotti says, “but it’s got to conform to business realities to be successful.”

And that’s really the point here, overall. The evolution of local food systems is about meeting the needs of the customer, farmer, and community with smart business plans and clever innovations, all in the effort to make Maine’s food distribution train track as efficient as possible.

sprouts

Food: Long Grain

Local ingredients and home cooking lead to a James Beard Award nomination for a Camden chef from Thailand

By Sharon Kitchens
Illustrations Julie O’Rourke for Muwin Collective
Photos Jon Levitt for Muwin Collective

Long Grain

Food is a strong part of Thai culture. Even in big cities, edible traditions are upheld, such as a community lining up at dawn to offer food to a silent procession of monks who give blessings. While Americans might open a conversation by asking, “How are you?” Thai people often greet each other by asking if the other person has been eating.

Ravin ‘Bas’ Nakjaroen and Paula Palakawong are the husband-and-wife owners of Long Grain, a Camden restaurant that serves ethnic comfort food influenced by their native Bangkok, a Thai city known for street food that melds cuisines from neighboring countries.

Nakjaroen, the chef at Long Grain, learned the fundamentals of Thai cooking from his grandmother and mother. They shopped with him at local food markets and instilled a sense of pride in cooking delicious and comforting food from scratch, using the best available ingredients. When Nakjaroen was announced as a 2014 James Beard Award Semifinalist for Best Chef: Northeast no one in Camden was surprised.

Long Grain opened in September 2010 and the buzz has continued since then. Part of the reason could be timing: Consumers are more aware than ever about the importance of locally sourced foods and the men and women who are their farming neighbors. Every dish at Long Grain starts with good ingredients like locally foraged mushrooms, eggs from Bowden’s Farm in Waldoboro, tofu from Heiwa Soy Beanery in Belfast, and meat, seafood, and greens sourced nearby.

“My husband always says it is an honest food,” Palakawong says. “There is nothing to hide what we do. When we say it’s homemade, it’s homemade. When we say it’s local, it’s local.”

Because Palakawong and Nakjaroen are from Thailand, Long Grain is often perceived as a Thai restaurant, but the menu features comfort food inspired by dishes you might find at markets in Bangkok where the food is as much Thai as it is a pan-Asian medley. A popular vegetarian item at Long Grain is the garlic chive rice cakes,   which are pan-fried and served with sautéed bean sprouts. In a Chinese restaurant this type of dish would likely be served with soy sauce, but at Long Grain they add a little more chili and vinegar to make it brighter and more flavorful.

“We use more seasoning than any other Asian country,” Palakawong explained. “Indian foods use more dry spices, Thai use everything. Japanese and Chinese only use soy sauce, they don’t use fish sauce. Thai use all kinds of sauces; that makes Thai food more accessible.”

Long Grain
Long Grain
Long Grain
Long Grain

Spicy Thai Basil Minced Chicken

Spicy Night Market Noodle Soup

Pla Mug Manow

Long Grain
Long Grain
Long Grain

Pad Kee Mow

Pad Ped Moo

Pan-fried Garlic Chive Rice Cakes

The couple is not only committed to local foods, but to incorporating ingredients Maine has to offer in dishes that would normally rely on foods from a tropical climate. In the spring diners find locally foraged ramps on the menu in place of   leeks or scallions, which do not come in until July and August.

Palakawong said locals especially know and appreciate the difference in their use of locally sourced ingredients. In a small town, everything travels fast—in Camden it is not just the ingredients that attract the locals, but what Nakjaroen does with them. The unique combinations burst with fresh taste.

Long Grain uses seventy-five pounds of Heiwa Tofu a week, year-round. Most of Heiwa Tofu’s soybeans are grown in Maine. Through the reemergence of a grain-growing community, the company has been able to recruit more farmers. According to Heiwa Tofu owner Jeff Wolovitz, soybeans are an excellent fit into many of these farmers’ rotation schemes for oats, wheat, corn, or even potatoes.

Wolovitz appreciates the couple’s support of the local food economy and the cooking. “Bas is spot on with it,” said Wolovitz. “Cubes of tofu quickly stir-fried, piping hot, and seasoned near the end. So simple. You can really enjoy the tofu that way. One of my favorites is the Pad See Ew with tofu and pork. Traditionally, tofu isn’t vegetarian food, it’s just another protein source that everyone eats.”

Patrons range from fishermen to summer residents and the restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner throughout the year. On most summer evenings, the homey 30-seat space is full for hours, with diners eating plates of house-made noodles and stir-fries. As a testament to the food, the staff never tires of “family meal.” In other restaurants, family meal is often different than what’s on the menu. At Long Grain, the food is so simple and easy to prepare that the staff eat just like the patrons.

And the prices are reasonable (nothing on the menu is more than $17). “A lot of the time people think when you eat locally it has to be expensive,” said Palakawong. “It is our job to work on the pricing. It doesn’t have to be a special occasion when someone comes in to eat with us.”

If the crowds, positive customer reviews, and recent James Beard nomination are any indication, Long Grain’s proprietors are doing their job and a lot more. Nakjaroen’s mother and grandmother would likely be very proud of what their son and his wife have accomplished. At Long Grain, good ingredients sourced locally allow the food to speak for itself.

Long Grain
Groundbreakers by Lily Piel

Groundbreakers

Mainers Shaping Agriculture’s Future

Photographer Lily Piel has captured on film two dozen persons who have helped revive farming in Maine, and who remain committed to the cause.

Misty Brook Farm

Land: Misty Brook Farm

A family finds a farm and a home on four hundred acres in Albion

By Chelsea Holden Baker

Photographs by Greta Rybus

“When my first son was pretty little,” says Katia Holmes of Misty Brook Farm, “he was helping his father collect eggs and there was one chicken that looked a little bit off, like she wasn’t doing so great, and he pointed to her and said, ‘Daddy, can we eat that one?’ He had the connection between this chicken and food. He was ready to put her in the pot!”

Katia didn’t grow up on a farm herself; she grew up on the South Shore of Boston, an area no longer known for arable land. Still, she had always known she wanted to work with large animals. A five-year apprenticeship with a veterinarian and a family connection led Katia to a biodynamic dairy—Seven Stars Farm in Pennsylvania—where she fell in love not only with cows, but also with Brendan.

Brendan hadn’t grown up on a farm either, but as a child in North Yorkshire, England he’d walked downhill to visit a neighbor’s farm nearly every day. Since the age of five Brendan knew what he wanted to do: anyone that married him was marrying a farmer. And that worked just fine for Katia. She liked the idea of keeping her own animals healthy rather than tending to other people’s animals when they were sick.

After informal study in Pennsylvania, the pair attended the biodynamic and organic farming course at Emerson College in Sussex, England and when they returned to the States in 2004, they were ready to take on land of their own. From 2004 through 2013 the Holmeses ran a diversified livestock and vegetable operation around Hardwick, Massachusetts. All around Hardwick, Katia and Brendan cobbled together a patchwork of fields owned by 14 landlords in 4 towns, traveling up to 20 miles between parcels. After their sons Alister and John were born in 2007 and 2009, the desire for a centralized farm to call their own became even stronger. The Holmes family joined all of the New England LandLink programs and looked at farms in several states.

Misty Brook Farm

“About the only things we buy are coffee and maple syrup. We're trying to offer people the same experience we have with eating in-season and very locally."

The farm they found in Albion, Maine was part of Maine Farmland Trust’s “Buy, Protect, Sell” program; the Trust lined up a combination of state and federal grant funds to finance an agricultural conservation easement and lower the resale price, which put the purchase within reach of the Holmes family. As they worked up a new business plan, Katia and Brendan realized the financially sound way to make Misty Brook’s 250-mile transition was to bridge their established customer base to Maine through eastern Massachusetts. In 2012 they began attending the Somerville Farmers Market just outside of Boston and in the summer of 2013, the Holmeses and their helpers ran two Misty Brook Farms: one in Massachusetts and one in Maine.

The new Misty Brook in Albion is 412 acres, about half certified- organic fields and half woods. The Sebasticook Regional Land Trust retains the rights to build trails on parts of the protected property, which now sports a green and white FOREVER FARM sign.

Making the move to Maine has allowed the Holmeses to farm to their biodynamic ideals: “It’s really given us the opportunity to do a lot of things in a much more ideal way,” says Katia. “We’ve been able to take the farm organism to another level with everything so close.” In the pastures of Misty Brook, Freedom Ranger broiler hens scratch for bugs and eat clover, and in the cornfield, the pigs—twenty Tamworth sows that love to forage—get the chance to glean the remainders after harvest.

These breed choices were intentional: the Holmeses like livestock that exhibit natural tendencies. They also chose a breed of cow—the Jersey—that does well on a grass-fed diet while producing milk with high butterfat and protein. Last year Misty Brook was able to rotate the herd across the entire farm; every acre of field was grazed at some point in the season. “We think it’s really good for soil health to have that touch of cow,” Katia says.

Misty Brook welcomes visitors year-round:  Alister and John are always happy to give tours  and the farm shop is open daily.
Misty Brook welcomes visitors year-round: Alister and John are always happy to give tours and the farm shop is open daily.

Three other couples work on the farm alongside Brendan and Katia. One of them, Nell Finnigan and Justin Morace, came on to grow and manage the vegetables using their three draft horses—Barley, Rye, and Skip—rather than tractors. Katia also keeps two draft horses for haying, but the newest member of the farm family is Bella, a Maremma livestock guardian dog. With Bella on patrol, the Holmeses are talking about raising sheep again someday. “Like everything else, we start doing something because we like to eat it,” says Katia.“And we miss eating sheep.” In Massachusetts, Misty Brook didn’t have the acreage or the fencing for a flock.

The Holmeses also didn’t have the land base to grow cereals, but now they mill whole wheat, pastry, and rye flours from their own grains. Misty Brook also produces cornmeal, dry beans, and popcorn along with a huge variety of vegetables, paying particular attention to storage vegetables because the Holmeses feed themselves—and others—year-round.

“We eat what we grow,” says Katia. “About the only things we buy are coffee and maple syrup. We’re trying to offer people the same experience we have with eating in-season and very locally.” In addition to the farm shop in Albion, Misty Brook runs a drop location in Eliot and maintains a presence at the Somerville Farmers Market, even though Misty Brook now farms only in Maine. In the fall of 2013, the farm also started a raw-milk delivery route to health food stores around Maine: out to Auburn, down to Scarborough, and along the coast to Belfast.

The Holmeses are also leveraging their connections on behalf of others. The farm recently started working with The Milkhouse— a small dairy in South China that specializes in yogurt— to share labor and delivery routes, while distributing their products farther. And they’ve connected with Farmers’ Gate Market, which offers Misty Brook veal and chicken to a larger customer base. “As farmers, you always need a community,” Katia says. In just a year, Misty Brook is already part of the local food ecosystem.

And the kids have settled in too. In Massachusetts, there was a four-mile drive from the house to the dairy barn, which might not sound like much until you imagine a dark winter morning of farm chores with two little boys. In Albion, the dairy barn is next to the house and the kids can come and go as the please. Or, as Katia says, “They can play in the mud all day and go hop right in the tub.”

Brendan Holmes
Misty Brook Farm
Misty Brook Farm
Katia Holmes

MISTY BROOK QUICHE

The beauty of quiche is that it can be a vessel for anything you grow. This recipe allows you to play with whatever is in season or on hand; when it’s made in the Misty Brook kitchen all of the ingredients (except for salt) come from the farm.

crust

1 ½ cups flour (We like to sift our whole wheat pastry flour for an ideal crust, but substituting a cup of all-purpose flour makes a dough that’s easy to work with.)
½ cup lard
1 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 tablespoons cold water

filling

4 eggs
½ cup milk
1 tablespoon salt
herbs and seasonings to taste
½ cup cheese (We like to use our gouda, but homemade soft cheese is great too!)
3 cups meat and/or vegetables on hand (A couple recent favorites were grated root vegetables—storage kohlrabi, carrots, black Spanish radish— with bacon, or ground beef with onions and potatoes. Just fill in with what the season has to offer!)

Combine flour and salt in a bowl. Cut lard by hand with a fork or use a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Don’t overdo it or the crust will be crumbly instead of flaky. Sprinkle water one tablespoon at a time over the mixture and fold until it holds together. Shape into a ball and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F. Pre-cook the vegetables and/or meat. (We often use leftovers from the day before.)

When the dough has had its rest, roll it out on a lightly floured surface to about ⅛ inch thickness. Transfer to a 10-inch pie dish and shape the edges. Pre-cook the crust for 10 minutes or until slightly golden. While the crust is cooking, whisk eggs, salt, herbs/seasoning, and milk together in a bowl.

When the crust is done, add pre-cooked meat and/or vegetables. Pour on the egg mixture and sprinkle cheese on top. Cook for 30 minutes or until golden, with a center that doesn’t jiggle.

Enjoy.

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.

As farming in Maine grows, what lessons can we learn from the past?

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.

 

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.

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, these practices are beginning to return. Here in Maine, I’ve had one experimenting farmer tell me that her goats thrive on spruce, which in turn gives their milk a distinct flavor that makes awesome cheese.

Beyond this, thinned woods are often suitable for pasturing, as many grass species grow well in partial shade. The trees that remain in a sparse wood provide livestock with winter shelter and summer shade, while capturing water during dry spells that helps keep grass alive. Increasingly, farmers are both pasturing livestock and growing woody forage on forested parcels that they also manage for lumber and firewood. “Silvopasture” is the modern term for this collection of ancient practices.

As Maine considers how it should once again grow food on once-farmed land, both silvopasture and forest farming have a role to play. It’s not that using partially cleared woodland for these purposes is somehow superior to farming open fields, as is commonly done, but rather, that these practices use the resources differently and form a different imprint on the land. As such, they have a place in any overall system that aims to improve efficiency and reduce negative impacts.

past farming practices often depleted soil and polluted waterways.

THINKING BROADER

We also need to re-think how we pasture animals. Regardless of whether livestock are grazed in open fields or in woods, the ecosystem can benefit 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 fuel 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.

Simply put: There are many different ways to prepare land for farming and to then farm it—all with different impacts.

* 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.

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.

The Great Farm

Jackson, Maine

In 2013, young farmers Graham and Emily Mallory purchased about 200 acres of what had been “The Great Farm” in Jackson. Though entirely wooded when they bought it, this property had once been an expansive stretch of open land, worthy of the name given to it Boston tycoon Israel Thorndike.  In 1806, Thorndike established the farm, which was once over a thousand acres in size. The story of The Great Farm’s demise is a familiar one, common throughout central and southern Maine. By the late 19th century, a lot of Maine farmland was farmed too intensively, depleting the soil and polluting the water. The outcome was collapse. Graham and Emily had previously raised grassfed livestock on leased land in the nearby town of Monroe. In purchasing The Great Farm, their goal was not only to expand their livestock operation, but to “reclaim and restore” this historic property, returning it to a sustainable form of agriculture. With some help from their animals, they have created 100 acres of forest pasture that intermixes trees and grass. The initial cut of wood went to biomass. Cattle followed, feeding off round bales that returned organic matter to the soil. Next came pigs, turning over the soil between the stumps and tilling the earth for a grass crop. The transformation is astounding—on multiple levels. The couple’s operation, aptly named Pastures of Plenty, utilizes “management-intensive grazing” that works with the natural ecosystem, not against it. Their grassfed beef and woodland pork can be purchased on their website popgrazing.com  

More and more farmers are working with nature to grow food. Shown here Phillip Retberg and son Alexander.

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, 2015, photograph

 Right Side Top Broccoli, Amaranth and Orach 1, 2014

Right Side Lower  Tatsoi 1, 2010

FOUR-SEASON FARMING

Sustainable Agriculture’s Growing Edge

BY KIMBERLY RIDLEY          PHOTOGRAPHS BY GRETA RYBUS

By November, most vegetable growers in Maine have put their fields to bed and headed indoors to catch up on paperwork and repairs or take a break.  A handful of farmers around the state, however, continue through winter, growing a bounty of fresh spinach and salad greens, chard and kale and other cold-hardy crops in high tunnel greenhouses—often without using a drop of fossil fuel for heat. Not so long ago, there were only a handful of people who thought this was possible.

“When we started, everyone said it was impossible,” says Eliot Coleman, laughing. “Well, it wasn’t.” Coleman, who has written extensively on organic gardening, pioneered ingenious ways to grow cold-hardy vegetables in the frigid Maine winter by using plastic-covered high tunnel greenhouses heated only by the sun. His approach in a nutshell: grow only cold-hardy crops, plant them in succession in late summer through early fall, and protect them with an inner layer of floating row cover. In 1995, Coleman and his wife—fellow gardening guru Barbara Damrosch—began using these techniques to grow winter crops commercially at Four Season Farm on Cape Rosier, based on years of research and experimentation in their home greenhouse. They’ve been at it ever since, and Coleman has shared his secrets in meticulous detail in his books, including The Winter Harvest Handbook—inspiring farmers around the country and sowing the seeds of a revolution.

No one knows precisely how many farms are doing winter production in Maine—estimates run from about a dozen to twenty—but the flowering of this revolution is evident at winter farmers markets around the state. The Maine Federation of Farmers Markets now lists 32 winter markets, a growing number of which are featuring fresh spinach, greens, and other greenhouse crops alongside storage crops such as winter squash, potatoes, and onions.

Four-season farming is still new here and there are plenty of challenges: short days and frigid temperatures, mastering the intricate temporal choreography of using moveable high tunnels, marketing, and the sheer physical rigors of farming in winter, to name a few. But checking in with farmers growing crops in winter offers an intriguing glimpse of the possibilities. Welcome to the growing edge of sustainable agriculture in Maine.

A Hundred Percent Sun-Powered:  Two Farmers and Six Rivers

Kelsey Herrington and Dominic Pascarelli discovered their shared passion for farming as graduate students at Clark University. Pascarelli helped organize theuniversity’s composting system and mentored youth in an urban gardening program, and Herrington studied sustainable meat production on a local farm. After earning their master’s degrees in environmental science and policy, they apprenticed at a farm in Vermont and then Paul and Sandy Arnold’s Pleasant Valley Farm in Upstate New York, where they learned four-season farming, and got “hooked” right away.

Looking to start a year-round organic farm of their own, they began farming on land Pascarelli’s parents own in Durham in 2011 and relocated their Two Farmers Farm to ten acres of leased land in Scarborough in 2013. Smack dab between Route One and the Scarborough Marsh, they grow more than fifty certified organic crops on about 2.5 acres, including three 96-foot-long solar high tunnels filled with flourishing winter greens.

“We learned how to do winter farming in a system that didn’t use supplemental heat, and that’s the system we’re comfortable with and know how to use successfully,” Herrington says. “We don’t add heat because we don’t think we need it.”

“Some people might say, ‘you’re crazy, just add heat,’” Pascarelli adds. “But what we’ve heard from some growers is that heating a greenhouse is a mixed bag. Some of your crops like extra heat, but so do some diseases and pests.”

A blustery afternoon in late fall finds Herrington and Pascarelli buttoning up tunnels bursting with luxuriant beds of rainbow chard, lettuce, mustard greens, and other cold-hardy crops. They’ll harvest them weekly through most of the winter to sell at farmers markets in Saco, Brunswick and southern New Hampshire, and a few restaurants in Greater Portland.

“It might seem like we’re giving up our break for the year by farming in winter, but our goal is to sell 48 to 50 weeks a year so we don’t have to cram earning all of our income into 25 or 30 weeks,” Pascarelli says. “We’re trying to avoid the extreme stress of July through September. We haven’t quite achieved that, but we did a lot better than last year.”

Two Farmers’ dazzling winter beds make what they do look deceptively easy, but, of course, it isn’t. Winter crops in unheated tunnels must be covered every cold night or they’ll freeze, and uncovered to maximize light and stimulate growth later in the winter when the days lengthen. Then there is harvesting—on one’s knees for hours cutting tiny leaves with a knife in finger-stinging cold, not to mention meticulous washing and packaging. On top of the intense labor of farming are the challenges of running any small business: marketing, sales, budgeting, accounting, and myriad other tasks.

Herrington and Pascarelli intend to keep Two Farmers small to earn a stainable living for themselves and their employees (currently two part-timers). “Our vision is to have a business that can fairly support us and our employees without us ever having to work off the farm,” Herrington says. She adds that unstainability also means“time off, enough money for some sort of recreation,and a business that’s not excessively stressful.”

The two farmers are quick to point out that they had help in getting started. Affordable grants from Slow Money Maine assisted with start-up costs for the tunnels. Pascarelli’s contractor father and a friend helped build the tunnels, his mother helps wash and pack produce, and the original farmer who connected them with the landowner did the heavy tractor work. Other farmers pitched in as well. New Leaf Farm in Durham grew their first seedlings, and Six River Farm founders Nate Drummond and Gabrielle Gosselin of Bowdoinham mentored Herrington and Pascarelli through MOFGA’s Journeyperson Program, which pairs new farmers with established ones.

Drummond and Gosselin apprenticed a few years before Herrington and Pascarelli at Pleasant Valley, where the Arnolds introduced the young farmers. Through Maine Farmland Trust’s FarmLink Program, which connects prospective farmers with available land, Drummond and Gosselin leased 25 acres of land in Bowdoinham, where they started Six River Farm in 2007. They began winter farming in 2010, and now grow about a dozen winter crops in ten unheated tunnels totaling 21,120 square feet, or just under a half-acre. These crops represent about a third of their winter offerings, which also include storage crops such as potatoes, cabbage and winter squash.

Drummond says winter farming accounts for about 20 percent of Six River’s income, but the benefits go beyond dollars and cents. “Winter farming is great for us. It keeps our loyal farmers market customers in Brunswick supplied with fresh produce through the winter. Overall, it doesn’t represent a huge percentage of our total sales, but the cash flow through the winter is nice. And the customer retention really sets up our summer and fall farmers markets.”

Winter farming also helps Six River retain employees—all seven of whom are staying on to work at the farm this year. “All of our farm crew lives locally, and work in the winter—when there are few other employment options—is important to them,” Drummond says. He adds that the opportunity to work year-round means that many crew members stay at Six River for several years. “It’s invaluable to have an experienced, hard-working crew when the farm reaches its busiest season in the summer,” Drummond says.

Dominic Pascarelli of Two Farmer Farm in Scarborough harvests kale in a winter hoop house heated only by the sun. Kelsey Herrington, Pascarelli's partner at Two Farmers and in life, makes notes at a desk improvised from a tailgate. Two Farmers sells organic spinach and other greens at winter farmers markets in southern maine and New Hampshire.
Farm workers at Six River Farm in Bowdoinham plow snow.

“It might seem like we’re giving up our break for the year by farming in winter, but our goal is to sell 48 to 50 weeks a year so we don’t have to cram earning all of our income into 25 or 30 weeks..”

DOMINIC PASCARELLI, TWO FARMERS FARM

Turning Up the Heat a Notch

While the farmers at Six River and Two Farmers raise all of their winter crops in high tunnels warmed only by the sun, other Maine growers add supplemental heat to boost winter production. Using conventional and alternative fuels and heating systems, they are constantly experimenting, evolving techniques and growing the potential of year-round farming in Maine.

Lisa and Ralph Turner started Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport in 1997 with surplus produce from their home garden and greenhouse, where they were inspired to grow cold-hardy crops after reading one of Eliot Coleman’s books. They now manage 15 acres, including 12 acres of organic vegetables and six hoop houses, with total winter production covering about a third of an acre. The Turners have about 250 members in their summer CSA and about 110 members in their twice-a-month winter CSA, and they also sell to local restaurants and retail outlets. The bounty of their farm inspired Lisa to write The Eat Local Cookbook:  Seasonal Recipes from a Maine Farm.

On a cloudy December afternoon, Lisa Turner tromps across her snowy  driveway in flowered rubber boots and rolls up the metal door to a greenhouse. Follow her inside and you find yourself transported to spring. Verdant rows of mesclun and scallions, two of the winter crops the Turners grow, glow in the afternoon light, along with arugula, lettuce, bok choi, hakurei turnips, radishes, baby spinach and kale and cilantro. Redolent of fresh earth and plant life, the air is moist and much warmer than outdoors.

The Turners decided to use supplemental heat to promote faster growth and raise more crops in less space at Laughing Stock, where winter growing generates about one sixth of the farm income. Ralph, a mechanical engineer, pioneered a technique to heat Laughing Stock’s greenhouses with used cooking oil and animal fat that he collected from Freeport restaurants. For about ten years, the Turners used this fuel for about 80 percent of their greenhouse heating needs, with the other 20 percent coming from propane.

Federal subsidies on biodiesel for transportation, however, have driven up the cost of used cooking oil, resulting in their farm losing between $15,000 and $20,000 per year, according to Lisa Turner. “We didn’t have that money to lose, so we had to increase the business by finding more land and hiring more employees to cover it,” says Turner, a forthright woman in her fifties. The  Turners now heat their greenhouses with about 25 percent used cooking oil and 75 percent propane, but that could change. “We’re keeping all our options open for heating,” she says. “It’s an ever-changing market, which the price changes in heating oil this winter proves.”

A bumblebee pings against the plastic walls of the greenhouse and a fine, light snow begins to fall outside. Lisa Turner reflects on the ups and downs of growing Laughing Stock Farm, which employs two year-round and six seasonal workers. The Turners clearly are succeeding: they received the 2014 Commissioner’s Distinguished Service Award from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “The puzzle of how to do this and make a living is actually fun,” she says.

lettuce and kale seedlings thrive in a winter hoop house.

Into the Future

Laughing Stock Farm was among the stops on a 2014 Maine Farm Bureau tour of year-round growers, along with Olivia’s Garden, a hydroponic outfit in New Gloucester, and Cozy Acres Greenhouses in North Yarmouth. Cozy Acres co-owner Jeff Marstaller is happy to show visitors his brainchild: a new “zero-emissions” greenhouse heated with geothermal energy and powered by solar electricity.

Marstaller decided he wanted to burn less propane and add a sustainable greenhouse to the wholesale seedling nursery he and his wife Marianne started

in 1995. His research and project planning netted more than $80,000 in grants from a combination of Maine’s Farms for the Future Program, the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The 18-month project was completed in December, 2013: a 96 x 30 polycarbonate and acrylic greenhouse heated by a 10-ton geothermal system powered with 102 solar panels. In its first year of operation, the solar panels generated about 39,000 kilowatt hours of electricity—less than the system used—and the geothermal heating system kept temperatures above freezing on the coldest nights, and hit 55 to 65 degrees during the day.

The Marstallers grew lettuce to test their new system and have since switched to organic microgreens, which have a short growing cycle that lets them stay ahead of aphids. On a December afternoon, the only sound in the greenhouse is thesnip of scissors as the Marstellers harvest fresh microgreens—a mix of tiny beet, arugula, and lettuce seedlings. They sell to a handful of local restaurants and retailers and hope to develop a larger local market for their baby greens, which meld earthy-tangy-sweet-flavors. In addition to using their new greenhouse to grow microgreens ten months of the year, they will also use it for some of their wholesale seedling business in spring.

While the final price tag for the project is admittedly high—more than $200,000—Marstaller says that the grants and tax savings and credits help offset more than 50 percent of costs. He thinks the new greenhouse will add value to the Cozy Acres brand and his property. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the only heated yearround greenhouse this far north that is totally powered with zero-emission sources,” he says.

Jeff Marstaller of Cozy Acres Greenhouses in North Yarmouth weighs microgreens, a mix of tiny beet, lettuce and arugula seedlings, for delivery to Portland area restaurants.
Potted flowers for the wholesale market and microgreens ready for harvest flourish at Cozy Acres.
Gabrielle Gosselin and daughter Alice inspect newly planted flats at Six River Farm

Growing New Solutions

More than 20 years after harvesting his first winter crops, Eliot Coleman is still refining and innovating four-season farming techniques, as are a growing number of farmers, university researchers, seed companies, greenhouse manufacturers, and others. “There are so many improvements we can make,” Coleman says.  “We just need to keep our eyes open and see who might be doing something interesting.”

One of the many interesting things Coleman is doing is experimenting with ways to keep high tunnels warmer on the coldest nights without using costly supplemental heat. This year, he’ll be testing Solawrap, a greenhouse plastic that resembles bubble wrap and is a better insulator than sheet plastic. Used in Europe for 30 years, it’s newly available in the U.S. and Coleman will evaluate how well it performs in Maine’s frigid winters. At the same time, he will test a new system to insulate the north wall of a greenhouse with vertical plastic tubes of water heated by the sun.

High tunnels are springing up all over the state, some through a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service cost-sharing program, but growing winter crops in them is still a tricky business. Through Four Season Farm Consulting, Clara Coleman—Eliot Coleman’s daughter—aims to help a new generation of year-round farmers succeed. In one project, she is partnering with Maine Farmland Trust to provide free consulting services to farmers associated with the new Unity Food Hub, slated to open this spring. The goal, she says, “is to have many of the farmers supplying the hub with fresh produce year-round.

”Coleman, who moved back to Maine after running her own successful year-round organic vegetable farm in Colorado, is among observers who see significant potential for the growth of four-season farming in her home state. She notes growing demand from institutions such as hospital and schools, as well as larger grocers and nearby markets in Boston, all of which would allow year-round farmers  to expand into markets beyond Maine.

It remains to be seen how year-round farming will grow and evolve in Maine, but there are abundant good reasons for pursuing it, from crop failures due to droughts and floods in farming areas out West, to fluctuating fuel costs, to food safety, to supporting Maine’s local farmers, to the vast difference in flavor and quality between local produce and vegetables shipped thousands of miles. And, of course, it’s also common sense.

“If more fresh produce can be grown here in Maine during the winter months, then we don’t have to rely on costly imports from across the country,” Clara Coleman says. “We can produce and sell more of our own products locally and employ more people locally, all of which contributes to food security.”

To that end, many Maine innovators continue to grow the roots of the year-round farming revolution.  “It’s like any new thing,” Eliot Coleman says. “The more you look into it, the more you can do.”

The Greens of Spring

and a recipe for asparagus risotto

BY NANCY HARMON JENKINS

  PHOTOGRAPHY BY STACEY CRAMP

When you write about spring in Maine it’s almost obligatory to begin by saying, “Spring comes slowly. . . .” But that isn’t entirely true. Spring, in fact, comes to Maine in frustrating fits and starts. I recall balmy weekends in late February back when I was in high school in Bethel and my pals and I would go off in our Fair Isle sweaters and Bermuda shorts to spend the day skiing in the Sunday River sunshine. And I also recall a spring evening years later, beating my way down Route 17 in a blizzard—not a snow flurry, but a blinding, all-out, day-long blizzard—trying to get from Augusta back to South Thomaston where I had a fearful ten-year-old waiting at home alone. That was on April 15th and it was the first time I heard the phrase “poor man’s fertilizer,” meaning those late spring snows that carpet the plowed fields and drive nutrients deep down into the soil where the plants’ roots will fix.

So when does spring begin in this motley state where on any one day the temperature can vary by 30 degrees, where it can be blowing snow in the mountains and sailing weather on the coast? We have had to develop other ways than the weather of knowing when spring is upon us.

Among the reliable harbingers of spring are robins, though nowadays they stay year-round, grubbing on greening lawns, red-winged blackbirds darting over farm ponds, and what we call phoebes, but are actually black-capped chickadees singing for spring with their two-stroke call: phoebe, phoe-be, feeee-bee. And then, one magical evening toward the end of March or early in April, we hear in the near distance the first tentative peep of spring peepers, the tiny frogs that inhabit vernal pools and river banks and peep-peep-peep frantically, males calling to females with desperate urgency, we can then relax at last because we know now that, come what may—rising water, late frosts, sudden snowstorms—it is spring.

But spring is not all sound and fury, birdsong and flooding streams. It’s also about what we eat and why. Take dandelion greens, for instance. Back in the old days (I’m thinking almost a century ago when my parents were young), folks were sick to death of winter diets by March: salt fish, salt pork, dried beans, sprouting onions and potatoes, squashes and apples that were showing their wear. What could be more appetizing than a bowl of fresh greens, newly harvested, dressed with a splash of vinegar and bacon sautéed in its own fat?

My mother said we needed greens in springtime for iron to bulk up our thinning blood. Is that true? Close enough for me not to want to discount it. She gathered dandelion greens with a sharp little paring knife, cleaned them of soil, steamed them for a very long time, and served them with a splash of vinegar to cut the bitterness.

One of the best-loved greens for early foragers are fiddleheads, the tightly furled fronds of ostrich ferns, just as they emerge from the ground, looking like the curled tops of miniature bright-green fiddles. We never knew of fiddleheads when I was growing up in the Midcoast and a letter to Kenneth Roberts, Maine’s great novelist, quoted in Marjorie Mosser’s Good Maine Food, explains why: Fiddleheads, according to the President of the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad, were well known in northern Maine but unrecognized, he avowed, south of Unity. Today all that has changed and fiddleheads are a beloved kind of folk food all across the state. Unlike dandelions, which pop up with the first green grass, fiddleheads emerge around the end of April in southern Maine, their harvest gradually moving north until they arrive in the St. John valley in late May. They’re sold at farm stands and in farmers’ markets. (If you forage for fiddleheads, make sure you know what to look for. Bracken ferns, which are similar but not identical, contain a carcinogen that can be dangerous if over-consumed.)

Look for glossy green fronds, tightly furled, with a pearly freshness to them. They should be cleaned of the papery covering, which can simply be rubbed off, and steamed for 10 to 15 minutes.  As soon as they’re tender, they’re ready to serve with melted butter, a spritz of lemon, a sprinkle of Maine sea salt, and several twists of the pepper mill. I’ve also been known to sauté fiddleheads, steaming them for just 5 minutes, then sizzling them in a mixture of butter and olive oil, again with a spritz of lemon on top at the very end.

No matter which way you do it, fiddleheads should be cooked until very tender.

I know there is wild asparagus out there in the woods but frankly I’ve never been able to find it. In any case, nothing, to my mind, beats asparagus fresh from the garden, the green spears snapped off just moments before cooking. My father was a champion asparagus grower and he especially loved it for breakfast—steamed and served on buttered toast with more melted butter poured over the top. He liked the cultured butter he got when he visited his relatives down in Jonesboro, with its slight taste of the barn, and I’m happy to say that, after years of subsisting on Land O’Lakes, that kind of butter is being produced once more in Maine, from venerable producers like Kate’s in Ogunquit to Casco Bay Butter in Portland and Pleasant Acres in Livermore Falls.

Asparagus season is usually seen as a reason to consume the green spears until your pee smells grassy, morning, noon, and night. If you get tired of plain boiled asparagus, there are loads of other things to do with it, from soup to salad (cold asparagus with a vinaigrette sauce); asparagus is delicious grilled over charcoal and almost as good baked in a gratin dish with a cheesy sauce and buttered breadcrumbs on top. And if you want to go fancy for dinner, you would not go wrong with risotto. The one thing you must keep in mind is the right kind of rice to use: Arborio rice is widely available; Carnaroli or Vialone Nano, if you can find them, are even better. But don’t use ordinary long grain rice, which lacks the starchiness a good risotto needs.

But spring is not all sound and fury, birdsong and flooding streams.  It’s also about what we eat and why. 

Asparagus Risotto

Risotto recipes usually call for grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it’s fun to use an aged Maine-made cheese instead. Try Hahn’s End’s Ragged Island, made from cow’s milk, for instance, or York Hill’s Capriano goat cheese, aged anywhere from 5 months to a year.

risotto

For 6 servings

6 cups chicken (preferred) or vegetable stock

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 medium yellow onions, halved and

very thinly sliced

2 cups Arborio, Carnaroli, Vialone Nano,

or similar short-grain rice

 

¾ cup dry white wine

1 ½ pounds trimmed asparagus*

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Grated zest and juice of half an organic lemon

½ cup ricotta cheese

2 or 3 tablespoons finely minced chives or flat-leaf parsley

¾ cup freshly grated aged cheese

1 Heat the stock to a bare simmer and keep it simmering gently while you make the risotto.

2 In a heavy kettle or saucepan large enough to hold all of the rice when cooked, melt the butter in the oil and add the sliced onions. Sauté them gently over medium-low heat until they are thoroughly softened but not browned, about 15 minutes.  Add the rice and stir well with a wooden spoon, until coated with oil. Cook the rice for about 5 minutes or until it appears translucent. Raise the heat slightly and add the wine. Cook, stirring gently—just a couple of strokes—until the wine has evaporated or been absorbed by the rice.

3 While the rice is cooking, snap off the extreme tips, the blossom ends, of the asparagus and set aside. Cut or snap the tender stalks into one-inch pieces. When the wine has been fully absorbed, add the asparagus pieces, minus the tips, and stir into the rice. Add a ladle or two of simmering stock, along with a small pinch of salt, and stir. (Keep in mind the saltiness of your stock and also the fact that the cheese added at the end will add salt to the dish.)

4 When the rice has absorbed the liquid, add more, along with the grated zest and juice of the lemon. Continue adding simmering liquid, ladle by ladle,

stirring as you add.  There should always be liquid visible in the pan but it shouldn’t be soupy. Do not add all the liquid at once; this will produce boiled rice instead of risotto. After about 10 minutes, stir in the reserved tips of the asparagus, and continue adding the liquid.

5 The rice will be done when it’s soft but with a bit of bite in the center—what Italians call al dente. Each grain should be well coated with the asparagus sauce, which should be dense and almost syrupy. The risotto should be thick enough to eat with a fork and not soupy. (You may not need to use all the stock.) Total cooking time varies from 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the degree of doneness that you’re looking for.

6 While the rice is cooking, combine the ricotta and chives or parsley (or both) and beat with a small wire whisk or a fork until thoroughly incorporated.

7 When the rice is done, remove the pan from the heat and immediately stir in the ricotta-parsley mixture along with 1/4 cup of grated cheese. Add a few grinds of pepper, cover the pan, and let it sit for 5 minutes to settle the flavors. Taste before serving and add more salt if you wish. Serve immediately, passing the rest of the grated cheese at the table.

* Want to be sure you’re using Maine asparagus and not something grown in Mexico? Look on Mainelocavore.org for a growing number of farms that can supply vegetables, especially asparagus. Or check with your farmers market: Often even if farmers don’t grow asparagus themselves, they will know someone who does.