Tag Archives: meet your farmers

Dairy Farm in Transition: Fletcher Farm

Another in our series about dairy farmers in Maine. In many ways, dairy farms are the cornerstone of Maine’s farming community.  Dairy farmers steward large tracts of farmland for feed and forage, while supporting the feed stores, equipment retailers, and large animal vets that all Maine farms rely upon. Of the 400,000 acres of farmland that will be in transition over the course of the next decade, we anticipate that a large percentage of that land is currently in dairy farming. What will happen to that land, and the infrastructure and communities it supports?
While farming in Maine is growing in many ways, Maine’s dairy industry has not seen the same kind of growth. Young dairy farmers are few and far between, often deterred by low milk prices and high start-up costs. Those who have bucked the trend and have decided to become either first-generation dairy farmers or to continue their family’s farm, have an important role to play in ensuring that dairy farms remain the foundation of Maine’s farming landscape.
“Make hay while the sun shines” is something everyone says, but it’s a literal reality for dairy farmers. The first time I visited Walter and Austin Fletcher of Fletcher Farm in Pittsfield, Austin was cutting grass in the fields until dark, racing against the disappearing autumn daylight. Because it’s been such a dry summer, dairy farmers who rely on productive pastures that have been struggling to make a second or third cut before fall sets in, and the hustle for hay (and very few rainy rest days) means that it’s rare to catch father and son Walter and Austin in the same place at the same time.
While Austin cut hay, Walter gave me a tour of the farm. The barn is outfitted with the Cabot logo, easily recognizable with the signature red and black checkered background. While walking around the farm and watching the evening milking, I was struck by how orderly and calm the farm is. All the cows were resting or munching contently in their quiet spaces, each one set up specifically for each group of cows, depending on age, health, and milking/fertility stage of life. The Fletchers take good care of their herd, from the calves up through the older cows, the latter of which are housed close to the barn for comfort and accessibility. Everything on the farm is done without fanfare, but with a tremendous amount of respect and care for the animals that produce the farm’s lifeblood: milk.
Walter and his wife Edna bought 500 acres in Pittsfield in 1980 and started Fletcher Farm. Walter grew up on a dairy farm in Massachusetts and he can’t imagine a different path. “I really think that [farming] chose me,” said Walter. “At first it was a dream that we made real. Than a challenge to be successful not just as a business because farming is more than business it’s a way of life.” He and Edna raised three children on the farm. Austin, the youngest son, left for school and worked elsewhere for awhile but has since come back to join the business. Right now, the father and son team work together as partners in the LLC, from before sun up (morning milking starts at 3:30am) to sundown; the plan is for Austin to gradually take over the farm as Walter slowly transitions away from full-time farming.

Though Austin grew up on a dairy farm, he wasn’t always sure it was what he wanted to do for a living. “There was a time in high school when I definitely wanted nothing to do with it,” he said. “I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think I wanted to do it.” But after leaving Maine and working other jobs and on other farms, Austin felt the pull pack to his roots. At 33, he’s happy to be back in Pittsfield, working alongside his dad and preparing to continue the family business. “There is a personal satisfaction,” said Walter, “a sense of accomplishment, when your children look at what you have done and see something worthwhile. And when one of them says to you ‘I see what you’ve done and I would like to be a part of it, to build on it and carry it forward,’ it is the greatest compliment that I could receive. It makes me very proud.”

Dairy farming is a tough business. Luckily, Austin isn’t starting from scratch; he’s building on the strong foundation laid by his dad. When he’s not engaged in farm work, Walter is involved in making sure that farming has a future throughout Maine, and is an active board member of Maine Farmland Trust, Agri-Mark and Cabot Creamery Cooperative. Though sitting on various boards means adding a lot of travel and meeting time onto his already full farming schedule, it’s important to him to be involved and work with the wider farming community. As Treasurer for Agri-Mark, Walter represents the concerns and interest of over 1,000 dairy farms and farming families. It’s a responsibility he takes very seriously, evident in his measured, respectful tone when he speaks about everything from the way Agri-Mark works to the way they organize their cows on the farm.
There are challenges ahead for Maine’s dairy industry as farmers retire and land changes hands. Dairy farms like Fletcher Farm that are transferring to the next generation and staying in the family, are increasingly in the minority. But despite an uncertain future, Walter and Austin are hopeful, and doing all that they can to ensure that dairy remains a key part of Maine’s farming landscape.

Meet Your Farmers: Harvest Tide Organics

Bethany Allen and Eric Ferguson own and operate Harvest Tide Organics in the vibrant farming community of Bowdoinham.  Bethany and Eric met while working on neighboring farms, and within a few years started looking for a farm to call their own. After looking at properties all over the state, the perfect property went up for sale in Bowdoinham, just down the road from where they worked. It was a piece of land they drove by everyday, and often admired. Continue reading…

Young Dairy Farmers: The Milkhouse

In many ways, dairy farms are the cornerstone of Maine’s farming community.  Dairy farmers steward large tracts of farmland for feed and forage, while supporting the feed stores, equipment retailers, and large animal vets that all Maine farms rely upon. Of the 400,000 acres of farmland that will be in transition over the course of the next decade, we anticipate that a large percentage of that land is currently in dairy farming. What will happen to that land, and the infrastructure and communities it supports? Continue reading…

Meet Your Farmers: High Hopes Farm

Meaghan and Ross Nichols are the energetic, hardworking couple who own and operate High Hopes Farm on a beautiful 120ish-acre piece of land in Bristol, just four miles from downtown Damariscotta. The couple purchased the farm earlier this summer, and already have a small, thriving operation with thoughtful plans for continued growth.

Meaghan and Ross both grew up in the area, and didn’t even consider looking at other farms because they knew they wanted to stay in their community.

“We chose to farm here because for years we had seen the farm, and it didn’t seem very active. This is our home town and I wanted to see this farm come back to life again,” says Ross.

When the couple bought the farm, MFT purchased an easement on the property, lowering the cost for the young farmers, and ensuring that High Hopes will remain available for farming for future generations. Young farmers like these two aren’t just feeding their neighbors; they’re helping to build a strong foundation for the local economy, stewarding the environment, and creating greater food security in their community.

“This farm provides an awesome habitat for all of my animals to thrive,” Meaghan says. “We have open fields, ponds, and woods. The location is also key; being right on the Bristol Road gives us an opportunity to sell our products via our farm stand, and avoid the craziness of packing up for farmers’ markets or other deliveries.”

She also loves that their location gives  customers a chance to see the hard work they’ve put into the farm, and to see their happy and healthy animals. Meaghan and Ross raise lambs, pigs, goats, turkeys, chickens and ducks for meat. Their animals are meticulously cared for and raised in natural settings, with lots of space to roam, fresh air, clean bedding, and even homemade sourdough bread scraps, thanks to Meaghan’s mom.

I visited High Hopes for the first time a few weeks ago. Meaghan and Ross were busy planting tiny tomato seedlings and there were only two goats and a small flock of chickens. When I went back to the farm last week, the scene had changed. They’ve added a flock of ducks, many more chickens for both eggs and meat, turkeys, a group of mellow roosters (not a mean one in the bunch!), and lots of sweet goats, and young pigs. Because MFT’s easement purchase helped to make the farm more affordable, Meaghan and Ross were able to buy some key pieces of farm equipment and some lightweight, movable fencing so they can easily rotate the pigs and goats onto fresh grass. All on the many farm animals are very well cared for by Meaghan, who admits that she can’t relax until she knows all the animals have everything they need.

While they raise their animals and plant a few crops, Meaghan and Ross are also fixing up the old farmhouse to make it livable. This summer, they’re staying in a camper, in a beautiful spot by two ponds, tucked back from the road, and are just happy to be on the land, getting to know their new property.
Ross says, “It has everything you want, open fields, woods, ponds and a huge barn. I have a mutual relationship with the land. I will do good for it as long as it does good for me!”

Meaghan agrees, “I love the pond and the rolling hills. I find the location of the house and barn, along with the location of the ponds, to be breathtaking. Every day I wake up and I can’t wait to go outside, start my animal chores and look up to see what colors will be in the sky that day. The sunrises are beautiful and always different. What a wonderful place to call home, and work!”

I asked them what they hoped the future of farming in Maine would look like:

“We hope farming looks just like this: small scale, sustainable, connecting community members to the farm where they purchase foods, teaching, keeping people close to us and the farm, and the farming operation small enough to do things right.”

Meaghan and Ross welcome visitors to their farm stand, at 777 Bristol Road in Bristol, where you can buy seedlings, plants, eggs and some veggies, as well as sign up for meat shares. You can even tour their farm and see baby goats!

Stay tuned for Meaghan’s amazing roast chicken recipe this Friday. To help support young farmers like Meaghan and Ross, become a member of MFT! Learn more about what we’re doing to protect more farmland, and get more farmers on the land HERE.

Meet Your Farmers: Villageside Farm

Photos and text by Jenny Nelson

Polly Shyka and Prentice Grassi (and their three young boys) own and operate Villageside Farm in Freedom, Maine. They grow certified organic seedlings, vegetables, herbs, and flowers, as well as raising laying hens and meat chickens. They sell their products through a CSA, to retailers, and Unity Food Hub. I visited Villageside a couple weeks ago, as they were getting ready for their first seedling sale of the season, and we talked about their approach to farming, and what it means to be part of the farm community in Waldo County. 

On working with UFH, Polly said, “We really enjoy the clarity of communication, mutually beneficial marketing and solid professionalism. We are excited to see how UFH’s mission and work in the farming sector expands and grows in the years to come.” 

Villageside uses sustainable growing practices, and they’re certified organic through MOFGA. Polly said they chose organic because, “Organic agriculture is food production, an ancient craft, in service to life processes. Organic farmers work with nature, rather than against nature. We feed the soil microbiology, protect our crops with physical rather than chemical barriers and strive to steward the land  for the next generation. We want to be a part of the necessary return to original, regenerative and respectful agriculture.”

“The best part of raising our boys on the farm is being able to show them the gifts of the natural world. Our boys are in daily contact with feelings of reciprocity, loss, emergence and creativity. They also have ready access to tractor mechanics, bookkeeping, whole foods eating, soil stewardship and animal husbandry. After dinner last night, our middle son asked if one of us would go look for spring peepers. On the walk back, he said, quietly and kind of to himself, “I love being outside.” That about sums it up.” 

Polly and Prentice train 3-5 aspiring farmers each year and love seeding the next generation of farmers. There is a wonderful young energy here, lots of laughter, cooperation, and a laid back vibe, although everyone is always busy.

By raising their family on the farm, training new farmers, growing food for their neighbors and for start-ups like Unity Food Hub, Polly and Prentice are investing in their community, and perpetuating the future that they want to see.

“We support local businesses and craftspeople whenever possible. We love the vibrancy of Waldo County, however small and rural it is in the scheme of things.”

Veggies For All Onion Transplant

photos by Jenny Nelson, text by Sara Trunzo
Spring in Maine is sometimes colder and actually involves more “gathering up” than Fall harvest time. This time of year at Veggies For All, we amass our stock of seeds (thanks, Fedco!), soils, materials, and tools- like other small farms. We call and email our volunteers to rally them for the many transplanting tasks ahead. Our crew members and volunteers lumber out into the fields, not yet limber from gardening or swimming or hiking. We all stand at the weedless field’s edge, zipping our jackets up to our chins.   

Veggies For All (VFA) is food bank farm located in Unity, Maine that works to relieve hunger by growing vegetables for those in need, while collaborating with partners to distribute and increase access to quality and nutritious food.  Founded in 2007 by beginning farmers, VFA is a project of Maine Farmland Trust that has grown and distributed 130,000 pounds of fresh produce to 1,500 people utilizing food pantries in the greater Unity area.

We ask volunteers planting the onions to be sure the delicate roots are completely covered in soil and to make a shallow “well” at the base of each plant. Yes, the slight impression we make with our fingers does catch rain water that helps keep the plant hydrated. But, we also like to think of this step as a little blessing, an extra connection between the transplanter and the transplanted. Volunteers, even very young ones or those who do it differently in their home gardens, are eager to please.

Each year, VFA grows nearly 10,000 onions for eventual distribution to Mainers facing food insecurity. The task of growing and transplanting these onions is not just a sensitive agricultural task, but an apt metaphor for organizing in community, because we aim to pull in many hands at just the right moments. We enlist skilled staff to seed and closely manage the onions through the early Spring, with our student workers supporting the effort by watering, monitoring, trimming, and thinning. Our farm manager cultivates a well-amended field at the proper place in the crop rotation, forming tidy beds. Untrained youth volunteers and longtime gardeners alike step into the field, tiny onion seedlings in hand, to get instruction on just where and just how to “plug them in” to our neat, vast grid.

In a couple months, these slight wisps of green will turn into hearty yellow, white, and purple bulbs to be gathered in heavy black crates. Our small truck beds will overflow with onions on their way to be laid out, cured, and trimmed in the greenhouse before Winter storage. If weather and whim cooperate and if we do our job properly, the crop will make its way to 1,500 of our neighbors utilizing local food pantries.  They’ll sit on kitchen tables, crowd cabinets, and sizzle in sauce pans across central Maine. We can smell it already.   

Meet Your Farmers: Fine Line Farm

Sarah + Hubert of Fine Line Farm in Searsmont, Maine

photos and text by Jenny Nelson 

Sarah Tompkins and Hubert McCabe, two 30-something farmers, recently bought 90 acres in Searsmont from Lynda and Gerry Atwell, a retired couple who had lived on the land for 22 years. The two couples worked with Maine Farmland Trust to place an easement on the property, making it a more affordable transaction and ensuring that it will remain a working farm far into the future.

Sarah and Hubert are now happily settled and growing over 200 varieties of greens, edible flowers and vegetables, raising chickens, cultivating a huge number of unique fruiting trees, and they also plan to add pastured livestock in the next few years.

When I arrive at Fine Line Farm, Rosie, the adorable cattle dog and “official farm mascot” runs out to greet me. For the rest of my visit she’s at our heels with a stick, hoping someone throws it for her.

Sarah and Hubert immediately start out into the fields and I follow. We swing by their two hoop houses, which are warm, fragrant and full of greens and seedlings. They water, I ask questions and Rosie sneaks in before she’s banished back to the doorway. We continue into the fields, through 10 acres of plowed and closely seeded rows. About three acres are dedicated to produce and the rest are cover cropped with rye, vetch, oats and peas. These are rotated to improve soil fertility as their plan is to grow more on less, optimizing both soil and space.

They plant what they love to eat themselves, and what their friends, many of whom are chefs, ask for.

They’re in constant motion, as there’s always something to be done. I follow them from field to hoop house, to barn, to packing space, then back to the barn, to the fields and the hoop house. I munch on amazing greens with the most incredible flavor, extra special after a long winter, and I listen to Sarah describe their favourite meal these days, which inspires me to go home and make their arugula risotto with cream, white wine, garlic, homemade vegetable stock, served over poached eggs, which they have in abundance from their 60 chickens.

The chickens not only provide eggs, they’re also helping in the next phase of the farm’s growth: turning the remaining 30 acres of rolling back fields into pasture for sheep, which will “close the loop” and allow for more fertile and productive growing; another way to “grow more on less” and maximize production and quality.

Hubert is a self-proclaimed “sucker for prettiness”, and I want to print up t-shirts with his line: “if it doesn’t taste good, it’s not worth doing.” 

Sarah and Hubert met in Brooklyn, NY at The Chicken Hut, an old feather processing plant, now an art/punk/bike-building warehouse. They eventually left the city to farm in the Hudson Valley, but when they started to think about buying their own land, the only place they really wanted to be was Maine. Sarah got a job at Haystack on Deer Isle, where she had previously attended workshops, and they began seriously looking for land through Maine FarmLink.

At the same time, Gerry and Lynda Atwell had decided it was time to sell their home in Searsmont. It was a tough decision. They loved the land and all the happy memories there; growing and preserving their own food, hunting, fishing, and hosting a steady stream of family and friends. Lynda said it was like running an inn and they loved it. It was of the utmost importance for both of them that the land stay as it was and remained in good hands, so they decided to work with MFT to actively protect their property. They realized they could make it affordable for young farmers who felt the same way, and when they met Sarah and Hubert, both couples felt an immediate connection.

Lynda remembers one of their first visits fondly: “It was raining cats and dogs, but they wanted to check the soil, so they tromped out into the fields in their boots, so excited, not at all bothered by how soaking wet they were” she recalls. That was the moment she knew they would be wonderful caretakers of her beloved land. Sarah and Hubert remember that day as well and Sarah said when they came back, completely soaked through, Lynda had made cookies for them. They told me that the only drawback to buying their land from the Atwell’s was it meant they couldn’t be neighbors!

“We can’t adequately express how incredible it was that we were able to sit down with MFT and write our own easement” Hubert says. “Not many farmers get to do that.”

This means they were able to protect the land while retaining the freedom and flexibility to grow and adapt as needed, which is crucial for the future of a working farm.

Protecting the land and planning for a future well beyond them is also what Sarah and Hubert are doing by planting many different varieties of trees that they’ll never actually see bearing fruit. Hazelnuts, chestnuts, sugar maples; these are trees that future generations who farm the land will reap the benefits of. But they’ve planted them now, in part because “they’re pretty trees” says Hubert, but mostly because they want to nurture and stock the land for the farmers to come.

Listening to Sarah and Hubert talk about Fine Line Farm and their plans I can’t help catching their excitement, not only about what they’re doing, but about the future of farming in this state. Their combined years of experience paired with curiosity, enthusiasm, love of the land, and a passion for food is good recipe for a solid farm future. A future that’s delicious.

Check back next Wednesday for the amazing spring greens risotto recipe inspired by Sarah and Hubert. . .