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

by Rebecca Goldfine

Photographs by Sean Alonzo Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Additional reporting here by Laura McCandlish.

Fresh Blueberry Pie

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

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

For 6 servings

 

BLUEBERRY GEL

3 tablespoons frozen blueberries

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

½ cup water

½ ounce cornstarch

 

PIE CRUST

3 cups flour

1 ½ cup shortening 1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons water

 

BLUEBERRY PIE

1 ½ quarts fresh Maine wild blueberries

1 cup blueberry gel

1 quart heavy whipping cream

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Enjoy.

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

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

2016 Washington County Food Summit: Land and Sea

Farmers, fishermen, harvesters and consumers– join us at Healthy Acadia’s second Washington County Food Summit organized by the Washington County Community Food Council. This is an opportunity for producers/harvesters/gatherers of food to come together in order to network, address infrastructure gaps and share successes and challenges. The full-day event brings together people from our region and beyond who interested in healthy vibrant food systems. By strengthening our food system, more producers and harvesters are able to sustain their businesses and more residents have access to healthy food at affordable prices.

Full agenda and registration is available online here.
For more information or to register by phone, contact Regina Grabrovac at Machias’ Healthy Acadia office at 255- 3741

When:

Snow Date: March 19. Cancellation notice will be announced on WLBZ by 5am on the day of the event.

Where: Washington Academy – 66 High Street East Machias, ME 04630 – View Map

 

The 2016 Washington County Food Summit is supported by funding from Maine Community Foundation. Our sponsors include Downeast Salmon Federation, The First, Look’s Gourmet/Bar Harbor Foods, Maine Farmland Trust, Sunrise County Economic Council and Washington County Council of Governments, Wymans of Maine.

One Farmer's Vision

One Farmer’s Vision Yields More Farming

By Erica Buswell and Elizabeth Sprague, Maine Farmland Trust for Machias Valley News Observer

In 2013, Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) was approached by a visionary Washington County farmer who was hoping to see a way to help more farmers take advantage of all that Washington County has to offer: good farmland, affordable land prices, thriving farmers markets and local foods buying clubs, and expert business support services. Knowing that access to affordable capital is one of the biggest challenges for new and established farmers alike, Ted Carter, of After the Rain Farm, suggested that we help incentivize farm business development in the region by providing affordable loans for farm purchases. If we can help more farmers afford land here, then all of us in Washington County will have more opportunity to keep our local dollars in the local economy.

MFT’s Land Access Loan Program launched a pilot in Washington County in 2015, with seed money generously provided by an anonymous Washington County donor and the Maine Community Foundation.

Farmers can use this fund to help with land purchases two ways: Down Payment Loans can cover some or all of a down payment from a commercial bank, Farm Credit or Farm Service Agency; Principal Loans provide a first-position loan on the purchase of farm property. Interest rates are individually determined.  While the Land Access Loan Program is available to all farmers, priority is given to beginning farmers of limited means.

Money helps get a farmer started but that isn’t all it takes to run a successful farm business.  We’ve made sure that individualized farm business planning is available along with loan funds. If a farm or farmer’s financial or business circumstances are in need of advice or remedy, MFT will connect a farmer to business and agricultural service providers from our partners and networks like the Beginning Farmer Resource Network of Maine.

But why does this matter to everyone living here in Washington County?

The fund helps farmers who are already here. Whether buying more land to grow their operations or using the loan fund as part of taking over operations in a farm transition plan, the fund makes it easier for local producers and next generation farmers to access local farmland and to keep existing farmland in production.

The fund works synchronically with MFT’s lending partners in the county. For example, Sunrise County Economic Council’s Sunrise AG Microloan Fund can be used simultaneously with ours so that farmers can acquire the farm equipment they need.

The fund benefits markets buying Washington County raised farm products. Even small parcels are an adequate scale for these markets. With more farmers on affordable land, we can enjoy more food grown right here, in your Community Supported Agriculture share, your farmers’ market bag of fresh veggies, your weekly trip to your food buying club and supermarket, or dinner out at your favorite restaurant.

This loan program helps keep our food dollars local. A dollar spent on food grown by our neighbors circulates through farm supply stores, equipment mechanics, hardware stores, mom-and-pop grocery stores, and other business owned by people who live here.

Washington County residents spend over $144 million annually for food. MFT’s loan program helps create the opportunity for residents to consider spending 10% of those dollars on locally sourced food purchases.  If residents spend just 10%* locally, that would result in:

  • Creating 70 additional jobs,
  • Adding $641K in labor income,
  • Gaining $117K in state and local taxes,
  • Providing $3.5M additional local value-added food produced here, and
  • Delivering fresher nutrient-dense, vegetables, fruit, and meat on to food insecure local tables, food pantries, restaurants, schools, and institutional kitchens with far fewer ‘food miles’ than is necessary under current distribution practices.

One visionary farmer wanted to help make Washington County a real possibility for new and experienced farmers to relocate. The Land Access Fund brings solid businesses into the region and helps new families get started in our communities.  Find details at www.mainefarmlandtrust.org or contacting MFT’s office at (207) 338-6575.

Maine Farmland Trust will be available to talk about the Land Access Loan Program and other projects at the Washington County Food Summit in East Machias on March 12. For more information about the Food Summit, visit www.healthyacadia.org or call (207) 255 3741.

 

*Prof Kevin Athearn, University of Maine/Machias