The Cumberland County office of the University of Maine Extension now has 3 acres that it will be able to use to demonstrate growing techniques to backyard gardeners and professional farmers.

The extension also is getting a barn that it can use as part of its animal husbandry programs.

The barn and farmland come as part of a package deal that has the county extension office moving from its longtime headquarters near the University of Southern Maine campus to a new University of Maine Regional Learning Center at 75 Clearwater Drive, part of the Tidewater Farm complex in Falmouth.

The opening event for the complex will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Andrea Herr, an administrative assistant with the Cumberland County extension who gave me a tour of the complex, said that as part of the opening ceremony, an oak tree will be planted and a bench installed in memory of Stanley Bennett, the late CEO of Oakhurst Dairy who led the fundraising campaign to get the new offices for the extension and other UMaine offices. The site where the tree will be planted looks over the Presumpscot River Estuary and has a view of the Portland skyline.

Herr said there also will be composting demonstrations and some farm animals on hand as part of the opening event.

The 3-acre parcel the extension will use, now covered with grass, has a view of the Presumpscot but not of the city skyline.

It will be near farm parcels used by the Center for African Heritage, which Herr said has created a successful program growing organic vegetables for local restaurants, and Cultivating Community, a nonprofit group that helps youths grow food for the hungry.

One use for the plot will be to grow food for the Maine Harvest for Hunger program, formerly Plant a Row for the Hungry, in which home gardeners, community gardens and others grow food for food pantries and soup kitchens.

The extension’s farmland is about a quarter-mile from the new extension offices, traveling through a subdivision of new homes right behind the Walmart on Route 1.

“Everyone is really excited about the move,” Herr said. “It isn’t going to change our mission but it will help it.”

Douglas Babkirk, associate director of the extension, said the new Learning Center will be a big help in the hands-on kind of teaching the extension does across the state, from 4-H members building robots to find milfoil in Bryant Pond to teaching people how to start their own business.

“Our whole focus is going to be on sustainable living practices, from growing your own food to processing food, to showing kids how to work in groups,” he said.

One program Babkirk is excited about will help people decide if their idea for a home-based business is viable, whether that business is food-related or not.

“We have 450 Master Gardeners in Cumberland County,” Bateman said, “and they will take a major lead role in designing that parcel to teach the public in the most effective way.

“The Kids Can Grow Program, which we have been doing successfully, will teach children how to grow food and use it for their own family. We will be doing the same things we have been doing, but have our own property to do it on.”

He also said he hopes students in the horticulture program at Southern Maine Community College led by Cheryl Rich can use the property for their educational needs.

Herr said SMCC students already had pruned an abandoned orchard on the site, and Master Gardeners are now tending that orchard.

When Bateman Partners received approval for its development, Babkirk said, the town of Falmouth ordered them to set aside 32 acres for conservation and farming, and the extension property is part of that.

Babkirk had high praise for both Bateman Partners and the Tidewater Conservation Foundation for their cooperation with the extension.

In addition to the offices for the extension and other University of Maine officials, the new site has a kitchen where extension educators will be able to do cooking, food preservation and other programs.

Herr said the entire project cost a bit under $1 million.

When the fundraising campaign began, the goal had been to raise $2 million and build a separate UMaine complex closer to the farmland.

But when the recession hit and fundraising became difficult, the plan shifted to put the learning center into an office building that also includes retail space, an office of Mercy Hospital and some apartments.

The extension complex with offices, farmland and a barn aren’t the only exciting things going on at the Tidewater Farm complex.

There are plans to build a footbridge over to a piece of land owned by Portland Trails. The piece is now made inaccessible by Interstate 295.

Trails also are in the works to connect Tidewater with the Maine Audubon Society headquarters at Gilsland Farm.

 

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

tatwell@pressherald.com