There he stood one snowy day last winter on the third-floor balcony of the State House, overlooking snow-covered Capitol Park as it gently sloped all the way down to the Kennebec River. And there freshman state Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, closed his eyes and saw blueberries, sage, hyssop, oregano, chocolate mint . . .
“I’m a farmer,” said Hickman, who along with his husband owns and operates the Annabessacook Farm Bed & Breakfast and Organic Farm Stand 10 miles west of Augusta. “So when I see open space, I see food. There’s nothing else that I think of.”
Trouble, like an approaching summertime thunderstorm, is looming over Maine’s political landscape. From paying the state’s hospital debt to expanding MaineCare, from letter grades for public schools to talk of a government shutdown, lines in the sand are appearing here, there and everywhere beneath the State House dome.
But wave a little fresh produce under these lawmakers’ noses and look what happens: “An Act to Require Edible Landscaping in a Portion of Capitol Park” — a fancy way of saying “Let’s grow some food right in front of the State House!” — is now a governor’s signature away from becoming the law of the land. Or at least one highly visible sliver of it.
The edible-park bill — one of 15, all dealing with agriculture, submitted by Hickman this session — passed in the House on a 107-33 vote last week. On Tuesday, it quietly cleared the Senate, 28-6.
All of which reinforces Hickman’s long-held theory that “food is the universal language.” If watching a tiny seed blossom into a head of lettuce … or collard greens … or the ever-nutritious sweet potato doesn’t bring out the humanity in all of us, then the republic is indeed imperiled.
“The reception has been positive in a way that I didn’t anticipate,” Hickman said in an interview Wednesday. “Words like, ‘Brilliant! Genius! What a fabulous idea!’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Really?’ “
Really. While 39 lawmakers, all Republicans, voted against the measure, the only stated opposition Hickman heard was, “Why can’t we just do this? We don’t need a bill for this. Just do it!”
Needed or not, the legislation carries an important message at a time when backyard gardens and farmers markets are sprouting all over Maine: Growing our own food — “food sovereignty,” as Hickman calls it — is beyond cool. It’s increasingly essential.
“Two things are going on here,” Hickman said. “People are becoming more and more educated about how toxic our industrial food supply is. And Number 2, people are absolutely interested in supporting their local economy.”
Then there’s the simple magic of watching food grow.
In his testimony before the State and Local Government Committee in March, Hickman noted that just before collards go to seed, “they produce tall, abundant shots of startling yellow flowers that reach toward heaven. Folks who visit my farm while collards are in bloom are always struck by their significance.”
“Who likes braised collard greens with onions and garlic?” he asked his salivating colleagues. “Have you ever seen the flowers of a sweet potato plant? They look like morning glories.”
Hickman’s goal: “I want people, especially children, to see agriculture when they visit the State House. I want them to see how beautiful food-producing plants can be.”
It won’t be the first time Capitol Park, established in 1827, has doubled as a garden.
From the end of the Civil War until 1878, the state leased it out to farmers. Then, in 1920, Gov. Carl Milliken commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted to design a multi-use plan for the land that included tennis courts, a zoo with native Maine animals, a bandstand, a grove for public speaking …
Little of which ever happened. Aside from the trees and shrubs here and there, the entire park is now blanketed in finely manicured, infinitely boring, completely inedible grass.
“There’s a ton of lawn around the State House,” Hickman lamented. “We spray it and we mow it, and we mow it and we spray it. It would be great not to have to do that.”
Just ask Vermont and Wisconsin, both of which already have up-and-running vegetable gardens just outside their statehouses. Or Seattle, which last year broke ground on a 7-acre “Food Forest” complete with fruit trees, berry bushes, fresh herbs and even the occasional lingonberry. (It’s said to be great on elk and reindeer steak.)
But enough about the aesthetics. What will Maine’s “Edible Park” cost?
Not a dime, Hickman promises.
The groundwork will be done with existing park maintenance funds. The seeds will be donated by the Paris Farmer’s Union. And the edible perennial cuttings will come straight from Hickman’s own fields in Winthrop.
Hickman hopes the design, overseen by David Boulter, executive director of the Legislative Council, will go beyond simple square plots and appeal to the eye as much as the stomach. He envisions two planting areas — one in the park’s northwest corner directly across from the State House and another near the main entrance on Union Street.
And who gets the food?
For starters, whoever wants it. The rest will go to Augusta-area food pantries — a point driven home on the House floor recently by one of Hickman’s co-sponsors, Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom: “The highest moral use of our land when people are hungry is to grow food.”
Some might dismiss Hickman’s crusade as utterly irrelevant at a time when health care, tax reform, municipal revenue sharing, bond issues and other hot-button debates crowd the public square. To which the ever-genial Hickman would say: Never underestimate the power of food.
“Everybody eats,” Hickman said. “We might not all eat the same food or like the same food, but we all eat. This is about seeing agriculture when you come to the State House. It’s about showing people what their food looks like throughout its lifetime. It’s about beauty.”
The farmer/politician from Winthrop just might be onto something.
Troubled times, after all, are coming to Augusta.
And nothing soothes the spirit like a mouthful of Maine blueberries.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: