UNITY – Thousands of fair-goers will flock to the Common Ground Country Fair this weekend for a celebration of rural living, farming and the traditions of Maine.
In addition to the folk music, agricultural exhibits and speakers, part of what draws crowds to the annual fair is the food – all of which is organic, and mostly from local sources.
Unlike most state and county fairs, the one organized by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association does not have carnival amusement rides or games.
The fair is meant to reflect the mission of the organization, which works closely with farmers and gardeners to grow organic food, protect the environment and support local and rural food production.
Volunteers are an important part of making sure the fair, which in recent years has drawn about 60,000 people over three days, runs smoothly, according to volunteer coordinator Anna Libby.
“They’re an integral part of the fair’s infrastructure. Our volunteers are working year-round to do the preparation that really powers the fair,” she said.
Making sure that the fair’s roughly 2,000 volunteers don’t go hungry always has been a priority of fair organizers, director Jim Ahearne said, but this year extra effort is being made to make sure the food volunteers receive is on par with what is sold at the fair. Last year, about 4,600 meals were served to volunteers during preparation and the weekend of the fair, he said.
He said serving and selling organic food is important not just because it tastes good, but also because it is in line with MOFGA’s goals of promoting and preserving local agriculture.
On Thursday about 15 bakers, including attendees from July’s Kneading Conference and fair volunteers, gathered near the fairground’s main building to bake wheat and rye loaves for other members of the volunteer population. It was just one of many events on the final day of preparation before the start of the fair, which opens at 9 a.m. Friday and runs through Sunday.
Dusty Dowse, vice chairman of the board of directors of the Maine Grain Alliance and the project’s organizer, said the group expected to make 1,000 to 1,100 loaves of bread over the three days.
The Maine Grain Alliance is a nonprofit organization based in Skowhegan. Its mission is to preserve and to promote the use of traditional grains and to provide access to locally baked bread.
The alliance hosts an annual Kneading Conference in July, which brings together farmers, bakers and chefs from around the region and the country, for a three-day conference on growing and milling grains and baking bread.
Among the bread bakers Thursday was Allie Heller, 22, who traveled from Portland, where she works as a baker for Chef Harding Lee Smith’s chain of The Rooms restaurants. She said she heard an announcement about the project at the Kneading Conference and was excited about an opportunity to participate in the fair.
“It’s really fun. I love how much people can learn, and I think it’s important to make these traditions available and pass them on in a light-hearted way,” Heller said.
Lily Joslin, 25, a fair volunteer who never had made bread before, said she learned a lot about the process Thursday, including how to create the right ratios of yeast, flour, water and salt. Most of the flour was donated by King Arthur Flour in Vermont. Ahearne said the demand for local flour did not make it feasible for the fair to get enough flour to produce all of the bread with locally grown grains, although a small amount of flour was produced locally.
The fair has a strict food policy that requires all food sold by vendors to be organic and from Maine, although there are some exceptions for things that Maine does not produce, such as lemons, coffee and some spices, Ahearne said.
A lot of raw food, including vegetables such as tomatoes and squash, is donated by vendors and local farms, but most of the preparation is done at the fairgrounds, he said. Almost everything is made from scratch at the fairgrounds, whether it is tomato soup or, this year, bread.
Patti Hamilton, the fair’s kitchen coordinator, said the fair kitchen prepares an array of meals for volunteers that vary every year depending on what is donated. Past menus have included soups and stews such as lentil soup, clam chowder and green bean soup, and eggs and home fries, fruit, date rolls and sausage for breakfast.
She said the fresh bread will make a big difference in the quality of food that can be produced on the site.
“It’s awesome. We usually have day-old bread that is donated from bakeries, and which we need, but to have fresh bread really extends our possibilities,” she said.
Dowse, who has been a member of the association since it was formed in 1971, said the food volunteers eat at the fair is always good, and that if the organization permits it, he would like to continue the project next year.
“I think it’s important to have really good bread baked by a local outfit. Bread is the staff of life. It is the core of our existence,” he said.
Rachel Ohm can be contacted at 612-2368 or at: