UNITY – Instead of the typical fair staples such as cotton candy and carnival rides, the Common Ground Country Fair draws crowds seeking veggie burgers and workshops on worm composting.
The fair, which opened Friday, is expected to draw about 60,000 people through Sunday. Organized by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the fair, now in its 37th year, has grown to 730 exhibits and 718 scheduled events that showcase a healthy, rural Maine way of life, said fair director Jim Ahearne.
“I think the interest comes from people’s concerns about their own health, the environment’s health and the local economy’s health,” Ahearne said. “We’re essentially a rural state and an agriculturally productive state. We have the opportunity to be more connected to where food is coming from.”
The fair’s growth has coincided with an explosion of interest in organics, local food and sustainable agriculture. The number of certified organic farms in Maine has surged — from 41 in 1988 to 339 in 2008, according to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. (Farms with less than $5,000 in annual gross revenue don’t have to be certified.)
The amount of organic pasture and crop land in Maine has increased with the number of farms. In 2000, there were 9,363 such acres. That grew to 48,984 acres in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although a 2013 study by the Organic Trade Association found that 81 percent of U.S. families report that they buy organic “at least sometimes,” such purchases remain a small portion of a household’s overall grocery bill. Certified organic food makes up less than 4 percent of overall food and beverage sales, the association found. Even so, organic food sales nationally totaled $31.4 billion in 2011, up from $3.6 billion in 1997, according to the USDA.
“I think people are more interested in where their food comes from,” said Mary Belding, an organic cheese maker who owns Little Falls Farm in Harrison with her husband, John. “They can vote with their wallets and buy something they trust and can believe in.”
The fair is limited in size by the footprint of the fairgrounds, and there’s a waiting list for vendors to join the two farmers markets, as well as the crafts market and the energy and shelter exhibits.
Food vendors feature organic treats such as shiitake mushrooms, squash sandwiches and veggie burgers.
Brittanie Holt, 25, of Burnham said she was drawn to organic food after doing research on pesticides and genetically modifed foods.
“I have a child, and I want to get him started on the right, healthy path,” Holt said.
Even though it may be more costly to buy organic food, Holt said she finds ways to save in other areas of her life so she can prioritize organic food.
“I think in the past few years, with uncertainty around the economy and it being a tumultuous time in the world, local food and organic food offers some security. You know it came from that farm just down the road and that farm will be there for years,” said Adam Nordell of Starks, a vendor at the farmers market selling cornmeal and a mix of vegetables.
“The consumerism of the past, with glossy magazines and strip malls and sprawl, people are done with that. They want to know the history — where and how — their food is grown,” he said.
Over the years, crowds at the fair have become more educated and discerning about their food and how it’s grown, said Ian Jerolmack of Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham.
“People ask. They want to know what I do and how I do it,” he said. “People are becoming more educated.”
One thing that still shocks some customers is the price of organically grown food.
“People think an eggplant should be 50 cents, not $3,” Jerolmack said. “But it costs more because we lose more of our crop. Period. No matter what we do or how good we are, we will have some crop loss because we don’t use pesticides. Cultural practices are more expensive than chemical ones. We have to factor that in.”
Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: