The term typically used for vacationing at a farm is a “farm stay.” But Craig Hickman considers what he’s got going at Annabessacook Farm (and B&B) in Winthrop more of an invitation to join his farm family. We talked to Hickman, farmer and first-term legislator (D-Winthrop), on a hot morning at the end of June when he was taking a brief breather after a mad dash to get the last of the okra planted.
WHAT’S THE STORY OF YOUR FARM? Hickman first came to Maine in 1990, visiting a Harvard roommate whose parents had a house on Peaks Island. He returned in 2001, renting an apartment in Portland while he worked on a memoir, “Fumbling Toward Divinity,” about his search for his birth family. He convinced his husband, Jop Blom, that they should scout for a Maine vacation property. Maybe a cabin, since they love skiing and the outdoors. Then they saw Annabessacook Farm (named for the nearby lake). It’s one of the oldest farms in Winthrop and encompasses 20 to 25 acres. “We just fell in love with it,” Hickman said. Forget about cabins; they sold their home in Boston to buy the farm. “We sold at the peak of the market and invested it all in this farm.”
ARE GUESTS REQUIRED TO DO CHORES? Not so much. “When our guests come they absolutely get an opportunity to help with chores if they choose, because they become part of the farm. They might pick some of the crops or help with the animals or help us make dinner.” Basically then, as much or as little as they want to do. “We invite people into the family of our farm.”
HOW HAS THE FARM EVOLVED? “The first few years I was a hermit. I wanted to acclimate to my land.” The couple contemplated homesteading and then worked on turning the place into a B&B. Most of the land was either hayfields or lawn – no crops. He’d grown up with a father who was very much a product of the Depression, thus a man of frugal habits. Hickman’s dad grew up in Mississippi, served in World War II as a Tuskegee airman (on the ground) and tended a small urban farm in the backyard of their house in Milwaukee. He pickled and fermented and even made things like dandelion wine. “It was amazing the yield that my father could get from such small space,” Hickman said. Much, if not most, of what the family ate came from his father’s carefully tended garden. “He was so meticulous that I would watch from the side,” Hickman said. “And I learned by watching over his shoulder.” In 2007, after his father died, Hickman was depressed. “Then one day I saw his apparition walk up the driveway and into my house and so it was just that simple.” Now, he said, “I feel like he is standing over my shoulder.”
PAST LIVES: Hickman was a performance artist, poet (National Poetry Slam Champion) and won the James Baldwin Award for Cultural Achievement. He still writes and blogs at annabessacookfarm.blogspot.com.
WHAT HICKMAN GROWS: “Everything!” he said. He has two acres jammed with leeks, collard greens, four varieties of heirloom tomatoes, a lot of silver queen corn, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and “all of the kales. I grow a ton of greens. Mostly braising and bitter greens, like arugula, mustard greens, mustard spinach, a ton of onions and garlic. I am breaking off (garlic) scapes as we talk.” Also on the premises: goats, sheep, pigs and chickens, the last for both laying and eating.
NO FARMERS MARKET FOR HIM: Hickman and Blom are old school, selling their produce from the farm stand that came with the house. And they let their loyal customers come in and pick their own. But they plan to expand, marketing their food to restaurants. “I will get my own self off of my farm and start trying to introduce people to my food,” Hickman promises.
THIS ALL SOUNDS LOVELY. WHY SPEND ALL THAT TIME IN AUGUSTA, FIGHTING IN THE LEGISLATURE?
“As an adopted person, I was told by my parents that we were extra special because we were chosen. And that is the way I feel about Maine. It is my adopted home and I want it to be the best it can possibly be.” When he started selling food, he was disturbed by the regulation involved. “None of it made any sense to me because I wasn’t selling my food to anyone but people who came to the farm,” he said. “I thought I’d like to change it and that I’d finally put my degree in government to use.” Hickman was elected in 2012 and serves on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry committee. Being in session does make for a complicated planting season, but “a farmer needs to be at the table talking about things that directly affect their farming.”
IS AUGUSTA FRUSTRATING? “Of course,” he said. “But with persistence comes success, so I will try again and see what happens.” He hopes to bolster Maine food and sustainability, fight for greater food sovereignty and better infrastructure, including more opportunities for farmers to process their livestock. “I see small farms as the solution to some very big problems.” He’s proud of his service in the Legislature, but more so of his community for electing a gay black man “from away” with a husband from even farther away (Blom is Dutch). “I live in a very strong community,” he said. “People consider the farm a food center, and they have embraced us. You can’t beat that with a stick.”