Like most Maine farmers, when Adam Nordell of Songbird Farm is harvesting in the fall, he’s anticipating winter. But his planning for the fallow season of frozen ground and snowy skies has an unconventional twist. When he’s out in the fields, picking corn by hand or driving his tractor, he’s writing songs in his head.
“It’s one of the reasons I like farm work,” Nordell said. “It is not mindless by any stretch, but there are definitely a lot of repetitive activities that let you do a little day dreaming or start some internal creative process.”
Some farmers put up pickles for the long winter; Nordell puts up music that he and his partner on the farm and stage, Johanna Davis, will perform when they tour North America from December to March as the folk duo Sassafras Stomp.
As the deep freeze sets in, the modern farmer in winter is rarely sitting by the fire, although most of them wouldn’t mind that kind of a break. Rommy Haines, a board member with the Aroostook County Farm Bureau, remembers that, when he was a teenager in the 1960s, life on a potato farm included quiet Decembers and Januarys of “puttering around with some equipment or something.” That was then. Now, “there is no slow season that I know of in farming,” he said.
If they aren’t doing the obvious business of farming – milking the cows, feeding the pigs, harvesting winter greens for the weekly farmers market – Maine’s farmers are using the winter months to make spreadsheets to figure out their planting strategy and cash flow. They’re attending many trade shows, conferences or meetings scheduled for January and February, getting materials ready to re-up their organic certification or taking tests to get certified to apply pesticide. Maybe they’re reading one of the myriad reports being produced on the future of Maine’s food economy. More likely than that, they’re shoring up the barn.
Or, as is often the case, shoring up their finances with a second job. Off-farm seasonal work is particularly common among young farmers, who need capital for the infrastructure required to establish a new, or newish, farm. And what that work entails can be surprising from the perspective of the average farmers market shopper, who may expect that the person selling them their weekly batch of Maine carrots is living and breathing root vegetables in some form or other 365 days a year.
In truth, the Maine farmer in winter might also be teaching schoolchildren to ski, using a vintage letter press to make business cards for customers, shivering through the night on a Christmas tree lot on a New York City street or answering the phones at one of Maine’s two seed companies. In the case of the Nordell-Davis family, the farmers will be fiddling while the people of Missoula, Montana, and Berkeley, California, dance.
ON THE ROAD
Sassafras Stomp’s winter tour is a pragmatic way to make money off the farm, but it started from an emotional desire. Davis is the daughter of Maine back-to-the-landers and Nordell is from Helena, Montana. He came to Maine to attend the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, and they met here. But they lived in Montana for a couple of years and loved that place and its people, too.
How could a pair of farmers, with all the obligations of running Songbird Farm (recently relocated from Starks to Unity), still spend time with family and friends? It’s a long drive to Montana, Davis notes. If they played a few contradances on the way, they’d have some gas money, and maybe some free places to stay. “We were trying to stay connected to both places,” Davis said.
“It just sort of grew from there,” Nordell said. “In ways that I didn’t think either of us expected.”
They wrapped up Songbird’s harvest season with a delivery of the farm’s specialty, a dry goods CSA (community supported agriculture), and hit the road in early December. By the time they arrived in Montana on Christmas Eve they’d played gigs nearly every night along the way: Amherst, Syracuse, Madison and so on. Once in Helena, Nordell started his other winter job, working a temporary data entry job at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (he’d worked there before). In February, they’ll go to the Pacific Northwest and then California.
So when their friends back in Maine are cursing mud season, Sassafras Stomp will be hitting local farmers markets in California for avocados and pecans. But they’re hardly snowbirds. One winter, their touring schedule meant they missed the cold and snow entirely. “We were both kind of sad about it,” Nordell said. “Winter is not an easy time, but it is special time. It brings people closer together.”
Winter employment at Maine’s two seed companies, Fedco and Johnny’s Selected Seeds, can help bring farmers closer together. Johanna Burdet of Moodytown Gardens in Palmyra worked at Fedco for two seasons before finding a part-time job teaching agriculture to K-8th graders in Cornville. “Fedco is really farmer friendly because they understand the schedule,” Burdet said. “It is fun, a social outlet. You can hang out with other farmers.”
As at L.L. Bean, where outdoorsy types like to pick up seasonal work for the discount, the seed companies offer perks beyond the paycheck. Perks that go right into the fields. “Forty percent off the seeds,” said Meg Liebman, who is in her sixth year of farming at South Paw Farm in Unity and runs the Moose Tuber division at Fedco in the winter months. Seasonal workers at Fedco can buy growing supplies for just a little bit more than cost. “It is pretty huge,” Liebman said. “It helps a lot.”
This is her fifth year at Fedco. Liebman is the seed potato purchaser, which dovetails nicely with what she’s doing in growing season; South Paw produces potatoes, among other crops. While she dreams of a day when she might be full time on the farm, she and her partner – who also works at Fedco – can’t swing that yet. Her neighbors down the street do the seasonal thing as well, but at Johnny’s.
“There is a lot of upfront investments that you make that you don’t receive the fruits of your labor on for years,” Liebman said. The many costs associated with the farm include shelter for the animals, equipment, work that needs to be done on the house itself.
“I would have to get a job somewhere at this point,” Liebman said. “It’s just so fortunate that I am able to get a job in my field of interest, and I don’t have to go to Buen Apetito in Waterville and get a job washing dishes.”
Another perk of her Fedco job is the knowledge she picks up from talking to other farmers, including seed potato growers in Aroostook County and Colorado and the people she meets at the trade shows Fedco attends. Networking with more experienced farmers helped her figure out, for instance, that planting single rows of crops would be more efficient. The job is a good counterweight to the intense focus of the planting, growing and harvesting season.
“Without that connection to the bigger picture, it is easy to get kind of lost in your own local scene,” Liebman said.
Or your own relationship, since farming is most often a family enterprise. Running a business together can create a strain, and that seasonal job can give perspective, Liebman said. “It generates a little more stability in your relationship,” she said. “It’s not so isolating. It brings something else into your relationship.”
Rommy Haines says the old joke about farmers is that it’s best to marry a nurse. “So she can fix you up, and you get health insurance,” he said. (His wife works at Aroostook Medical Center).
Maybe marrying an accountant wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. For the South Paw farmers, when they aren’t working at Fedco this month, they’ll be building spread sheets and figuring out their cash flow for their upcoming season.
Other duties, aside from hitting the Maine Agricultural Trades Show (Tuesday through Thursday, see sidebar), will include attending steering committee meetings for farmers markets and working on promotions for the EBT program at farmers markets, which is intended to encourage low-income families to buy healthy produce and foods with their government assistance dollars. Then there are the visits to the bank; Liebman and her partner are in the process of buying a bigger farm. Their records need to be impeccable. Loan officers might like fresh-grown Maine food, but what they really care about is the bottom line.
It’s just as busy for Haines. Which is why he doesn’t attend every off-season meeting and conference. If he and the average farmer did so, he said, “You’d have time to get on your tractor next November.” And he points out that farmers, unlike people in the corporate world, are not typically refreshed by the holidays. When he listens to people talking about their winter breaks, he said, “You want to be polite and join in but basically you are lucky to get the evening off.”
Compared to the corporate world, “we’re like alien creatures,” he added.
Seasonal work is unlikely to be wildly lucrative, but if it involves cash in hand, farmers can’t always be picky. That’s how Johanna Burdet spent two Decembers, long, cold Decembers, working on a Christmas tree lot in New York run by Vermont tree farmers. She pulled the worst shift, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., guarding trees and making a few overnight sales in Harlem. Many of her duties involved saying no to people who came to her shack asking for change. Or dealing with drunk or high customers. At least the drunks weren’t stingy.
They never care how much they spend on a tree,” Burdet said. “We sold the most expensive trees at night. The city never sleeps, right?”
She made $2,500 the first season, working 12-hour days, seven days a week. The second year, better location, better hours, was allegedly going to yield a payoff of $6,000. Which sounded great for a farmer, “because that is at a time when you really don’t have anything else going on,” Burdet said. That payoff didn’t happen.
If that was a disappointing off-season job, at least her partner at Moodytown Gardens, Jarret Haiss, found something he enjoyed two years ago: being a ski instructor at Sugarloaf. (The main motivation was the free ski pass).
The couple is expecting their first baby this month, so Burdet is eager to transition to full-time farm life, which doesn’t slow in winter. Haiss is busy making cedar posts for next year’s garden from their wood lot and putting a new roof on the house. They’ll be sending pigs off to be processed every two weeks. “Our work is never-ending,” Burdet said.
That’s the conundrum, Haines said. The farmer who takes a second job is leaving what’s already a full-time job. “And it interferes with their ability to be on the farm seven days a week,” Haines said. “Which is a competitive requirement. So it is a Catch-22.”
Seasonal work isn’t easy to come by. In a way, Sassafras Stomp was the most expedient side job Davis and Nordell could come up with. They already had the instruments. She plays the fiddle, he’s on guitar. The skill sets they’ve had from childhood, Adam learning how to play music in public school in Helena, Davis at a Waldorf School in Rockport. The overhead was minimal.
They’ve even tailored their farm business to meet the needs of the music, sticking to crops instead of livestock and selling wholesale (to natural food stores and a statewide distributor) rather than retail at farmers markets so they’d have weekends open for gigs during the growing season.
A friend who stayed with them at Songbird this summer mocked them a little for their lifestyle choices. “She said she was impressed that we had found two ways of losing money,” Nordell said, laughing.
But it works. The music and the fields are of equal importance to them, and the two careers intertwine as successfully as companion plants in a garden.
“It makes both things sustainable,” Davis said.