If you Google “Maine” and “farm” there’s an excellent chance that the first item that turns up will be UniqueMaineFarms.com, a website run by a former schoolteacher who has dedicated her retirement to researching, writing and photographing Maine farms. Mary Quinn Doyle has visited nearly 200 farms and written nearly as many earnest, exhaustive profiles. On a volunteer basis. At no one’s urging but her own. Because we love visiting and writing about Maine farms but very much enjoy getting paid to do so, we called Doyle up to learn about selflessness, motivation and the shocking number of miles she’s racked up driving from one green field to another.
ROOTS OF AN OBSESSION: Doyle taught Maine history and English to middle schoolers for years. It always bothered her that there was a void in the Maine curriculum: No one placed any emphasis on the state’s agricultural heritage. She also has an agricultural background, of sorts. She and her husband ran a greenhouse business from their West Newfield home (near the New Hampshire border) in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. She grew 400 varieties of perennials and 100 herbs while her husband did the vegetable seedlings. Her work with social service agencies in York County brought her to Spiller Farm in Wells, where Bill and Anna Spiller made a habit of donating food to food pantries. “They were the inspiration to do my first story,” Doyle said. “Because I thought people should learn about how wonderful they are.”
SOCIAL JUSTICE: After that, she went on a tear to explore issues of social justice on farms, places where there might be a worker with mental or physical challenges. She was drawn to write about inmates at the Maine State Prison in Warren growing vegetables and Mandala Farm in East Orland, which provides shelter and food for the homeless. “I wanted to make sure I included as many farms as I could that were helping people,” Doyle said.
SEO MAGIC: Who does her Search Engine Optimization? Because it is astonishing how often her site comes up first or second in any farm-related search on Google. Nobody, Doyle says. “I never pay for advertising.” She just has a gift for giving things the right names. A previous site, UniqueIrishHostels, hasn’t been updated for years, but still comes up third or fourth in most searches, she says (sixth when we plugged in “hostel” and “Irish”). Recently she was at the Apple store and used a floor model to do a quick search for “Maine” and “farms” and up her own site came.
WHAT THAT LEADS TO: “I’ve gotten a lot of interesting emails,” Doyle said. Like what? “Like, ‘Can I order meat from you?’ I don’t know what they think. I don’t deal in meat. But I do try to help farmers.”
SHE WROTE THE BOOK: Out of the website came a self-published book of the same name that wraps together the profiles of the first 178 farms Doyle has profiled (she’s got 18 more in the bag, except for the writing). It came off the printer the day before the 2014 Common Ground Fair, and she sold about 100 copies there. She’s also donated 302 copies to the Maine State Library so that every municipal and college library in the state will have a copy.
PROCESS: She never, ever makes a cold call to a farm to ask if they’d let her come visit. (We do this all the time, but then we’re on deadline.) Instead she writes an email, or if the farm has no Internet presence, she sends a letter snail mail, complete with a self-addressed stamped envelope. “People need to time to think about it,” she said. Occasionally she gets calls from farms asking her to profile them. And occasionally she gently says no. “I’d like to do everybody,” she said. “But you can’t have a whole book filled with dairy farms, for instance.” No money passes hands. “It is totally a gift,” she said. But there are benefits: “It is free Web pages and advertising.” Plus she lets the farmers read and approve – or not – every profile before posting it. (We don’t do this.)
ABOUT THAT FREE BUSINESS: But it does cost Doyle to go out and get this information, hence the money raising she was doing by selling books at the Common Ground Fair. Often, she relies on the kindness of strangers. “I would like to thank Marada Cook,” she said. “Do you know her?” (Yes. Cook and her sister Leah run Crown O’Maine Organic Cooperative, a distribution system that gets farm goods and valued-added products to the market.) “Marada heard me speak at Slow Money Maine, and she came up to me and said ‘Are you going to do Aroostook County?'” Doyle told Cook she wanted to, whereupon Cook offered her farmhouse for the Doyles to use while she did her research.
AN IDEAL HUSBAND: Does her husband want her to take a break any time soon? After all, there are 8,173 farms in Maine, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Farm Census, leaving her with a little under 8,000 to go. “Of course, there is some teasing,” she said. “Like, ‘Mary, you are not bringing in any money,’ but that is just a joke. He is laughing in the background right now. I think he sees the value of the educational part of it.” He must; he’s retired but has been substitute teaching to bring in income for the family in support of the project. Doyle is doing her part too, selling rubber stamps (from her own personal collection) and used books, many of them about agriculture, online.
LAST WORD: She thinks that farming comes with untold benefits, including social and therapeutic ones. “To me, there is this idea that farming really could be for everyone,” Doyle said. “I am hoping in some small way that the project could inspire others to jump on board.” Yes, she’s put 31,000 miles on her 1994 Toyota Tercel, but “I don’t regret any bit of it.” The Tercel might have, though; this winter it was put into park permanently due to “persistent alternator issues.”