UNITY — As dusk fell on the Common Ground Country Fair and most visitors were leaving Saturday, Devon Salisbury’s work was just getting started.

“How are we doing on food?” the 37-year-old asked, popping her head into the outdoor Common Kitchen, where more than 860 meals were served to volunteers Saturday night.

“These people are like my family,” said Salisbury, who is an event planner for a winery in her day job and takes a week off each year to volunteer at the fair. “They don’t have to be told what to do. Everyone just knows instinctively.”

This year’s 40th Common Ground Country Fair was Salisbury’s 17th year as a volunteer, where she works as a kitchen coordinator at the Common Kitchen, a round-the-clock operation that turns tons of donated produce and groceries into meals for the roughly 1,200 volunteers that staff the fair.

Many volunteers, especially those who work in the kitchen, say the party is truly the heart of the fair, but it’s also just a small part of what takes place in the world of volunteers and vendors whose lives at the fair are just as active before and after the gates open to the public as they are when visitors are walking through.

“This is the fair to me,” said volunteer Ken Webster, as he prepared a squash and shiitake mushroom pizza for Saturday’s volunteer dinner. “Mostly it’s the same core group of people and it’s a party. The camaraderie, the cooking, it’s the best thing.”

Jeff DeHart, owner of Bear and Otter Guide Services in West Gardiner, sits in his camp at the Common Ground Country Fair.

Jeff DeHart, owner of Bear and Otter Guide Services in West Gardiner, sits in his camp at the Common Ground Country Fair. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The fair attracts about 60,000 people each year for three days and since 1998 has been held on more than 250 acres of farmland and forest owned by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. With no amusement park rides and a menu from vendors made up primarily of locally-sourced and organic ingredients, its main draw is events focused on sustainability and rural living. Lectures this year included “Backyard grain growing,” and “How to do a home funeral.”

Attendance on Saturday reached about 27,000 – just a few hundred short of last year’s record attendance day – said executive director April Boucher. With just two full-time employees and one part-time employee, the role of volunteers is a critical one, Boucher said.

“We wouldn’t be able to have the fair if not for the effort, dedication and passion you see on behalf of the volunteers,” she said. “There are some areas that are really vibrant, and that’s because the leaders in those areas put in extra effort.”

Fair organizers plan for more than 2,000 volunteer shifts each year. For the most part they get filled, but there is always a need for more, Boucher said. By late Saturday afternoon, about 70 percent of the shifts had been filled, with many volunteers taking on more than one four-hour shift.

In exchange for their four hours of work, volunteers get a T-shirt, free admission to the fair, a meal and a camping spot.

‘AN ORGANIC PROCESS’

As fairgoers left Saturday night with their bags full of produce, herbs and flowers, the line for the Common Kitchen wrapped around the fair office. Saturday night’s dinner is the biggest meal of the fair for volunteers and usually sees the largest crowds. “This is the beauty of the Common Ground Fair,” said Salisbury, the kitchen coordinator. “You have volunteers preparing meals for other volunteers with food that has all been donated. It’s kind of an organic process.”

For many, the meal is a break from the work they have been doing all day and will continue through the night.

Elizabeth Damon, a University of Maine student and first-time volunteer, was eating a dessert of blueberry bread pudding after finishing up a shift she described as “sort of all over the place.”

She cut a lot of vegetables and was then tasked with making brownies, but there were no chocolate chips. So she improvised, incorporating applesauce and squash into the chocolate dessert.

“We have to work with the ingredients we have, so the recipes are kind of made on the spot,” said Damon, 21. “I loved it. It was a really fun adventure.”

After gathering their food, the volunteers sat at picnic tables or on the lawn, many huddled under blankets and adding layers of clothing as the temperature started to drop for the evening.

Roberta Manter of Fayette has exhibited horses at the fair for years and was joined this year by her daughter, Elizabeth Collard, and her family. Both live off the grid and were camping at the fair for the weekend.

“The fair would be perfect if they could find a way to turn up the heat,” said Collard, of Bridgton.

“Waiting in line is worth it for the food,” added her daughter, 9-year-old Esther Collard, as she skipped off to get some hot tea.

As the meal wrapped up, many volunteers crowded the floor of a large tent for contradancing, some of them in bare feet. They could also enjoy a movie in the main building or wander through the exhibition hall, which remained open with displays of the fair’s best tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables.

The kitchen stays open for stragglers, like the safety crew which was also working around the clock. For many volunteers, the fair is a reunion, a way to get together with friends or visit with family.

‘PRETTY WONDERFUL’

Around 9 p.m., a small group of safety crew workers clad in orange vests filled a table in the mostly empty kitchen area and finished up their dinner. All were thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail in 2013 and selected the fair as a way to reunite. The midnight to 7 a.m. safety shift, which the group covered Friday night, is the best shift, according to Nick Parsons, 23, who said he likes riding around the fairgrounds in a golf cart late at night.

Last year, the group shuttled a first-time volunteer with hypothermia to warmth and brought her some coffee.

Mostly they stay up late talking and hanging out, reminiscing about how awful it was when the norovirus struck some hikers on the AT in 2013.

Heather Harris closes up her 1909 Creators popcorn wagon following the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity on Saturday. Harris is one of two original vendors at the fair, starting at age 4 selling popcorn with her family.

Heather Harris closes up her 1909 Creators popcorn wagon following the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity on Saturday. Harris is one of two original vendors at the fair, starting at age 4 selling popcorn with her family. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“It’s pretty wonderful,” said Parsons, of Harpswell. “We’ve stayed awake the whole weekend, all but two hours. It’s hard to get everyone to all meet in one location, so here we can get together and hang out. Mostly we’re joking about old jokes.”

Volunteers aren’t the only ones who camp out at the fair. Many of the livestock exhibitors and vendors do as well, though they tend to get to bed earlier so they can get up for chores and setup.

Sam Cheeney, who sells organic seed garlic from his Salty Dog Farm, usually sleeps between his baskets of garlic in his vendor stall. He said his kids, ages 3 and 5, look forward to camping at the fair every year.

“They love it. They do one night here, and then they go with their grandparents to a hotel,” he said. “Me, I don’t want to be driving in the morning, so I sleep right here.”

“It’s funny, but I often think this is one of the most urban things I do,” said Dan Huisjen, a volunteer of 14 years who was cleaning out a cast-iron skillet after breakfast in the volunteer campground Sunday morning and noting the close proximity of the dozens of tents surrounding him.

This year, Huisjen volunteered for fair setup and got his shift out of the way a week ahead of time. “You get it out of the way, and usually they’re in need of more volunteers before and after the fair,” he said.

As the fair woke up for its last day of activity Sunday, many of the volunteers trekked down a short wooded trail lined with composting toilets, making their way from the tent city to the Common Kitchen, where others were finishing up shifts that started at 4 a.m.

The early morning crew was done. Their work was done and the fair was just starting.