Regina Grabrovac is the food programs manager for Healthy Acadia – Washington County, running everything from farms to schools programs to gleaning operations. We heard that because of the wild blueberry glut, she was looking for gleaners who wouldn’t mind picking up a blueberry rake. We called her to talk about her efforts to get some of those unwanted berries into the hands of hungry Maine families. Along the way we learned how the Machias resident got so interested in agriculture and why she uses a cider press to educate Washington County schoolchildren.

CITY GIRL: Grabrovac knows agriculture, having worked with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in the 1980s, distributing organic produce, helping farmers find markets, and farming or gardening herself, on Mount Desert Island, in Surry and then in Machias. But she’s originally from New York City. How did a city girl turn into a country woman? As a teenager she attended John Bowne High School in Queens, which had an agricultural program. She tended chickens, grew her own crops and spent two summers working on farms. This was not her neighborhood school; in fact, she spent an hour on the bus and subway to get there from Manhattan.

Regina Grabrovac is the food programs manager for Healthy Acadia – Washington County. Photo courtesy of Regina Grabrovac

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: Which was her choice. Why? “I always say that it was my grandmother.” Her grandmother was Quebecois and had grown up on a dairy farm. When she told stories to her granddaughter, “They were cloaked in this ‘it was a horrible life’ tone,” Grabrovac said. “However, she was so passionate about telling the stories that it was clear that underneath she also felt that it was a wonderful life. She would tell me how scared she was when she would have to bring the bull in, or how cold it was. But what I heard was the love.”

PARENTAL PRESSURE: Her mother was supportive of her decision to go to John Bowne for high school and on to College of the Atlantic (Grabrovac ultimately graduated from Marlboro College in Vermont). But she seemed to think that after college Grabrovac would give up her fascination with farming. “For the next ten years after that, she would say, ‘when are you going to get a real job?’ ” But in the late 1980s, Grabrovac got a letter from her mother with a newspaper clipping inside (in the way of all mothers, pre-Internet), and it was “about how organic agriculture was the hottest thing.” She knew then, the question was laid to rest.

PHASE TWO: It was about 2008, long after Grabrovac had settled down with writer Paul Molyneaux and moved to Machias (Surry was getting a little crowded for him), that she discovered her next passion. She attended a farm-to-school workshop and not long after, put in a grant proposal for a coordinator for a farm-to-school program in Washington County. She didn’t get that one, but she got the next and went to work for Healthy Acadia, which serves both Washington and Hancock counties, facilitating community health initiatives. In 2014 she became a full-time employee. She runs gleaning programs, coordinates efforts to ease food insecurity and connects local farmers to the community. Especially in schools.

CIDER PRESS RULES: Washington County has about 4,000 schoolchildren,, Grabrovac said. She’s worked with about half of them. The level of engagement in the farm-to-school program has differed from school to school, with some simply hosting a fall harvest meal, while others have embraced school gardens. Her most tried and true tool for reaching students, she said, is the portable cider press (“not light, but I can get it into a small vehicle!”). Kids love it and it’s a way of engaging them in their own neighborhoods, she said.

HOW’S THAT? Apple trees are everywhere in Washington County, she said. “I looked around and I said, ‘We have schools that do not have an abundance of resources. But we have apples.’ ” So she turns her students into foragers, telling them to go look around their own yards and communities. “Not looking for fancy apples,” she said. “I just tell them to harvest whatever is in their neighborhood.” They’d bring them in and use them to make cider. And she hopes, connections. That program, aptly called the Apple Project, started with funding from the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and is now a Healthy Acadia program in both Washington and Hancock counties.

REGINA APPLESEED? Grabrovac also runs pruning and grafting workshops, through Healthy Acadia and open to the entire community. For her own pleasure, she keeps a resource list of 60 sites in Washington County where heritage apple trees grow. “There is this historically significant resource that is in almost every yard.” Is she Down East’s John Bunker? “I am the John Bunker of Washington County when John was maybe in his 20s,” she said. “I am way behind the curve.”

BLUEBERRIES FOR ALL: She’s also the production manager for two community gardens, one at Washington Academy, one at the University of Maine at Machias. Both supply food pantries. When Grabrovac heard the glut in wild blueberries was driving prices down to the point that some farmers had decided not to harvest, she went into action. With the blessing of Welch Farm in Roque Bluffs, she’s leading a gleaning operation this week and next. And she’s looking for a few volunteers. “It is daunting,” she said, “because a lot of people here know how to rake blueberries, but they want to get paid to do it.” (Call Healthy Acadia’s office at 255-3741 if you want to rake.) Her hope is to get at least a pint of fresh wild blueberries to everyone who visits local food banks. But she’s wistful about the berries that might end up rotting on the vines. “I wish we could create the means to harvest all the berries that are going to go unharvested.”

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