CUMBERLAND — Joanne Fryer describes herself and her husband, Greg, as “the accidental farmers.” They are also lawyers, he with the venerable Verrill Dana firm in Portland, she a private mediator.

Their first careers (and still his full-time job) came in handy this year when they asked their town to begin allowing farmers to use their properties for weddings and other events.

It started as a simple request, one they saw as a win-win for Cumberland, a community of just under 8,000 that prides itself on being convenient to Portland and a place that values both its legacy of farming and its agricultural present and future.

The Fryers moved to Cumberland five years ago, but they’ve been in the area since the mid-1980s. Most recently, they’d lived on Cousins Island. They liked how farm-centric Cumberland still seemed from a visual standpoint, and also culturally. They’d seen the town’s comprehensive plan from 2009. The very first sentence of its vision statement referenced the need to “preserve the community’s rich agricultural heritage.”

There are 36 registered farms left in Cumberland, varying from a small goat operation known for its cheese to Sweetser’s Apple Barrel and Orchards, with its prominent farm stand on Blanchard Road. That’s not to say Cumberland is anything like, say, Unity. Employment figures for farming were low (the comprehensive plan noted that 1.2 percent of the employed population described itself as working farming, fishing or forestry) but the town agreed that it was important to protect land that could at some point be used for agriculture. To make it easier for existing farms to keep going, the plan suggested modifying town regulations to give farms more flexibility to make money. The No. 1 example, right there on page 127 of the comprehensive plan, was “allow for renting a site for weddings or other functions.”

The Fryers were the first to push for an ordinance that would make that a reality. They understood that one does not just snap one’s fingers and start holding weddings. Approvals are needed. Licenses must be acquired. Insurance? They’re lawyers. They wouldn’t dream of renting out their property on Bruce Hill Road for a wedding without it.

But after nearly a year of moving slowly through the hoops, securing the approval of the ordinance committee, and rallying support throughout the community of farm owners, in October the Fryers hit an unexpected obstacle. The Town Council voted 5-2 against allowing farm weddings. Questions were raised about parking and noise and unhappy neighbors, indeed the compatibility of the whole idea of farms and weddings.

Perhaps the most significant question raised was philosophical. What is a “real” farm anyway?

FLOWER LADY

“She sells flowers,” said Town Council member Ron Copp Jr., referring to Joanne Fryer. “To me I don’t consider that being a farm.”

Others do. The cut flower business is growing statewide, with the number of Maine farms diversifying into this often lucrative market doubling between 2007 and 2014. Maine has long been a wedding destination state, but with the increase in farm weddings, getting into the business has made considerable business sense for many of them.

Fryer began raising and selling dahlias not long after buying the house. Dahlias, Greg Fryer says, are “impossible” but his wife has a talent with them. She sells to local florists, including Skillins Greenhouses, and to wedding venues like the Black Point Inn in Scarborough. The florists visiting her gardens convinced her that she should be using the farm as a wedding venue.

A baby goat at Sunflower Farm in Cumberland, where owner Hope Hall created the viral sensation of “The Running of the Goats.” Hall, who supported the wedding venue ordinance in Cumberland, says, “Every time you encourage someone to drive up a driveway … even if they come for a yoga class or a wedding, they are seeing a farm in action around them.” Staff photo by Derek Davis

The Fryers are also haying and providing apples to Norumbega Cidery in New Gloucester.

But Copp has a different perspective on farming. Growing up in Cumberland, he made frequent weekend visits to his grandparents’ farm in Buxton. “They sold hay. They raised their own beef,” he said. Working their farm was the first job he had as a teenager. After his grandfather died, his grandmother couldn’t keep it up and had to sell it. It’s a strawberry farm today, Copp said.

In Copp’s youth, the property that the Fryers own on Bruce Hill Road was not farmed. The Fryers have researched the property and say it was for many years an onion farm. It did have a barn, but that burned in 1962. For several years before they bought it, the home was abandoned. The property was overgrown enough that they bought it without realizing an old orchard grew behind the pines. “We said, ‘What are those white flowers in the woods?’ ” Joanne Fryer remembers.

They’re aware that most would consider them gentleman and gentlewoman farmers. With their paychecks from the legal profession, they don’t exactly present as hardscrabble sorts.

“It’s a good living,” Greg Fryer said. “But it’s not like money is no object, and this property needs a lot of work.”

For instance, he said, peeling back the forest to bring more light into the orchard has been expensive. (Maine apple gurus John Bunker and David Buchanan are both working with the Fryers; there are apples of historical significance in those woods.) “Saving the heritage of this farm does not happen for free.”

A young visitor offers hay to a goat at Sunflower Farm Creamery in Cumberland during the 2015 Maine Open Creamery Day. Staff photo by Joel Page

Planting dahlias is a nice niche for Mowfield Farm, the name the Fryers gave their property, a reference to a historic plantation near where Joanne grew up in North Carolina. But as she’s sought out advice from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Mike Timmons, president of the Cumberland Farmers Club, she’s gotten the clear message to diversify. “You can’t make it on one item,” Joanne Fryer said.

NEIGHBORS AND NOISE

To Copp, a farm is a place that has been in business 100 years, like Sweetser’s (which supported Fryer’s work on getting an ordinance in place). The Fryers’ immediate next-door neighbors had contacted him with concerns over the wedding plan, from floods of cars going down the driveway to potential noise.

“I felt they were disrupting the neighbors,” Copp said.

But for farmers, those trips down driveways, whether they are to farm stores or to visit say, baby goats like the ones at Hope Hall’s Sunflower Farms in Cumberland, can be invaluable.

“My perspective on this whole thing was that if you own a small farm, there is no separating what is farm related and what is not,” Hall said. “Every time you encourage someone to drive up a driveway – some people have zero experience with that – even if they come for a yoga class or a wedding, they are seeing a farm in action around them. And they are getting a sense of how beautiful farm space can be.” That emotional connection helps all farms, Hall said. That’s why she supported the ordinance, even though Hall is unlikely to go into the wedding business herself. Her place is too “rustic,” she said, laughing.

REVERSAL OF FARM FORTUNE

Copp Jr. voted against the wedding ordinance in October, when he was in the majority, and again on Nov. 14 when the council revisited the issue. But this time the vote was 4-2 in favor of farm weddings. Why the reversal? After the October vote, the Fryers began gathering signatures for a petition for a referendum on the farm and wedding/special event issue. She had not quite reached the magic number of 668 (10 percent of the registered voters) but was close enough that the council expected it would end up on the June ballot.

“If we allowed the petition to go ahead and it had passed, we wouldn’t have had any jurisdiction over it whatsoever,” Copp said.

The way the process works now, Fryer and others can apply for a one-year permit. During the year, they can host up to eight weddings. If their wedding business makes the rest of the community miserable or, say, a disaster occurs involving inebriated guests, Cumberland has the right to not renew the permit. But any of the 34 of 36 registered farms in town can now apply for permits to hold events. Fryer is likely to be first in line, as she was in the process of establishing an ordinance.

“She carried the water for everyone,” said Bill Shane, the town manager for Cumberland.

Copp is still struggling with the concept of farm weddings for Cumberland. He has been to farm weddings in Pownal and New Gloucester and he gets that it is a trend, nationwide and in Maine, but “I personally just have a hard job putting farms and weddings in the same category,” he said. He admits he could be wrong.

“I might have to eat crow,” he said.

FARMS OR HOUSE LOTS

Heidi Curry owns and runs William Allen Farm in Pownal. She and her husband have 63 acres and a classic, spacious barn. They have 23 weddings booked for 2018 and some already scheduled for 2019. Among the couples who have gotten married there since they started hosting weddings in 2014 were people from the Netherlands; a Maine wedding is a draw well beyond the state, she said.

They used to make a living cutting and selling firewood, but after their own wedding in that barn in 2013, a friend in real estate told them they would be “nuts” not to get into the wedding business instead. “We are in no way shape or form farmers of any kind,” Curry said. “I have a cat and flower gardens for our own benefit.”

So they’re not a working farm, but as she says, “we are not a subdivision.”

Curry has been following the Cumberland farm wedding debate and said she welcomes more farms (and barns) to the wedding venue family. She’s not worried about competition, but she does care about finding innovative ways to preserve Maine farmland.

“Had anyone from the town of Cumberland asked my opinion,” she said. “I would have said to them you have really two options. You can allow these property owners to try to find another source of revenue or you can watch it be chopped up into more house lots. Which in turn is going to put a new strain of your community.”

Cumberland Town Councilor Shirley Storey-King, who helped write the comprehensive plan in 2009 and supported the farm wedding concept in both the October and November votes, agrees. In her lifetime, she said Cumberland has become twice as developed as it was when she was growing up.

“Everyone wants the rural vista going up Greely Road,” Storey-King said. “But someone is paying for that.”

Namely the farmer. She grew up on a farm herself, and while her family has managed to keep the land in the family – there are 17 homes on it now, but they are all owned by relatives – she is acutely aware of the pressures.

She’s also hopeful that Cumberland’s first farm weddings will help settle fears. It’s good to be cautious, but, “we have to also be careful not to expect the worst,” Storey-King said. “Weddings are joyous events. We can’t just expect that every wedding is going to turn out bad.”

That echoes Fryer’s feelings, as well. In a few years, she thinks the Town Council will be happy with farm weddings.

“They will be proud if they give us a little bit of time to get it going,” Fryer said. “This is going to be good for Cumberland, I swear it will be.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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