Tuesday, March 11, 2014
When you turn onto Wildes Road, a long dirt road in Bowdoinham, Maine, along the shores of Merrymeeting Bay, the first thing that catches a visitor’s eye are the acres of farmland. This is where several farming couples are leasing acreage from fellow farmer George Christopher, through his farmer incubator program. Access to fertile soil, proximity to farmers’ markets, and shared usage of resources including a wash/pack station and walk-in cooler helps make farming a reality for the small farm operators there competing with insects, Mother Nature, and economics.
Sarah Trask and Pete Engler established Small Wonder Organics there in 2010. Committed to small-scale agriculture and farming organically, they grew vegetables they sold at local farmers’ markets and created a tomato CSA called the Tomato Passion Club (*this is how I first heard about the farm). Eventually, they were supplying greens to Rosemont Market and Bakery, Solo Bistro, and Local Sprouts.
As Engler gave me a tour of the wash/pack station he talked about the personality of Small Wonder Organics, “We are mostly a DIY farm,” he said when energetically showing me how he dries salad greens in a standard washing machine set on the spin cycle! The walk-in cooler he explained is a very important part of the post-harvesting process. Having access to it (something he would not have if not part of the incubator program) allows him to pick salad greens and almost immediately get them down to 38 degrees so they last longer and if picked on a Monday can stay as fresh as product picked Thursday morning delivered Thursday afternoon. One of the only down sides to the program he said are when you have a short lease there is no impetus to invest a lot of money in building repairs.
In 2010, the same year they began farming, Trask and Engler were accepted into the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Journeyperson Farm Training Program. The program is designed to help small organic farmers like Trask and Engler with hands-on support, training, and mentorship.
“Aside from being an incredible clearinghouse for relevant agricultural related information, the MOFGA Journeyperson Program provided me with community and camaraderie,” said Engler. “Knowing that you are not alone and that there are many others facing the same challenges and struggles is the kind of support you just can't put a price on.”
The Journeyperson Program is largely shaped by the farming interests and goals of individual participants. It is, as Engler mentioned to me during my visit to Bowdoinham, what you make of it. He believes the program is ideal for farmers who have some experience and are in the process of trying to put something together (i.e. looking for land).
As a MOFGA Journeyperson participant, farmers will choose a mentor, who is paid by MOFGA for their role as mentor. Jill and Charlie Agnew of Willow Pond Farm outside Lewiston, Maine, mentored Engler and Trask their first year of the program.
“The program itself is designed to structure support and information around start up farmers and this in itself is extremely valuable,” Agnew said. “Pete and Sarah brought sound ideas and logistics questions to me and I acted as a sounding board. My sense was that they knew a lot of the answers but they utilized feedback. They had to find their niche is a rapidly growing arena and recognize their strengths, loves and limitations.”
Even with all the advantages of the Journeyperson Program, the farmer incubator program, and having Engler’s family near by (he is from Bowdoinham), the reality Engler explained soon caught up with the romanticism of running a small organic farm.
The first crop they planted in the field was lost. “About a week to ten days after transplanting 4000' of onions we noticed many of them were wilting and/or dying,” Engler said of an unexpected hurdle the farm experienced. “A closer examination revealed that the seedling's roots were being devoured by armies of wireworms. There is no organic means of controlling this pest aside from rotating out of an infested field and deploying a harsh regime of cultivation for the 2-6 years it takes for them to complete their life cycle and become click beetles. We lost 80-90% of the onions and 10-20% of most other plantings we set out that year. Losing the onions was a real ball-buster because it was the first crop we set out.”
The ongoing implications of the 2008 financial crisis (primarily more conservative spending) and the gradual saturation of farmers’ markets, especially with vegetables, did not help either. From 2010 thru 2012, Small Wonder Organics sold at farmers’ markets and grew their CSA from 15 to 32 shares, and their Tomato Club from 20 to 35 shares.
In an effort to help locally grown food more accessible to low-income people, the farm accepted EBT for CSA shares and at their market stand. The farm received some grant money from the Wholesome Wave Foundation, the farm was also able to offer shares at half price when purchased with EBT.
In 2012, they introduced a farm pick up option with a $40 discount for CSA shareholders. At first, Engler explained, people came out to the farm and would stay for an hour to learn more about where there food was grown. However, after the first or second visit, most shareholders did not want to make the trip to the farm again and did not want to pay more for having a box delivered to them in town.
In addition to the actual task of farming, something Engler and Trask both greatly enjoy, there was also the task of local marketing. Using Facebook as a business tool, Small Wonder Organics told their story and promoted their CSA on a weekly basis to customers and potential customers. Engler refers to this as their “electronic relationship” with customers, something he felt was important to running a successful farming business, but not at all the same as getting to know people in person.
*This article on Mashable about the agricultural industry going social is pretty timely!
Engler and Trask are drastically scaling down their farming in 2013. They have leased their eight acres, which they have through 2014, and are resting the land from vegetable production and employing at least one full season of a soil building cover crop. A neighbor farmer has expressed interest in renting their high tunnels (greenhouses) this season.
“As we are not really "career type" people I think Sarah and I never imagined we'd be farming until the day we died, but that is not to say we weren't (or aren't still) interested in CSA,” said Engler. “I think my waning enthusiasm has more to do with the disjuncture between the kind of CSA share we would like to offer (farm pick-up where we actually know the members) and what is actually a desirable/marketable product to the masses (a faceless box of veggies staged in a convenient location).”
Photos by Sharon Kitchens.Tweet
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.