Wednesday September 18, 2013 | 08:46 AM

The first fair book cover.

Almost 2,000 people are volunteering (before, during, and after) for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) Common Ground Country Fair this year. They are a key ingredient in the fair’s success doing everything from organizing exhibitors and managing the parking to picking up trash and building signs. It’s hard if not impossible to imagine the fair without all the volunteers.

A huge bonus of volunteering? The food from MOFGA’s Common Kitchen, which is run by William Whitman, who has been volunteering since the first fair in 1977. In 1989, Whitman’s volunteer work became focused on managing the Common Kitchen when he offered to make some calls and get food donated (prior to this, all the food had been purchased). He still works in the kitchen 24 years later and recently told me the only things the fair pays now for now are locally sourced cider and his vehicle’s fuel bill (he picks up a lot of the donated items).

Soliciting food donations is a big part of what he and fellow volunteer Patti Hamilton do to manage the kitchen. Last year they got over $50,000 in food donated and since Whitman started volunteering in the kitchen the list of farmers they source from has jumped from 63 to 483 certified organic farmers.

William Whitman in 1981.

The Unity Common Kitchen
Elizabeth Hedler interviewed Whitman in 2001 for the MOFGA Oral History Project at the University of Maine’s Folklife Center in Orono, Maine.  He talked about the first few years of the fair (there were only four or five concessions all under a huge tent loaned by Moss Tents, no water or electricity), changes in the fair, and changes in kitchen equipment for the Common Kitchen.

As the fair grew, so did the number of volunteers, and thus the number of meals prepared. He described putting out as many as 3,000 meals in a weekend as being a miracle in a space with no screens on the doors and a “terrible” pizza oven. Last year, Whitman said the kitchen served 4,683 meals, but in a fully equipped commercially licensed kitchen.

Following is his response to the kitchen built at the permanent fairgrounds in Unity, Maine (where the fair relocated in 1998): Oh my god, when we walked in here, it was like dying and going to heaven. We walked in, and it was just like the hicks going to New York City and looking at tall buildings. We would walk into the kitchen and we would just go…our mouths would drop open. “Oh my god a sink, a stove.” It was wonderful, we got three gas stoves, six burners each, it was great. All the ovens worked. We got a confection oven.

When asked recently what was a typical day is like in the kitchen, he responded: I do night prep from 8 a.m – 4 p.m. A few years ago we had stretched the kitchen to the max and I had an idea of an outside kitchen and serving a full meal 24 hours a day instead of at three set times. This would ease the pressure on the inside kitchen and let coordinators and volunteers come at staggered times so they wouldn't have to wait in line.

For those who cannot come in to eat (e.g. volunteers handling tickets or parking) there is what is known as a satellite meal system.

On working in the kitchen, Whitman shared this view: When meals are being prepped, it looks like a riot at the insane asylum but everybody has a good time.

In addition to the kitchen, Whitman mows MOFGA’s lawns, maintains the herb and flower gardens, and for the last two years has made signs for the grounds and the fair. He is also on the Building and Grounds Committee, Landscape Committee, Fair Steering Committee, and is the chairman of the Aesthetics Committee, which involves getting sculpture for the grounds.

 

The 1992 fair crowd. 

The Phantom Piper
Whitman told Hedler a wonderful story from the days at Windsor Fairgrounds (1981 – 1997): When we were at Windsor, (there) was the Phantom Piper. Every morning at 5 o’clock, there would be a bagpiper out on the racetrack. You would hear him, it’s funny because, almost invariably, there would be like a mist drifting across the racetrack, and you would hear the Phantom Piper.

Only at the Common Ground Country Fair.

Source for images: Fertile Ground: Celebrating 40 Years of MOFGA (2011, $19.71 at the online MOFGA Store)   

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About the Author

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.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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