Monday, March 10, 2014
Steve Burger and son at Winter Hill Farm
About five miles northwest of Freeport Village you’ll find a picturesque farm set up on a hilltop, surrounded by 55 acres of gently rolling pasture and mixed forest. Here, Sarah Wiederkehr and Steve Burger and their two children run a small family-run diversified farm. They raise a rare breed of Randall Cattle and are the only purveyors of purebred Berkshire pork in the state of Maine.
Sarah has a BS in Horticulture and Agronomy from UNH and degrees in International Agricultural Development and Integrated Pest Management from UC Davis. Steve grew up in rural northeast Missouri, on a large hog, cattle and grain producing farm. While in college he took a part-time job on a small farm that grew organic produce for local restaurants and farmer’s markets, changing his life’s path. They met when Sarah purchased a few goats from Steve.
In 2011, Sarah and Steve took over management of Winter Hill Farm. They run a vegetable CSA and sell dairy products, eggs, and pork at farmers markets and Rosemont Market locations. Gather restaurant in Yarmouth and the Broad Arrow Tavern (at the Harraseeket Inn) also feature some of their dairy products in their menus.
I caught up with Sarah between farm chores and markets to find out what it takes to be a farmer and helping people understand the importance of healthy and sustainable foods.
SK: What do you love about farming?
SW: So many things! I love the connection to the land and animals that I feel so many people are missing in their lives. I love being able to provide my family and our community with options for safe, fresh, delicious food, and at the same time be able to steward our soil, air and water for future generations. I love the hard work and the wonderful balance of physical and intellect that it requires. And I love being able to work outside and be my own boss. There are so many more things…
SK: What do you not like about farming?
SW: There are few things that I don’t love about it. However, the main thing that is difficult is the reality that farming rarely provides a sustainable economic situation in our culture that is based on cheap food. Farmers are not adequately compensated for their hard work and for providing the nourishment that every human being needs. It is a travesty and a difficulty that farmers face all the time, and one that I reflect on constantly in my own life of farming.
Another thing that I find very challenging to deal with is the stress of having so little extra time. The balance of farming with young children is extremely difficult and puts a lot of stress on a family. So that part is not much fun!
Also, there are things that I have had to compromise in order to farm. I miss being able to travel!
SK: What is the most important lesson you have learned on the farm?
SW: I guess the thing I have learned that is most useful is to roll with the punches. Something is ALWAYS going awry on a farm- it could be a terribly wet spring, or an unexpected pest problem, or a tractor that won’t start, or a broken refrigerator, or a drop in humidity in the cheese cave that destroys 30 wheels of cheese. It seems that every day of every week of every year, there is something that does not go as planned. It is important to be able to shrug it off and move on- fix the problem or figure out an alternative, but don’t dwell on it. Sometimes it is really difficult, especially on the days that bring multiple challenges, one after the other. But it is critical to not let it weigh you down. If you aren’t resilient with challenges, you simply cannot be a farmer!
SK: In your opinion, what is it about the Maine landscape that inspires young families like yours to carry on the tradition of farming?
SW: Maine is a very supportive state for farmers. I haven’t completely pin pointed why, but it seems that on all levels, from the Maine’s legislators on down to our neighbors and customers, we see support for what we are trying to do. I believe that part of it is the ingrained attitude of Mainers to want to help their neighbors. We seem to truly be a community of folks; in this tiny state we call Maine, who want to support our local economy. Farming is a vibrant part of that economy, and so people want to see the farming tradition continue here in Maine and also support their neighbors. I also see MOFGA as having a huge influence on the larger population and also at the state government level, in ensuring that small farmers are supported here in the state. And I also think, simply, that a lot of Mainers have a sophisticated palate- they know good food when they taste it!
SK: Do you get the sense that there’s a big gap between the number of people who support “eat local” as a concept and the number who actually act on those beliefs? How do we close that gap?
SW: Yes, to some degree I do see this. I actually feel like stores and restaurants perpetuate this a lot. The claim to support local farmers but then balking at our wholesale pricing. I see it with the general public too, that ‘buy local’ attitude that gets trounced once the dollar amount is given. It takes education and a total shift in the status quo. We have come a long way in the last 20 years, but it is going to take a lot more serious work to get people to understand what it takes to produce good, local, healthy food. And on the flipside get people to understand what the alternative REALLY means. All of the environmental destruction, social deterioration, massive increases in health problems, that comes with big, conventional agriculture. It will take compromise on the part of the consumer. Do without some luxury items in order to have the extra that it takes to pay what good food is worth. Education and a shift in social conscience. Let’s hope we keep heading in the right direction!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.