June 24, 2013

Maine college makes hay out of farm trend

Kennebec Valley Community College will teach students organic farming in its sustainable agriculture program.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD — Richard Hopper, wearing jeans and muddy rubber boots, stood in front of a broken-down equipment barn off U.S. Route 201 and looked out across an overgrown pasture that once supported a 120-acre farm.

click image to enlarge

Richard Hopper, president of Kennebec Valley Community College, speaks beside a hay wagon in an unused barn at the Alfond campus in Hinckley on Wednesday. The section in one of three barns will be used to store farm equipment. while another section will have labs and classrooms for sustainable farming courses.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

"This is really where it's going to begin," Hopper said.

Hopper's not a farmer. He's the president of Kennebec Valley Community College, and on Wednesday he changed out of his usual duds to make an announcement about the fate of the farm in a corner of the college's new Alfond Campus.

"I've learned very quickly that on days when I'm meeting someone out here, I'd better forgo the suit," he said, as he pointed out a manure pit to the north.

When the dairy farm closed 10 years ago, four aging structures on a rise of land were vacated, and they have lost a little paint each year since.

Motorists ease their cars so cautiously along the rocky dirt road -- bracketed by chest-high weeds -- leading past the farm's pond that the needles on their speedometers lie flat.

The farm is about to recapture -- and perhaps improve upon -- its glory years, Hopper said.

The college acquired the 600-acre campus last year and hired Hopper as president in April. The bones of the defunct dairy farm will provide support to what administrators hope will be a bold new chapter in the story of the college and of Maine's agricultural industry, which has a $1.2 billion impact on Maine's economy, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

The college recently announced it received a $150,000 grant from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation of Freeport that Hopper said will help the college in its effort to rebuild the equipment barn, revitalize the farm and train a new generation of farmers who want to get in on Maine's growing local food economy.

Organic farms, many of which emphasize local distribution, have grown over the past 20 years and now support about 1,600 jobs, according to Heather Spaulding, director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

The college's new two-year sustainable agriculture program, the first of its kind in the state, has already filled half of about 20 slots for the upcoming semester, which begins teaching the new farmers Aug. 26.

Maine's local food movement isn't a fad, Hopper said, but a spreading national movement.

"I think it's quite obvious that it's a new food economy, and I do think it's here to stay," he said.

He said an upward spiral in gasoline costs and lack of easy access to central Maine are making food from far away increasingly expensive, driving demand for the local equivalent.

"If you look at the infrastructure of Maine, the lack of east-west highways and railroads, it's very hard to get products up here," he said.

Students who go through the program will be able to take advantage of the demand, which Hopper said is evidenced in part by a vibrant group of Portland restaurants that emphasize locally produced cuisine.

Some of the food grown on the farm will be eaten by those on campus, some might be donated to local charities, and some will be sold to teach students how to turn their raw food into the most marketable products.

Farmers can live off the land and live well, he said, but they must know how to innovate and sell in addition to knowing how to grow.

"A lot of this is about being an entrepreneur," he said. "There are a lot of small family farms that function very well, produce a good living and give people job security and a comfortable life."

(Continued on page 2)

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