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."

The most recent census report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that, between 2002 and 2007, the number of Maine farms increased from about 7,200 to about 8,100, an uptick after a 120-year period of decline.

Over the same time period, the market value of agricultural products increased from about $460 million to about $630 million.

The goal of the program, Hopper said, is to have a farm that is productive year-round and that encourages a spirit of experimentation among students who might strike upon new growing methods or find new uses for existing products.

The two-year length of the program allows for a relatively quick graduation with enough knowledge to improve an aspiring farmer's chance of success, he said.

Shortly after the college purchased the campus from the former Good Will-Hinckley residential school, which closed in 2009 because of financial problems, college leaders took the first steps toward a working farm.

The college has tapped into a large aquifer running beneath the farm to supply water, hired engineers to begin an assessment of the farm buildings, and earlier this month hired a new farm manager, Daniel MacPhee, of Palermo, who used to run a sustainable farm for Yale University.

"Together, we're going to be the farm visionaries," Hopper said. "We're looking at what this farm can become."

If the program moves forward as planned, one end of the equipment barn will be renovated this summer into a combination laboratory and classroom, while the other end will fulfill its original purpose of storing tractors, shovels, hoes, hay trailers, rakes, hoses and all of the other equipment needed to make the land productive.

The Sewall grant will go toward the renovation of the equipment barn. Engineers will evaluate the other three buildings to see whether they can be saved and at what cost. Hopper hopes a taller, attractive barn will be easily rehabilitated, while a dairy barn will be difficult to repurpose, he said.

In August, the program's first students will help reclaim some of the 20 plantable acres by tilling fields and building high tunnels, a kind of greenhouse, for crops. Hopper said the preparatory work is not an obstacle to learning, but an opportunity.

"This is a teachable moment," he said.

Once the farm is established, he said, in a year or two, those operating it will be able to take on the larger responsibility of raising livestock.

The farm is certified organic, but Hopper said the college will probably use conventional practices on some portion of the land to give students the widest possible range of experiences.

"Maine has a really great organic community, but it also has a really strong conventional community," he said.

It might seem premature for the college's new president, on its new campus, to be talking about the future details of a farm while standing on land that has been fallow for 10 years.

But Hopper and his administrative team are looking even further ahead to a future that he is confident will be as lush and green as the untamed grass surrounding him.

Now that the agricultural program has been officially launched, the renovated barn and the other farm buildings will be the starting point of a whole new set of sustainable food-related degrees planned for the not-too-distant future.

"You come back in a year, and I'll be very curious to see your reaction to what we are able to do here," he said.

Hopper said future degrees will take advantage of the new Alfond Campus' ability to support hands-on coursework related to food processing, food security, culinary arts, renewable energy, and early childhood education related to wellness and healthy living.

The buildings, which will be referred to as the college's Center for Farm-to-Table Innovation, will serve as the hub for the college's new Sustainable Maine Agriculture Resource and Technology program.

To an older generation of traditional farmers who received no institutional training to work the earth, the descriptions of the academic programs might seem very distant from their family farm experience, but Hopper said that just shows how far Maine's food economy has come in recent decades.

"We're respectful of tradition, but we're not bound by history," he said. "We really want to respect this place, but we also see that it's a new day and we can do things differently." 

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at mhhetling@centralmaine.com

 

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