November 28, 2010

'There is food all over the place'

After last year's washout, local growers welcome 2010's remarkably bountiful harvest

By Beth Quimby bquimby@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Farmer Denis Thoet has packed his root cellar with beets, potatoes and carrots and filled a storage room in his house with garlic, onions and squash.

click image to enlarge

Jeff Brown of Portland buys produce from Mary Ellen Chadd at her Green Spark Farmstand in Monument Square in Portland this month. Growers donated more than 200,000 pounds of their harvests to food pantries, shelters and other charitable groups this year.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Ramona Snell spreads hay over newly planted garlic at her Snell Family Farm in Bar Mills this month. "This is the best growing year I have had for 30 years," said Dick Fowler, a grower who raises about 20 different crops at Pleasant Hill Gardens in Scarborough.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

PRODUCTION FROM DENIS THOET'S GARDEN

Cabbages distributed to shareholders this year to date: 878 pounds; distributed in 2009: 385 pounds

Onions distributed this year to date: 1,146 pounds; distributed in 2009: 529 pounds

Carrots distributed this year to date: 879 pounds; distributed in 2009: 571 pounds

Tomatoes distributed this year to date: 205 pounds; distributed in 2009: 140 pounds (only 88 pounds were fully ripened)

His freezer is stuffed with the leftovers from the food he grows for 69 households that each bought a share of this year's harvest.

By his calculations, he and his partner, Michele Roy, and three other workers managed to reap more than six tons of food from two acres of clay soil on his Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner. This year's effort yielded a record 12,279 pounds of produce -- a nearly 50 percent increase over last year -- even though he expanded his growing space by only 250 square feet.

"There is food all over the place," Thoet noted in a column he writes for the Kennebec Journal.

Thoet and other farmers across the state are basking in the afterglow of one of the best harvests in memory.

A mild winter, an early spring and a summer marked by a seemingly endless string of sunny days resulted in bumper crops.

Even tomatoes, notoriously hard to grow in Maine's cool climate and thin soils, were plentiful. Growers are describing the season in uncharacteristically breathless tones, filled with superlatives.

"The sun made great crops. I have been doing this for 30 years and this is the best growing year I have had for 30 years," said Dick Fowler, who raises 20 different crops on about 20 acres at Pleasant Hill Gardens in Scarborough.

The plentiful season was a needed boost for commercial and backyard farmers. They were reeling from a disastrous 2009, when frequent rains washed out entire fields of produce, followed by a substantial infestation of late blight, a plant disease that destroys tomatoes.

An official tally of the harvest won't be available until March from the New England Office of the National Agricultural Statistical Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But anecdotal reports the office collected all summer from farmers were filled with positive news, despite some parched conditions in August and a reappearance of late blight.

"Life is good," Sandy Truslow reported.

As executive director of USDA's Farm Service Agency offices in York, Cumberland, Androscoggin and Sagadahoc counties, Truslow said she rarely files such rosy reports.

With the exception of some apple growers whose trees were damaged by a May 11 frost that also hurt some strawberry farmers, the year was exceptional, Truslow said.

"Overall, it was one of the best years we have had in a long time," said Truslow.

The bounty resulted in record donations to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension's Maine Harvest for Hunger, previously known as the Plant-A-Row program. This year, commercial and amateur gardeners donated 200,006 pounds of fresh vegetables and fruit to food pantries, shelters and other charitable groups across the state, more than double the 87,319 pounds donated last year.

While some of the increase was due to increased participation, the great growing conditions were a major factor, said Barbara Murphy, an extension educator who oversees the program.

"Everyone's squash and cucumbers came in at the same time," said Murphy.

York County growers donated more to the program than any of the state's other 15 counties, with more than 60 volunteers helping out. The county's master gardeners send out gleaning teams to pick up what has been overlooked in orchards and fields after the commercial harvests.

"It's all first quality," said Zelda Kenney of South Berwick, a master gardener.

Farmer John Zacharias donated whatever didn't get sold at his Zach's Farm Stand in York at the end of each day. Wells farmer Bill Spiller donates thousands of pounds of produce to the program every year.

(Continued on page 2)

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