September 20, 2013

Volunteers key to Common Ground fair opening

A big part of what draws crowds to the annual fair this weekend is the food, all of which is organic.

By RACHEL OHM Morning Sentinel

UNITY – Thousands of fair-goers will flock to the Common Ground Country Fair this weekend for a celebration of rural living, farming and the traditions of Maine.

click image to enlarge

Dusty Dowse, left, and other bakers prepare dough Thursday for 500 loaves of rye bread to feed volunteers at the upcoming three-day Common Ground Country Fair in Unity. Others making bread from left are Jeff Dec, Lily Joslin and Dan Rivera, in background.

Staff photo by David Leaming

click image to enlarge

Don Gardner stokes a woodstove with firewood while making yogurt at the Maine Falafel company food booth in preparation for the three-day Common Ground Country Fair in Unity that begins this Friday.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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In addition to the folk music, agricultural exhibits and speakers, part of what draws crowds to the annual fair is the food – all of which is organic, and mostly from local sources.

Unlike most state and county fairs, the one organized by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association does not have carnival amusement rides or games.

The fair is meant to reflect the mission of the organization, which works closely with farmers and gardeners to grow organic food, protect the environment and support local and rural food production.

Volunteers are an important part of making sure the fair, which in recent years has drawn about 60,000 people over three days, runs smoothly, according to volunteer coordinator Anna Libby.

"They're an integral part of the fair's infrastructure. Our volunteers are working year-round to do the preparation that really powers the fair," she said.

Making sure that the fair's roughly 2,000 volunteers don't go hungry always has been a priority of fair organizers, director Jim Ahearne said, but this year extra effort is being made to make sure the food volunteers receive is on par with what is sold at the fair. Last year, about 4,600 meals were served to volunteers during preparation and the weekend of the fair, he said.

He said serving and selling organic food is important not just because it tastes good, but also because it is in line with MOFGA's goals of promoting and preserving local agriculture.

On Thursday about 15 bakers, including attendees from July's Kneading Conference and fair volunteers, gathered near the fairground's main building to bake wheat and rye loaves for other members of the volunteer population. It was just one of many events on the final day of preparation before the start of the fair, which opens at 9 a.m. Friday and runs through Sunday.

Dusty Dowse, vice chairman of the board of directors of the Maine Grain Alliance and the project's organizer, said the group expected to make 1,000 to 1,100 loaves of bread over the three days.

The Maine Grain Alliance is a nonprofit organization based in Skowhegan. Its mission is to preserve and to promote the use of traditional grains and to provide access to locally baked bread.

The alliance hosts an annual Kneading Conference in July, which brings together farmers, bakers and chefs from around the region and the country, for a three-day conference on growing and milling grains and baking bread.

Among the bread bakers Thursday was Allie Heller, 22, who traveled from Portland, where she works as a baker for Chef Harding Lee Smith's chain of The Rooms restaurants. She said she heard an announcement about the project at the Kneading Conference and was excited about an opportunity to participate in the fair.

"It's really fun. I love how much people can learn, and I think it's important to make these traditions available and pass them on in a light-hearted way," Heller said.

Lily Joslin, 25, a fair volunteer who never had made bread before, said she learned a lot about the process Thursday, including how to create the right ratios of yeast, flour, water and salt. Most of the flour was donated by King Arthur Flour in Vermont. Ahearne said the demand for local flour did not make it feasible for the fair to get enough flour to produce all of the bread with locally grown grains, although a small amount of flour was produced locally.

The fair has a strict food policy that requires all food sold by vendors to be organic and from Maine, although there are some exceptions for things that Maine does not produce, such as lemons, coffee and some spices, Ahearne said.

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