A Westbrook farm family, whose memories of a catastrophic barn fire 30 years ago remain vivid, has been honored for their dedication to conservation practices.

The Wormell Farm in Cumberland is the Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District’s Outstanding Conservation Farm of the Year. Leroy Wormell Jr. and his son, Leroy Wormell III, both of Westbrook and both nicknamed “Lee,” operate the farm, which was selected from some 600 farms in the county for the recognition.

The conservation district described the Wormell Farm as 200 acres of beautiful, rolling cropland, grass and woods bordering the East branch of the Piscataqua River in the Presumpscot River watershed.

Wormell III, 43, represents his family’s fifth generation in cattle farming and the third generation at the present dairy farm.

The Wormells survived a disastrous fire in 1974, when an arsonist torched their Westbrook barn, claiming cattle helpless to escape. After the fire destroyed the historic, cream-colored wooden barn on Brook Street 34 years ago, Leroy Wormell, his late grandfather, purchased the farm in Cumberland that he needed to house cattle.

Although in the second grade when the barn burned, Wormell III has vivid memories of the blaze. His family was living on Route 302 about a mile away by road from the barn, but his pet sensed the tragedy.

“My German shepherd Duke was barking like crazy,” Wormell III recalled. “He woke everyone up.”

His dad, Leroy Wormell Jr., said the phone rang about 1 a.m. on Friday, April 5, 1974, as his aunt, who then lived in the brick house across Brook Street from the barn, reported the fire. He raced to the scene.

Wormell Jr. recalled the night was foggy and the sky was an orange glow from the blaze when he arrived at the barn. He said an explosion inside the barn blew a firefighter off a ladder.

He will never forget the horrors of that night.

“Never,” he said.

Cows burned in their stalls as intense heat prevented their rescue.

“The cattle inside were howling,” said Mike Sanphy, a retired Westbrook police sergeant who responded to the alarm. “It was sickening.”

Sanphy said this week that the heat of the fire blistered paint on fire engines.

“We lost 75, 80 cows,” Wormell Jr. said.

He didn’t sleep for a week.

But 100 other cows were rescued from an adjacent Wormell barn, which firefighters saved along, with an attached milking parlor and the brick farmhouse where Wormell III and his family live today.

Besides the cattle and barn, losses included a barn loft filled with baled hay and other cattle feed.

A caption under a front page photo in the American Journal on April 10, 1974, reported that “a young neighbor” had been charged with setting the fire. But Wormell Jr, said the case was never prosecuted.

The American Journal report pegged the estimated damage at $200,000. But, Wormell Jr. said they were underinsured and lost half of the value.

“He was never the same,” Wormell Jr. said about his father, a cattle dealer. “He lost his drive. The wind went out of his sails.”

Today, their herd of 45 cows produces organic milk, marketed by Horizon. Wormell III said their cows and fields are certified organic. The state inspects their dairy twice yearly, organic inspectors once a year. To retain organic certification, the Wormell Farm is required to have records and photos of each cow.

Under organic certification, chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides are not allowed on their fields.

“The cows are happy because the forage crops are healthy, and the natural resources at Wormell Farm are protected,” said Wayne P. Munroe, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Scarborough.

The Wormells initiated a plan with the conservation district in 1988. Projects included two concrete manure storage pits along with grassed waterways, grazing improvements, drains in fields and paved barnyards, which channel runoff water. Those projects lead to cleaner streams while preserving farm soil.

The conservation district credited the Wormell family with demonstrating good stewardship of the land, working hard to maintain and improve quality of the soil, water, and other resources on their farm.

“The Wormells’ accomplishments have achieved many valuable conservation benefits for natural resources. They are most deserving of this award,” Charles Norman, chairman of the conservation district, said in a prepared statement.

Munroe said many of the recent conservation practices installed at the Wormell Farm received U.S. Department of Agriculture funding called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

“Typically, the farm producer matches the (incentive program’s) financial assistance funds with in-kind services or cash ranging from 25 to 40 percent depending on the conservation practice ability to provide environmental benefits,” Munroe said.

Munroe said the Natural Resources Conservation Service provided technical assistance with the conservation practices. Wormell III said everything has to be installed according to government specifications.

“They don’t cut corners,” Wormell III said, “They’re by the book.”

For example, manure storage approved in recent years had to be built with a concrete floor and concrete walls banked on the exterior with earth for added strength. The facility prevents manure from leaching into streams and is sized to handle adequate storage for the Wormell herd during winter months.

Munroe said all conservation practices installed at the Wormell Farm provide measurable environmental conservation benefits, solving multiple soil and water resource concerns. He also said conservation practices at the Wormell Farm are improving the overall economic efficiency at the farm and the water quality in the Presumpscot River watershed and Casco Bay.

Wormell III said conservation has enhanced the possibility of another Wormell generation on the farm.

He said his son, Brendon Wormell, 16, a Westbrook High School junior, would like to operate the farm someday.

“He likes nature,” Wormell III said at the barn. “He works quite a bit here.”

Wormell III and his wife, Lisa Wormell, also have a daughter, Christina, 12, a seventh-grade student at Wescott Junior High School.

The Wormells were to accept their award Wednesday night, after American Journal deadline, at the Cumberland County Farm Bureau’s annual banquet at Verrillo’s Convention Center in Portland.

Lee Wormell III operates the family farm with his father, Lee Wormell Jr., on 200 acres of rolling cropland, grass and woods bordering the east branch of the Piscataqua River. The family won the Outstanding Conservation Farm of the Year award for preserving soil and protecting water quality.The herd of 45 cows produces organic milk, marketed by Horizon. Wormell III said their cows and fields are certified organic. The state inspects their dairy twice yearly, organic inspectors once a year. To retain organic certification, the Wormell Farm is required to have records and photos of each cow.

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