When we reached him to talk about farming and foraging, Dan Marion had just come in from harvesting wild ramps. Not at Fresh Pickins Farm, his Cape Elizabeth venture, but in a river bed area whose location he’d obviously prefer to keep secret. We knew he harvests chaga, the wild medicinal mushroom, which he sells under the Fresh Pickins label at health food stores, farmers markets and online, but we didn’t realize how serious he is about foraging. “You’re kind of farming the wild in a way,” he told us. “It sounds kind of weird, but you are sustainably managing it.” One natural crop he’d rather avoid? Poison ivy, which nearly derailed his first venture into farming eight years ago.

SLOPE TO SEEDLINGS: Marion was on the professional ski circuit (half-pipe and freeriding) in Breckenridge, Colorado one winter, hanging out with a group of Maine friends, when he was introduced to Abe Zacharias, whose family owns Zach’s Farm in York. Marion already had an interest in foraging, which he’d been doing in Maine on summer visits, but Zacharias got him thinking more about farming. “I was picking his brain nonstop.” A loan of a pair of fancy skis for “big powder,” led to a deal: Zacharias could have Marion’s big powder skis and gear in exchange for seedlings, greenhouse space to start them and just generally, ongoing advice as Marion started farming.

A DUBIOUS BLESSING: Then he had to ask his grandfather, and his own father, if he could use some family land, 180 acres up in Limington. Marion’s grandfather bought it in the 1960s, and as a little boy Marion had helped keep the fields mowed. But they’d never farmed it, and there was no infrastructure, unless you count the spectacular stone walls left over from a previous century. “They both said the first thing that people say when they hear you want to farm: ‘It’s going to be a ton of work.’ ” But permission was granted. Marion bought a used plow and borrowed his dad’s tractor. He “roped” his cousin Elliot into helping him plow. The soil was tough. It took a lot of hand flipping to loosen. But they felt good. “We think that we’re just invincible. Geez, we’ll have the whole town plowed by tonight.” A few days later his cousin called and asked a fateful question, “Are you itching at all?” They’d plowed out a field full of poison ivy just getting ready to pop out of the soil.

POISON HARVEST: Marion describes his dad as a very “neutral guy.” But he came out and looked at the newly plowed field, filled with these fresh red shoot heads. “He goes, ‘Wow, that is bad poison ivy.’ ” That first year, Marion sucked it up. He seemed to have an immunity, and he mowed repeatedly throughout the season, beating it back to one small corner of the farm. “I had to not give it a chance to grow.” Naturally, he didn’t have much help. But after that first season, when he still managed to produce a good crop of cut flowers – his chosen crop early on – someone signed on. “Year two was when my mom was like, ‘OK, that was pretty cool, I’d like to help you out.’ ”

ALWAYS MOTHER’S DAY: Vicki, his mother, is his farming partner and helps with processing – and general inspiration. His parents had been hobby beekeepers, for instance, and as he looked for crops to sell in the months before flowers came in, he decided to get into beekeeping and from there, value-added products made with honey. She got him thinking about beauty products, despite his initial reluctance. “I am probably kind of stubborn, and I was set on the stuff I was doing.” But he discovered making things like a simple therapeutic lip balm both fulfilling and smart business. “It’s actually the direction we’re headed,” he said. His mom (who calls him Danny) is the glue in the business. “She keeps it all together. She puts up with me, and I put up with her.”

TEAS AMD TINCTURES: Marion still skis, and now he has a coaching job at Carrabassett Valley Academy. But eight years after The Plowing of the Poison Ivy, he remains committed to the farm life. Two years ago, Marion decided to move the farm off his grandfather’s rocky Limington soil. He’s just starting his second season on land in Cape Elizabeth, leased acreage at the historic Ram Island Farm. The decision is not just about better soil, it’s about proximity to markets, friends, and of course, the big city nearby. Cut flowers are still part of the mix, and at the four farmers markets Fresh Pickins hits (including Saturday markets in Kennebunk and Crystal Spring in Brunswick), look for Fresh Pickins’ bouquets. “We put a ton of love into those.” But this past year has been about rebranding the farm name and labels and producing more health and wellness products. Chaga, the medicinal mushroom he harvests from trees, particularly birch, and turns into tinctures and teas, remains a mainstay. But he’s trying to forage more. At the beginning of June, he’ll move on to another wild mushroom, reishi. “We are so lucky in Maine to have these diverse seasons, that you can really roll from one wild edible to the next.”

NATIVE SON: But there are rules. Never harvest more than 20 percent of what’s there. For Marion, that would be the high end. Consider the ramps: “I just took 10 pounds this morning, and I don’t think I took a half a percent.” He’ll go back next spring to see how the “crop” has responded. One of his methods is to take from the densest areas of growth, which he expects will benefit the plants overall, opening up more room for them to grow. “The foraging side is really interesting to me. You are getting something that is wild, which mean if it chose to grow there, that the conditions are right. Being truly native to the spot, you have to imagine that the energy and nutrients are just right on their own.” Which seems to be equally true for Marion, this native son, as well.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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