By 3 a.m. each day before the Common Ground Country Fair, two volunteers with the Sagadahoc Chapter of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association wake in the chapter’s food booth inside the sprawling fairgrounds in Unity. The fair is still quiet, cool and cloaked in darkness, yet inside the booth the lights are on and it’s time for the Sagadahoc volunteers to make the vegan baked beans.

The chapter sells an average of 1,000 servings of baked beans at each year’s fair, which is known for its strict local and organic requirements and plentiful plant-based options spread over two food courts.

“We get things ready the night before and start at 2 or 3 in the morning,” said George Sergeant, coordinator of the Sagadahoc MOFGA food booth who farms Patchwork Gardens in Brunswick with his wife, Sue. Both are among the roughly 20 volunteers from the chapter who will staff the booth during this year’s fair, which runs from Sept. 20 to 22.

The chapter uses the money raised at the fair to fund its community service projects, such as helping maintain the vegetable garden plots at the Bath Housing Authority.

“We were at the first fair in Litchfield in 1977,” Sergeant said of the Sagadahoc Chapter. “We started out with just cider and switchel. Then we made granola bars for a while. We made soup one year. Somebody else was doing baked beans and gave it up so we took it over. We’ve been doing baked beans for at least 25 years, since it was in Windsor.” (The fair moved to the 300-acre MOFGA headquarters in Unity in 1998.)

The Sagadahoc Chapter of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has been selling vegan baked beans at the Common Ground Country Fair for some 25 years. Photo courtesy of Sagadahoc MOFGA Chapter

For $5 a bowl, the baked beans from Sagadahoc MOFGA are one of many ways to experience the diversity and richness of Maine-grown beans at this year’s fair.

Inside the Exhibition Hall, hundreds of small bowls hold shiny, jewel-like ovals. Many of these dry bean entries from Maine organic gardeners and farmers sport ribbons awarded by the fair judges.

To win a blue ribbon, dry beans must be “an excellent example of that variety,” according to Amy Leblanc, who is an Exhibition Hall coordinator, sits on the Fair Steering Committee, farms at Whitehill Farm in Wilton and cultivates multiple bean varieties. She said the judges consult a library of seed catalogs along with online listings to make their determinations.

The fair gets between 150 and 200 entries of dry beans each year, LeBlanc said. Many trace their origin to the late Sam Birch, who used to enter up to 100 varieties of dry beans at the Common Ground fair. LeBlanc’s own entries this year include Christmas lima beans, black garbanzo beans and red cranberry beans.

“There are some beans in the Exhibition Hall that are staples,” LeBlanc told me by phone, “like the French horticultural beans and the black turtles and the orcas. Those are always on the table, and sometimes three or four people will bring those beans. Then there are what I call my curiosity attacks.”

By “curiosity attacks,” LeBlanc means beans she is drawn to cultivate because they have an unusual color or are a rare variety or are simply beautiful. She, like many other growers, will be scrutinizing this year’s bean entries for inspiration for next year’s garden.

The dry beans and dry corn entered in the Exhibition Hall are always grown the previous year, since the current season’s dry crops aren’t ready by the time the fair takes place. This year, LeBlanc is growing eye of the goat, Bantu and Fort Portal jade beans, which she plans to enter next year.

“Beans are just fascinating in all their shapes and colors,” said LeBlanc, who cooks beans regularly and makes jewelry and decorative objects using dry beans and other seeds. “I love it when people reach out and put their fingers in those bowls of beans.”

(I admit, I am one of those people, and I’m so glad to learn it’s not just me. When I dip my fingers among these edible gems, I feel a current — a life force? — dance along my hands as I let the beans run through my fingers.)

LeBlanc and other volunteers are curating a Three Sisters display in the hall that highlights ancient bean varieties along with corn and squash varieties that are among crops that have been cultivated for thousands of years by the Wabanaki people of Maine.

Outside the Exhibition Hall is the Country Kitchen Demos tent, where two speakers will offer workshops on making vegan dishes from beans.

Flora Brown, who farms Frinklepod Farm in Arundel and teaches vegan cooking classes in the farm’s commercial kitchen, will talk about Plant-Based Proteins in a Local Foods Diet at 10 a.m. Friday. Brown will demonstrate how to work with Heiwa Tofu, Lalibela Farm black bean tempeh and dry beans from Baer’s Best at Lover’s Brook Farm in South Berwick. She plans to emphasize techniques rather than specific recipes. For cooking dry beans, Brown said, “I do love my instant pot,” which can shave hours of soaking and cooking beans down to about an hour.

On Friday at 4 p.m. and Saturday at 3 p.m., dietitian Martin Miller will demonstrate how to make vegan burgers. Martin teaches cooking classes at the Olive Branch Cafe in Lewiston, local churches and other locations. He’ll show how to make oil-free, plant-based burgers from black beans and oats. He is a fan of the instant pot, too, and will demonstrate how to use one.

Back at the Sagadahoc MOFGA booth, the bean variety on offer is Marafax, which “work very well” as a baked bean, according to Sergeant. Grown for the Sagadahoc chapter at Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, Marafax is an heirloom bean long favored by local baked bean makers. It was cooked in bean holes in Maine logging camps beginning in the early 1800s, and many believe the plump, golden bean has ties to the Passamaquoddy Nation, which is also where the better known (and documented) baked bean variety Jacob’s cattle originated.

In contrast, most commercial baked bean manufacturers use navy beans or other white beans.

“Peacemeal grows the Marafax special for us,” Sergeant said. “We also use some Jacob’s cattle beans. They cook in three or four hours instead of six or eight. We can put Jacob’s cattles on if we’re going to run out.”

Some years (especially if the temperature drops) Sagadahoc MOFGA sells out of its vegan baked beans, both the Marafax and the Jacob’s cattle, proving these ancient bean varieties still retain their popular appeal.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]

Twitter/AveryYaleKamila


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.