The first time Drew Dumsch saw River Bend Farm, he knew it would be the perfect home for The Ecology School.

Nestled along the Saco River in a rural corner of the city, the 105-acre farm is a mix of farmland, forest and ponds. A farmhouse built in 1794 and a barn from the 1840s sit atop a hill overlooking a bend in the river. More than 3 miles of trails twist across the property.

Five years later after Dumsch first saw the property, The Ecology School is nearing the end of a $14 million project to move the nonprofit ecology- and sustainability-focused school from a rented summer camp at Ferry Beach 10 miles inland to River Bend Farm. By November, the farm will include the two most sustainable buildings in the Northeast, but the property will largely remain untouched by development, said Dumsch, the president and CEO of The Ecology School

“We traded the oceanfront for the river and it’s given us even more educational potential,” he said. “For 21 years we’ve been focused on environmental education. Now we can expand to farming education and be a model for green building.”

The move to the farm will allow the school to expand educational programming in agroecology, the practice of ecology through the lens of sustainable agriculture and food systems. People who visit the farm – including thousands of schoolchildren each year – will dine on food grown in the fields, explore Maine’s ecosystems and sustainable living practices, and stay in a dorms overlooking the forest.

The farm was placed under a conservation easement with the Saco Valley Land Trust in 1998 by former owner Mary Merrill. Representatives of the Saco Valley Land Trust, Merrill family and The Ecology School in 2017  announced that agricultural conservation stewardship of the farm was transferred to the Maine Farmland Trust. That decision followed the mutual settlement of litigation between the Saco Valley Land Trust and Merrill family.

Bill Toomey, president and CEO of Maine Farmland Trust, said the trust is pleased to play a role in the protection of the River Bend property by holding the conservation easement on the land.

“The Ecology School’s commitment to agroecology and environmentally responsible construction and education aligns with MFT’s mission to preserve farmland and advance the future of farming in Maine,” he said.

Dumsch is excited that the transition to River Bend Farm will allow participants to see that through growing food and conserving energy, humans can thrive while nourishing the ecosystems they inhabit.

“It’s not just about preserving property. People can be stewards of the land. We can actually make the land healthier,” Dumsch said.

The Ecology School, which began in the fall of 1999, has served 185,000 people, with an average of 12,000 people a year participating in educational programs. About a third of those people are involved with residential programs. Schools across northern New England send students to The Ecology School on trips.

“Coming to The Ecology School is a rite of passage in many of these schools,” Dumsch said.

After operating for more than two decades in rented spaces that limited when The Ecology School could offer programs, the time has come for it to have its own campus, Dumsch said. To make that happen, the school purchased River Bend Farm for $1.3 million and set out to secure a total of $14 million to build a green campus.

Last year the school was awarded an $8.6 million loan from the USDA Rural Development’s Community Facilities Direct Loan and Guaranteed Loans program, the largest community facilities loan granted to an educational facility in Maine in the past decade. CEI provided another $1.75 million in long-term financing.

Dumsch said the school surpassed 90 percent of its fundraising goal with a recent $500,000 donation from Poland Spring to be used for dining commons. He hopes to raise the remaining $1.2 million through the capital campaign by the end of the year.

In order to open on the farm, the school needed city approval to allow the property – which is under a conservation easement and in a conservation zoning district – to be used for education, which is not an allowed use in that zoning district. The City Council approved a contract zone in 2016 and extended it in 2018 after the lawsuit slowed the project.

The project ran into opposition from neighbors, who raised questions about the appropriate use of land and whether the school is a good fit for a quiet, rural neighborhood. Ultimately, city officials approved the project and the contract zone puts limits on the number of people who can stay at the school.

Tom Merrill, the nephew of Mary Merrill who inherited the farm after her death, now serves on the school’s board of directors and on the River Bend Farm Capital Campaign Committee. He said the school’s use of the farm honors Mary Merrill’s interest in education, conservation and ecology.

“We think she would be thrilled with the idea that it’s going to be used in the way it’s going to be used,” Tom Merrill said.

During the 50 years Mary Merrill lived on the farm, some people were able to visit, but it was not open to the public.

“Sharing that property with more people was one of our goals in selling the place. The idea that hundreds of people will have access to the property is a great thing,” Tom Merrill said. “It’s possibly the most beautiful piece of property in Saco. It’s definitely a special place.”

The Ecology School worked with four architect firms – Kaplan Thompson; Scott Simons; Briburn; and Richardson & Associates – to execute a site plan developed through a comprehensive study of the property. The two new buildings, a dining commons and dormitory, are being built on a small parcel of the property where construction is allowed. Their designs mimic the farmhouse and barn, which will not be changed.

The 7,000-square-foot dining commons and 9,000-square-foot dorm are both built to the specifications of the Living Building Challenge and are certified by the International Living Future Institute, making them the first buildings in Maine to reach that level of sustainability, Dumsch said.

To reach that designation, the buildings must generate more energy than they use; harvest, use and treat all the water they require without burdening municipal infrastructure; and divert materials from the waste stream and move and salvage materials that would otherwise by destined for the landfill according to the institute. The buildings are made with locally sourced materials and avoid certain types of materials, like PVC pipe.

The Ecology School is also the first organization in the world to have an approved master plan as part of the Living Community Challenge, which provides a framework for master planning, design and construction that includes environmental, energy, equity and health standards.

Within months, 718 solar panels will be installed on and next to the dining commons. Starting next week, 62 large raised beds will be built on an acre of cleared fields. A root cellar in the dining commons will allow the school to store some of the food it produces.

Construction at River Bend began last October and is expected to be finished by November. The project avoided delays during the coronavirus pandemic because it relies on construction materials that are made in Maine, not shipped in from elsewhere.

However, the coronavirus could delay the start of in-person programming at River Bend Farm. Dumsch is hopeful conditions will allow for a planned summit in January, but in the meantime the school has created virtual educational activities.

Dumsch believes the coronavirus pandemic has brought to light the importance of relying on locally-grown food, sustainable living and people coming together.

“The pandemic put some things on hold, but the urgency of what we do at the ecology school seems even more relevant,” Dumsch said.

Note: This article was updated at 10 a.m. June 29 to correct the spelling of Kaplan Thompson.

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