Margot Kelley in her garden in Port Clyde. Growing in the foreground are pole beans. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Port Clyde author Margot Anne Kelley said her new book, “Foodtopia: Communities in Pursuit of Peace, Love & Homegrown Food,” was inspired in part by a curious pattern she first noticed while shopping at area farmers markets over the past several years.

Kelley, a retired academic and editor of online literary journal The Maine Review, said nearly all market vendors were from the millennial and baby boomer generations, with practically no farmers from her own cohort, Gen X.

After some digging, Kelley came to identify five back-to-the-land movements that she would explore in her book: the 1840s wave, led by luminary naturalists like Henry David Thoreau; a second wave around 1900; a third in the 1930s; the counterculture-driven fourth wave of the ’60s and ’70s; and the current fifth wave, spearheaded by millennials.

The back-to-the-land impulse to live lightly, self-sufficiently and in harmony with the environment doesn’t actually skip generations, Kelley found, but ebbs and flows depending on the country’s economic and social circumstances. And as Gen Xers were coming of age in the 1990s, circumstances at the time made it easier for them to settle into conventional jobs than to break away from society and start farming.

Circumstances were different for millennials, many of whom were looking for their first jobs during the crippling Great Recession.

Maine’s abundant farmland and independent spirit has long attracted back-to-the-landers. The current fifth wave, like their predecessors, emphasizes the societal importance of raising and consuming “good food” – whole, unprocessed ingredients that are tasty, healthy and, importantly, ethically produced.


“The modern back-to-the-land movement is really something different, and it’s pretty exciting,” said Charles Baldwin, a project manager for the Maine Farmland Trust. Baldwin grew up on a communal farm Down East, where his parents and their peers were motivated in part by their distaste for capitalism.

“These kids don’t hold that same animosity toward money. They see it as a valuable tool,” Baldwin said. “And there seems to be a commitment to doing agriculture in as healthy a way as possible, and also to succeed financially, and that’s going to mean these farms are going to make it.”


Published last month, “Foodtopia” explores the common threads that unite the five waves of breakout farmers. “What leads to and connects these movements is the participants’ shared belief that they can create an alternative social order and their sense that they must, because something about mainstream culture strikes them as horribly wrong,” Kelley writes in the book’s introduction.

But millennial farmers seem to have a sense of urgency that differs from previous waves of the movement.

“For this generation, there’s no question, it’s a planetary emergency,” Kelley said. Previous waves were populated by back-to-landers who perceived growing social and cultural emergencies. “They saw the world trending toward the kind of culture that was going to completely sever our relationship to the natural world.”


Environmental crises have upped the stakes for the entire movement. “The PFAS chemicals create a sense of urgency,” Kelley said. “The climate creates a sense of urgency. The way we’ve been farming for the last century is not healthful, and not viable in the long term.”

“The millennials are truly the ones who have gone back to the land,” said Craig Martel, 49, one of the farmers profiled in “Foodtopia.” Martel moved with his wife from Northern Virginia in 2014 to start Greener Days Farm in Waldoboro.

“They’re much more in tune with nature than our generation or even the boomers,” he continued. “I’m a huge advocate of the millennials getting into farming.”

Martel said he mentors as many as 20 young farmers around the country each year because many boomer farmers are now retiring, and he wants to ensure proper farming practices continue to be passed down to future generations.

Though they’re Gen X, the Martels were motivated by the same concerns of the millennial farmers. The couple left their unfulfilling jobs at aerospace company Lockheed Martin to open a hobby farm in Maine, raising heritage breed pigs. But as the litters of their Large Black pigs (a species originally from England) multiplied, the Martels soon found themselves overseeing an actual commercial farm.

Today, Greener Days Farm has more than 300 Large Black pigs in its herd, the largest in the country, according to Martel.


Martel said he sees more people in Maine buying food directly from farmers today than when he and his wife first arrived. That trend was bolstered over the last two years by the pandemic and nationwide food-supply shortages.

The burden is now on small farmers to find ways to make those direct transactions more convenient for those consumers, who value locally-grown food, but might head to the supermarket for the sake of ease. “I think things are very positive right now, we just need to find a way to keep that momentum going,” Martel said.


Kelley said the digital era has made communication and connectivity immeasurably better for the fifth wave, giving today’s young farmers a virtual support network that didn’t exist for earlier waves. They can also meet up, virtually or in-person, with farmers from all over at local, regional and national farming events and conferences.

Elizabeth Siegel, a millennial sheep and chicken farmer featured in “Foodtopia,” said she and her husband, Ethan, decided to leave urban life behind in 2012 and start farming, spurred in part by concerns about GMOs. The Siegels tried farming in Colorado, Pennsylvania and Vermont before opening organically certified Heritage Home Farm in Appleton in 2017.

Siegel said the existence of an established, influential organization like the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, along with inspirational networking and idea-sharing events like the annual Common Ground Country Fair, were major factors in their decision to settle in Maine.


“MOFGA was huge support for us. We got involved with Common Ground Fair,” Siegel said. “And also, the people in Maine are so incredibly friendly. Everyone helps each other out. You kind of have to depend on your neighbors in Maine.”

“There aren’t six degrees of separation in Maine, there’s like two degrees,” Kelley said. “So people can work together and know each other in a way that, if we were a huge state, they wouldn’t be able to.”

John Piotti, president of the American Farmland Trust and former director of the Maine Farmland Trust from 2006 to 2016, said he feels Maine is at the “tip of the spear of the local food movement. I think that movement has really resonated in places like Maine, where there’s a deep sense of true community.”

Piotti added that the efforts of MOFGA to make ethical yet practical farming know-how accessible to back-to-the-landers, combined with the Maine Farmland Trust making viable land parcels available, creates a critical support network for Maine’s farmers.

Additional factors make Piotti optimistic about Maine’s farming future, for the fifth and future waves of farmers. Though it’s not known for having the country’s best soil, Maine nevertheless contains 1 million acres of prime farmland, Piotti pointed out.

“You can grow all the vegetables and fruits consumed by all of New England on a million acres,” Piotti said, adding that it has a favorable climate for a northern state and access to abundant water sources.



Though he believes the state needs to improve its physical farming infrastructure and add critical industry facilities, he said, “In many ways, I think Maine farms are incredibly well positioned for the future.”

Kelley said fifth-wave millennial farmers feel compelled to help transform America’s food production system. She and others noted that previous waves of back-to-the-land food utopians have built the foundation they need to succeed.

“There are so many mechanisms that developed out of the second, third and fourth movements,” Baldwin said. “This fifth wave literally is plug-and-play in some cases,” he added, because the infrastructure for raising, marketing and selling their product was established many years earlier.

“What happened during the 1970s, everything from the reintroduction of organic methods to the re-establishment of farmers markets, has helped this generation of fifth-wave farmers,” Kelley said. “That infrastructure already exists.”

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