PERRY, Maine — Dairy farmer Herb McPhail tensely clutched a coffee cup and hung around outside the Perry School gymnasium, pacing in the hallway.
“I’m too nervous to eat,” he admitted.
This was a new situation for McPhail, who usually spends much of his time in solitude, taking care of his “girls” — 19 Jersey milking cows.
Inside the gym were more than 200 friends and strangers who had come together to help McPhail.
“I never in my life thought I’d see a benefit for a Maine dairy farmer,” said Bill Eldridge, executive director of Maine’s Own Organic Milk Co. — one of the event sponsors and the company that buys McPhail’s milk.
“But this is what people are supposed to do,” said David Gholson of Eastport. “We help each other.”
The event was organized by Perry Citizens for Responsible Growth and sponsored by MOOMilk and Tide Mill Farm, as well as more than 40 local businesses and individuals that gave prizes for a raffle.
Carrying dishes of food through the door — cookies and pies, bowls of salad, plates of cake and pots of baked beans — visitors still stopped to pay the $6 meal ticket. The idea was pitched as a celebration of Maine agriculture — every potluck dish was supposed to have at least one local ingredient.
Some people ran in, dropped off some cash, and bustled out again, unable to stay for the meal. Inside, a local band played lively music while children chased each other between tables.
In the end, more than $3,000 was raised to help McPhail, who was dumbstruck at the outpouring of support.
“This is unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t even know a lot of these people here. I can see by this that they want farming here.”
Bill Love of Perry said that is exactly why he and his wife, Mona Love, came to the dinner.
“This is not just about Herbie but about the whole dairy industry,” he said. “It’s about maintaining an infrastructure.”
Jeanne Guisinger, one of the organizers, said, “I think that all of us feel that sustainable agriculture is important. First of all, Herb is a small business, and many of us here are small businesses. We need to support these vital local ventures. Washington County is a treasure-trove of small businesses.”
Guisinger said that the Farm Aid-style supper plan began when members of the Perry committee asked themselves what they could do to help. “The idea just kept growing and growing. It got fun and exciting, and it felt right,” she said.
Carol Bryan is also an organic farmer and McPhail’s neighbor.
“As a neighbor, I knew Herb was really stretched financially,” she said. “Once the word began to spread, it was really impressive how many people wanted to support this. I mean, we all benefit. I get Herb’s manure.”
Susan Plachy donated a handmade quilt to the event’s raffle. “Being a small-business person in the same town, I was thinking that I get to do what I love, and Herb loves his cows. I hope the money helps make the hole a little more shallow, and I hope he survives so he can prosper.”
When asked to speak to the hundreds gathered for him, McPhail said simply: “Thank you for coming out tonight and for your support for me and the girls.”