FORT KENT, Maine – An area farm family and some gardeners have teamed up with the St. John Valley Soil & Water Conservation District to promote local food production.
A grant from the Quimby Foundation has helped create a food sustainability education campaign “Local Foods for Healthy Tables” and it’s in full swing at the Carroll Theriault farm where a new community garden is springing up next to a successful new commercial operation.
On a recent sunny morning Julie Trudel, one of the organizers behind the Fort Kent Community Garden, was hard at work tending her vegetable plot.
The garden is located off North Perley Brook Road on land that the Theriault family once raised their own produce and cattle on.
This summer the family donated land, expertise and equipment to prepare about an acre where 10-foot-by-20-foot garden plots are marked out for anyone wishing to use them.
“We really want to promote growing our own food,” Trudel said, taking a break from hoeing. “There are a lot of people who would like to have their own gardens but don’t have the space for one.”
In addition to her own garden at home, Trudel said she is experimenting with several beet seed varieties on her community garden plot.
“We need to eat what we grow,” Trudel said, adding the nation’s reliance on agribusinesses producing monocrops could very well lead to a food catastrophe in this country.
“Then there’s all the hidden costs of getting food transported over long distances,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize what they pay in terms of taxes, transportation and health.”
Trudel said she hopes through the Quimby grant, to get the word out on the benefits of locally produced food.
Working alongside Sigrid Houlette at the district soil conservation office, Trudel said they have already offered workshops on organic gardening and the benefits of local foods.
Over the next several months additional classes on cold-weather crops, agricultural marketing, value added produce and transitioning to an organic garden are planned.
“We are really trying to educate people and open some eyes,” Trudel said.
“Locally produced food is just so much better for the community,” Houlette said. “It’s better for your health and just better all the way around.”
Kerry Hafford of St. Agatha has already jumped in feet and hands first into her plot at the community garden where last week she was planting beans, lettuce, zucchini and cucumbers.
“I’m really looking forward to getting things planted today,” Hafford said. “Do you have any tips on getting things ready?” she asked Trudel, who instantly dropped to her knees and demonstrated proper row preparation.
“Community gardens connect people,” John Chartier, of MOFGA, said, as he watched the two women discuss planting techniques. “Weeding can be a tedious task and when you are sweaty and swatting black flies that’s something you can really bond over.”
Chartier was in Fort Kent last week to check out the community garden and to look over Bradley Theriault’s commercial operation next door.
Theriault, 27, is a third generation farmer who’s moved farming indoors and started Theriault’s All Natural Farm.
Thanks to three so-called “high tunnel” structures built from metal tubing and white plastic, Theriault is weeks ahead of the normal St. John Valley season.
“I was harvesting lettuce on May 15,” Theriault said. “Beans are coming in soon.”
Theriault did plant some vegetable crops outside this spring but thanks to what has been a cold and wet growing season so far, he is ready to move the entire operation under cover.
“Inside it’s a different story,” he said. “In the high tunnels I’m at least two months ahead.”
He currently has three of the tunnels and a fourth is under construction.
“This one will be heated, so it’s an actual greenhouse,” Theriault said. “Plus I should be able to grow vegetables year round.”
Farming is hard work, but Theriault said he is living his dream.
“I like it,” he said. “Hard times are coming and I don’t know how people can afford prices at the stores.”
The farmer — who sells his produce on sight and through local grocery stores — wants to keep his prices affordable and make fresh vegetables accessible to everyone.
“In the stores they call the vegetables ‘fresh,’” he said. “But when they come from California 2,000 miles away, how fresh can they be?”
Theriault works two part-time jobs in addition to his farm where his parents are pitching in to help.
“We were raised on farms and never really went to stores to buy food,” his father Carroll Theriault said. “We had cattle when I was young and now I really notice how high the price of food is.”
Carroll Theriault said he was happy to donate land to the community garden and glad it’s being used to produce food.
“Land is so important,” the elder Theriault said. “You can plant a garden but you can’t plant more land.”
There is plenty of interaction between the community gardeners and the Theriaults with knowledge, opinions and techniques for gardening flying back and forth.
Participants are allowed to plant pretty much whatever they want on their plots, Trudel said, but no pesticides are allowed.
Information on the community garden and the Local Foods for Healthy Tables program is available from Houlette at 834-3311.