EAST CHAPMAN, Maine — A group of Job Corps students joined volunteers to plant this year’s crops for Catholic Charities’ Farm for ME garden off the East Chapman Road in mid-June.
This marks the second year the garden has been planted, with produce destined for Aroostook County food banks beginning in the fall. Last year, about two acres were put in, with that size increased this year.
Jim and Marty Pritchard donate the parcel for use for the garden and volunteer each year in planting and maintaining it.
“We have doubled our planting this year and added crops to the mix. Last year, we grew beets, rutabagas and squash. This year, we are growing beets, rutabagas, squash [two varieties], onions, kale, cabbage and carrots, as well as a few tomato plants. We also put in 20 highbush blueberry plants at our other farmland operation in Caribou,” said Dixie Shaw, Catholic Charities’ director of hunger and relief services.
Shaw said 8,000 pounds of food were distributed last year, but “we expect to easily triple that this year, with a better yield due to better crop management, more cooperative weather and less weeds.”
She said the first year was incredibly challenging because of the amount of rain.
“It affected our ability to thin the plants properly and control the weeds,” Shaw said. “We grow these vegetables organically, therefore the weed control is handled by constant tilling. When the ground is constantly wet, it poses a problem. Also, the land had not been farmed in years, so it was a bit out of control. We have worked it for two years now, so we are winning the weed battle — we hope.”
Planting was completed the last week in June with the rutabagas, beets and carrots going in.
“They were planted by our steering committee member, organic crop guru and team leader, John Chartier. John is the Aroostook County representative for [the Maine Organic Farm Growers Association]. He has advised us and directed us through this planting season. John, with the help of Bob Travers, put in seeds once the ground designated for them was tilled again,” said Shaw.
The majority of seedlings, however, were planted over several hours on June 17, with the help of many volunteers — the majority from Loring Job Corps.
“We all worked hard, and it took many hands,” Shaw said.
She said the young men from Job Corps had never done anything like it before but were eager to learn and help.
“They expressed to me how happy they were to be part of this project. … Without their help and all the other volunteers, we would have been days getting that much work done,” said Shaw.
The seedlings used were specifically grown for this project.
“John Chartier started the kale, some cabbage and squash in his greenhouse, and Randy Martin of The King’s Gardener in Presque Isle donated the onion plants, some larger cabbage plants and more varieties — some cucumber plants and several large tomato plants — to our efforts,” noted Shaw.
Since the organization received so many tomato plants from Martin, a small garden also was planted outside the Food Bank in Caribou.
Shaw said that one is called “Fred’s Garden” after Fred Schieber, the assistant food bank director, who wanted a small show-and-tell project on site to show to visitors who might not get out to the organization’s fields.
Shaw said the Catholic Charities’ farm project is unique to other local growing projects.
“We distribute some of the vegetables fresh-picked from the field, such as last year, we had beet greens available first and distributed them early. We picked a few rutabagas and squash and distributed them to our pantries right from the field. But the bulk of our efforts is sent to Northern Girl in Limestone and Van Buren to be stored in a climate-controlled facility, sliced, diced, vacuum packed and/or frozen in convenient two-pound packs for easy preparation in one’s own kitchen,” Shaw said.
Northern Girl is a micro-processing company that specializes in organic vegetable packaging and sells its products throughout the state.
“This relationship with Northern Girl allows us the opportunity to distribute our vegetables to our pantries in the winter months of December-April, when people are struggling the most with food insecurity,” Shaw said.
“The winter is the hardest time for folks in Aroostook. Heat costs and electricity bills and the darkness and cold of winter can be so challenging for so many. To have these locally-grown and nutritious items in convenient packages is such a blessing for so many,” she added.
Shaw said they have their own labels that indicate “they’re grown by our efforts at our Farm for ME project.”
“We have also been able to package some of the donated fresh veggies we have received from others, if the quantity is large enough,” she said.
This processing opportunity with Northern Girl has allowed the project to stretch the perishable food items’ window of opportunity to new heights, allowing more nutritious foods for more people in need.
Recipients also enjoyed the convenience of the prepared and packaged foods.
“A large rutabaga can be intimidating to a young person who may have never prepared or eaten one,” said Shaw. “It can also be overwhelming for an older person who may not have the ability to physically prepare it, or it may be more than they’re able to eat. Older folks don’t want to waste food, so they may pass an opportunity to get a fresh, whole rutabaga.”
Shaw said the response was so positive last year that Catholic Charities hopes to replicate the project throughout the state — hence the name Farm for ME.
The Chapman garden is one of two such projects in The County established to raise food for those less fortunate. The Caribou parcel was planted in early June.
“We planted 20 highbush blueberry bushes on our own land in Caribou, behind our office building on South Main Street — formerly the Doctors’ Center. This land and building was donated to Catholic Charities a few years ago by Dr. Simone. We had hoped to do the majority of our farming on the nine acres of farmland up behind that office building, but when we had soil samples taken, it was not advised to spend the money and energy to get the land prepared for vegetable planting,” said Shaw, noting, “we were, however, advised it might be a good place for some blueberries or raspberry bushes to grow.”
With the support of Sam Blackstone of Circle B Farms in Caribou, 20 plants were selected for this year with the Loring Job Corps students again helping to get them in the ground.
The hope is to expand the fruit plantings at that site annually.
“We plan to plant additional plants each year until we fill the field. We plant what we can afford each year, so money will determine how many plants we plant. But our goal is no less than 20 per year, until we have the entire plot filled,” said Shaw.
She said each plant will take four to five years to produce fruit, so this is a long-term plan.
“I call it my 20-year plan. I should be 80 for the first harvest,” Shaw laughed.
For more information or to make a donation, call Shaw at 493-8919.