January 16, 2019
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Young Maine couple give up city life, take on challenge at Monroe farm

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series about a young couple beginning a farming life in Monroe. Sign up for the weekly Homestead newsletter to never miss an update. 

MONROE, Maine — On a mild March day, Noami Brautigam struggled to work a broadfork into soil inside a greenhouse, surrounded by fields still covered in 2 feet of snow.

The ground was tough to work, still partially frozen from winter, but she wanted to plant a few spinach seedlings to see if they’d survive the unusually cold spring season inside the structure.

For 28-year-old Brautigam, planting on her own farm is a dream come true. Ten years ago, she worked on a farm. Later, she tended a market garden on land in New Hampshire owned by her cousin, growing vegetables to sell at local farmers markets.

“That is when I decided that I would like to become a farmer,” she said.

Eventually she moved to Maine to work on other farms, and she started waiting tables in Portland as well to save money. That’s where she met her fiance, James Gagne, 30, who was a program manager at Preble Street Veterans Housing Services.

Brautigam and Gagne are among the crop of young people sowing farming dreams in the Pine Tree State. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 census, the number of farmers age 34 and younger grew nearly 40 percent between 2007 and 2012. The increase far surpassed the 1.5 percent increase in young farmers in the U.S. as a whole, according to the census.

What’s more, the pair has moved toward making their dream come true with a unique lease/buy agreement with the farm’s owners.

Buying the farm

Until recently, Brautigam and Gagne lived in a one-bedroom apartment near downtown Portland. But in March, they traded city life for an agrarian one in rural Monroe at the farm they’ve dubbed Dickey Hill Farm.

It was in that Portland apartment that Brautigam and Gagne began looking for land to tend and discovered that the first property they found — the Monroe farm — was perfect.

“It looked right, it felt right and everything worked on paper when we did our business plan,” said Gagne.

The property is owned by Eric and Alison Rector, a couple in their 50s who want to step back from the land they’ve tended for 25 years and have more time for other pursuits. About five years ago they developed a 10-year plan, which included selling their home and some of the land and building a smaller house to live in adjacent to their farm property. Brautigam and Gagne were just what they wanted: a younger couple looking for a turnkey farm complete with animals to be tended, fields to be maintained and fruit trees to be managed.

“We decided that we don’t want to have the same workload 10 years from now, but we are not ready to get out of all aspects of the the farm right away,” said Eric Rector, an IT consultant who also is an artisan cheesemaker, selling yogurt and cheese at the Belfast Farmers Market and a few local retailers.

When Brautigam and Gagne found the “for sale” listing on Maine Farmland Trust’s Farmlink program in early 2014, which advertised a house with a barn and about 18 acres, they began talks with the owners, who wanted to transition the property instead of just selling it and moving. After meeting with several interested parties, the Rectors chose Brautigam and Gagne because they already had a business plan, specific ideas and farming experience.

Rector came up with the idea of establishing a limited liability company, which would allow shared ownership for the transitional period. During this period, the Rectors maintain use of the commercial kitchen in the barn, and help with the upkeep of the orchard and other aspects of the land. A set of bylaws binds the shareholders of the LLC to do regular maintenance of the buildings and land and also determines how the shares can be bought or sold.

After a two-year lease period, which serves as a trial during which either party can back out of the agreement, Brautigam and Gagne will begin purchasing shares of the farm. Over the course of about 20 years, they will become sole owners of the property and farm equipment. There also is an option for Brautigam and Gagne to buy out the Rectors sooner.

Drafted with the aid of lawyers, the lengthy agreement is very detailed to ensure that the property, including the land and buildings on it, is protected during the sale and beyond. Although the Rectors didn’t farm for a living (Alison Rector is an artist), they have grown much of their food and maintained the land with organic practices. They want the land to continue to be maintained as an agriculturally viable property, so that’s part of the agreement as well.

“We knew we could not afford a traditional mortgage, so this was perfect for us,” Gagne said as he and Brautigam hauled boxes out of their Portland apartment on moving day in late February.

Work begins

After a little more than two months living on the farm, the two couples are settling into their new roles. Brautigam is a full-time farmer, tending to the land and the animals. Gagne arranged with his company to work remotely, based out of the midcoast, but helps whenever he can.

Although the contract wasn’t signed until early 2015, the Rectors allowed Brautigam and Gagne to till an acre of the farm last fall so it would be ready for the spring planting season. On that land, they will begin with organic vegetable growing and plan to become a certified organic producer. They also will be keeping chickens and pigs.

This season, Brautigam will begin selling organically grown vegetables from Dickey Hill Farm at farmers markets in Bucksport and Brewer. She also has created a Community Supported Agriculture program at her farm, and is selling shares for spring, summer and fall programs. The program will help her generate startup capital for the growing season.

Seedlings have sprouted in trays located in the farmhouse near bright windows. Now that winter has released its grip, more have been planted and moved to the greenhouse. The large barn is in the process of being organized. In exchange for a calf, Gagne took on the chores of feeding the cows and chickens the Rectors already had.

With guidance from Eric and Alison Rector, Brautigam and Gagne pruned the orchard in late March. Their cooperation extends over many aspects of building and land use, from composting through proper maintenance of the fields to cutting saw logs and firewood and planning for roof repair.

“We had a to-do list for months. It is really satisfying to finally be able check things off the list, but it does not feel like work — it is still fun,” Gagne said.

Follow their journey

Want to know more about the process of starting Dickey Hill Farm? Sign up for the BDN Homestead weekly newsletter to follow this occasional series. For information on the LLC agreement the two couples developed, as well as other details of the property transfer, visit http://farmsteadcooperative.org/.

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