GOULDSBORO, Maine — When Cynthia and Bill Thayer came to Gouldsboro from Massachusetts and started organic farming at Darthia Farm in 1976, they had dreams but not certainty about how their life in Maine would work out.
Forty years later, they’ve figured out how to extend their agriculture season by selling Christmas wreaths and jams and jellies by mail. They have settled into the community, with Bill Thayer, now 79, serving as a longtime selectman in the town of Gouldsboro. They even managed to rebuild after a devastating fire in 2012 that killed most of their livestock, including three draft horses, two pigs, two calves, more than a dozen sheep and about 60 chicks.
But finding a successor to take over the farm they love who will make sure it remains a part of Gouldsboro has been a different kind of challenge, as it is for many farmers in Maine. Back in 2002, the Thayers joined the Maine Farmland Trust’s FarmLink service, through which the nonprofit organization helps connect people seeking farmland with farmland owners who are looking to sell, lease or work out nontraditional tenure arrangements.
Now, the Thayers believe they have finally found the right family for the job: Steve Eaton, 31, Liz Moran, 28, and their two young children, Cedar, 1, and Harbor, 4. The young family moved to a separate house on Darthia Farm in February and settled into their new home and farm this spring.
“There have been some really cool things,” Eaton said. “Everything is just so good. And my kids really love being with Cynthia and Bill. Harbor got her first lesson on a stirrup hoe today … She’s helped me plant so much this year and now she’s helping with weeding, and it’s great. We knew we wanted to do farming for life. The only way that could happen was living on the farm.”
Bill Thayer said that although many 79-year-olds would like to retire, he doesn’t.
“But I do want to slow down. Steve and Liz are perfect for allowing that process to take place,” he said. “The goal is for Steve and Liz to own the farm, and for us to live out our years here.”
Although no legal contracts have been signed yet, Eaton said that for his family, finding Darthia Farm and the Thayers is more than they had imagined. They’d been living and working in Long Island, New York, before moving to Maine, and ran into “a lot of dead ends” in New York when they searched for a way to obtain a farm of their own. They signed up for FarmLink last summer and began searching through the listings.
“We didn’t have any money and we didn’t want to take out a huge loan mortgage to buy something. We have two children and felt it would be really difficult to start from scratch,” Eaton said. “That first night we saw the listing for Darthia Farm, and it sounded like the Thayers were just really interested in figuring something out.”
Eaton and Moran drove to the farm to look around. They met the Thayers, saw the animals, went for a swim on the property — and pinched themselves.
“I kind of couldn’t believe where we were,” Eaton said.
After another visit and some conversations, they worked out a plan with the Thayers to come to the farm in 2016 and be the farm managers. Next year, if all continues to go well, the Thayers and Eaton and Moran will start the legal process to become full partners in the business. That partnership will mean the Thayers can be involved in the farm as much as they want yet relax in the knowledge that the younger farmers have responsibility for its success, too.
“The joint goal is that Cynthia and Bill can flourish here for the rest of their lives and we can grow our life here and evolve with the farm,” Eaton said.
Darthia Farm is special to the Thayers, who came here to try the back-to-the-land life after Bill Thayer had worked for many years in the insurance industry. When he started farming at age 39, he was hardly a young hippie “who had copped out on society.”
“I didn’t used to admit I was in the insurance business,” he joked. “But I can’t really knock it. The fact that I have that business background helps me here.”
But the farm, which has hosted more than 270 apprentices over the decades, also is special to many others who have participated in its community supported agriculture program, shopped at its farm store, visited its booth at the Winter Harbor farmers market and gone on wagon and sleigh rides hosted by Bill Thayer. The fact that many people care about Darthia Farm became very apparent after the 2012 fire, when the help started soon after the flames were extinguished and lasted until the new barn was raised. People from all over donated nearly $100,000 to the Thayers to help them rebuild, and also gave them new chickens, piglets, feed, tools, lumber, labor and more.
“We feel blessed that the community here has been so kind to us,” Bill Thayer said. “I have a list of names here of people who donated money or work or time helping us. It’s over a thousand names, and it’s people from all over the country.”
He said that he was surprised, and very heartened, by all the support. He’s also gladdened by the way things are working out with the new farm family.
“They’ll make a number of changes — but we’ll be able to live out our lives in a place that we love,” Bill Thayer said. “It’s a good thing to do, but selfishly I think it’s a good thing for us.”
Eaton said that he believes that similar nontraditional tenure agreements could help other farmers, both old and young, around the state.
“I think there’s probably a lot of people my age who are having trouble figuring out how they can make farming a lifelong pursuit,” he said. “And I think there’s probably other people who feel similarly to Cynthia and Bill. I hope that more people consider this as a really viable option for the future.”