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These singing farmers want to change how Mainers buy flour

Posted March 01, 2017, at 7:40 a.m.
Last modified March 01, 2017, at 9:51 a.m.

UNITY, Maine — In the yellow-painted music room of their sunlit farmhouse, Johanna Davis and Adam Nordell changed their shoes, pulled out their fiddle and guitar and began to play and sing a toe-tapping song about working hard on the farm with the help of the one you love.

Talk about art imitating life. Davis and Nordell, the musicians behind the popular folk music act “Sassafras Stomp,” spent the last few months playing at contra dances, house concerts and other venues all over the country. But when spring comes, they will turn their focus to Songbird Farm, where they grow organic dry beans, grains, flint corn and vegetables on 13 or so acres in cultivation on the Stevens Road in Unity.

“We’re really lucky to get to farm and to play music for a living,” Nordell said. “Neither thing is easy and fun all the time, but overall they’re very rewarding things to do.”

Nordell, 33, is a Montana native who came east after high school to attend the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. As a student there in the early 2000s, he got pulled into the enthusiasm for the local food movement and small-scale farming that was sweeping through the campus and did internships on several organic farms. But back then, at least, he avoided catching the farming bug.

“I learned a lot and I was done,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a farmer.”

But that was before he met Davis, 28, the sister of one of his college classmates. She had grown up working in the garden and canning food with her family at their home in the Lincoln County village of Round Pond and was interested in that kind of back-to-the-land lifestyle. After high school, Davis didn’t really know what she wanted to do with her life, but she suspected it would not include college.

“School is not my thing,” she said, smiling.

Instead, she dove into experiential learning, first working on a startup sheep dairy farm in Whitefield and then spending nine months doing woodworking at the Carpenter’s Boat Shop in Bristol, where she learned how to build traditional wooden boats. After that, she stayed to help run the boat shop’s large garden, which fed the crew, then spent a season working on a diversified organic farm off the coast of Washington state.

“They were growing really great crops in a good way,” Davis recalled. “After that farm experience, I thought OK. I want to do this.”

Following the song of the land

By the time she and Nordell met through her brother, Davis was certain she wanted to be a farmer, just as he knew he wanted to be a musician. Somehow, they have found a way to make their dual dreams work, first beginning their musical collaboration in 2008 with a grant-funded artists’ residency in the now-closed Montana Artists Refuge, which led to the formation of Sassafras Stomp. The farming part came a little later, when the couple moved back to Maine in 2010. That year, they started Songbird Farm on a very small scale in Lincoln County, raising vegetables and also a half-acre of dry beans and a half-acre of Hopi Blue corn, a variety that was developed hundreds of years ago on the mesas of northern Arizona. By the following year, they uprooted their farm and moved it to Starks, where they leased land on the Sandy River and figured out how to grow their business.

“We started doing the regular diverse veggies to sell at farmers market and through CSAs,” Davis said. “But there are a bajillion diversified veggie farms. We have to stand out.”

For them, that meant making the decision to increase their production of beans, grains and corn.

“The local food economy is well set-up for vegetables. People have their CSA farm that they are connected to and love,” Nordell said. “It seems the number of farms is growing even faster than the market is, which means people have to get creative.”

They noticed there is a lot of attention paid in Maine to local vegetables, meats and dairy products. But right now, few people consider where their carbohydrates come from. The farmers believe that mindset eventually will change. Their cornmeal and flour is fresh and flavorful, they said, adding that is not always the case with the commodities found on supermarket shelves.

“There are things that taste way better than flour that’s been sitting there for who knows how long — although grains are a commodity crop, and people are used to paying nothing for them,” Davis said.

There has been a learning curve. Many in Maine don’t remember or realize that just a few generations ago, lots of local farms grew and milled grains like wheat, oats, rye and corn. When the Songbird farmers showed up at the Common Ground Country Fair one year selling bags of sweet, nutty cornmeal made from Abenaki Flint, lots of potential customers were curious.

“People were asking where the flour came from,” Davis said, adding that the cornmeal has caught on despite that. “It’s our best success. It has a little bit of a following, which we’re grateful for.”

They also grew hard red winter wheat for bread flour, Polish rye, buckwheat, oats and dry beans in a cornucopia of colors. There are red-and-white speckled Jacob’s cattle beans, golden-orange Marfax beans, black beans and Soldier beans, which are white with reddish markings that made them look like their namesake 18th-century toy soldiers.

“It’s a neat thing about Maine, all the heritage beans. People are so proud of their beans,” Nordell said.

During their four years in Starks, the couple learned more about growing grains, corn and beans, achieved organic certification and also established their Pantry Share CSA, which they believe is the first locally-grown flour and bean farm share in Maine.

“It’s something we’re proud of,” Nordell said.

Getting to Waldo County

Still, the couple was on the hunt for a farm to buy. In 2014, through the Maine Farmland Trust’s Farmlink program, they learned about Tim Christensen’s Green Earth Gardens farm in Unity. Christensen, a longtime biology instructor at Colby College in Waterville, was sick and wanted his farm to be in good hands before he died.

“It was kind of a neat transfer,” Davis said. “He wanted us to come every week to have meetings with him, about his systems and his land.”

Christensen wanted the young Songbird farmers to succeed, they said. He died not long after the purchase was finalized in the fall of 2014. Part of his legacy is his lovingly maintained farm, consisting of 40 acres in Unity, a farmhouse and a significant amount of farm infrastructure, such as the two large greenhouses. The farm’s location was also a big draw for Davis and Nordell.

“There’s such a strong, warm community of other farmers and homesteaders in Unity,” Davis said. “There’s a diversity of folks here, the Amish folks, the multi-generational conventional dairy farmers, the back-to-the-land folks and the new young farmers.”

The move to Waldo County has allowed them to expand their farm business. This year, they are partnering with Sam Mudge of Grange Corner Farm in Lincolnville to provide more organic grains in their Pantry Share CSA. Last year, Songbird Farm had 35 customers for the Pantry Share and are hoping that number will double now that they’ve joined forces with Mudge. Customers sign up early in the season — the list is open now — and pay for a share, which this year costs $175 for 70 pounds of organic, locally grown and milled beans and grains.

Offerings include Abenaki Flint cornmeal, “Warthog” whole wheat flour, Early Riser cornmeal, rye flour, cracked rye cereal, popcorn, heirloom dry beans, buckwheat flour, yellow grain peas and cracked oatmeal.

While the Pantry Share might cost more in one fell swoop than people are used to paying for flour and beans, the Songbird farmers believe it is a good value. It’s also unique in that there is just one pickup in the fall at various locations statewide.

“It’s been really cool connecting with people who are excited for local grains,” Davis said. “Everything stores well, so we can have a really wide customer base, with folks from all over.”

Their busiest time on the farm is in the fall, when they harvest root crops and their corn, which they have to pick by hand. Last fall, they grew four acres of corn and had a harvest party.

“Fifty people came. It was a whole wall of people marching through the field,” Nordell said.

After the harvest came the husking, when the farmers sat down to husk a veritable mountain of corn. Then, after the harvest, the processing and the delivery, they take a break from the farm and turn their attention once again to Sassafras Stomp. In the last few months, Nordell and Davis performed in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania. At performances of what they describe as “sweet, high energy folk music,” they find that there’s a lot of interest in the couple’s other life as part of Maine’s growing young farmer movement, and they’re happy to share stories of their life back home on Songbird Farm.

Turns out, it’s hard to separate the farmer from the musician, and that’s the way both Nordell and Davis like it.

“I feel like both of these things make the other sustainable for me,” Davis said.

 

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