May 24, 2018
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Maine farmer chooses organic living over Iowa agribusiness roots

By Lauren Abbate, BDN Staff

UNITY — When Carole Mapes moved to Maine five years ago, she had a plan.

With a passion for the environment and a desire to travel, she was going to find work in the Northeast, then migrate down south and eventually out west.

But after securing a job as an apprentice at Fail Better Farm in Etna, Mapes — who grew up on a large corn and soy farm in Iowa — quickly dashed her original plans.

“I had never been [to Maine],” Mapes said. “Then when I ended up here and there was MOFGA and [a] very rich and full community of small farms, I kind of started thinking, ‘You know, maybe this was the place to be.’”

Although she never pictured herself pursuing agriculture despite her heartland roots, Mapes has excelled as a farming apprentice in Maine and this year was selected to serve as the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s farmer in residence for the next two years.

As the farmer in residence at MOFGA, Mapes has been given a chance to get a farm of her own off the ground, while being fully supported by Maine’s oldest and largest farming association. Through the residency, Mapes is living on MOFGA’s Unity fairgrounds and has been given access to farm in an expansive field just beyond the barns that house animals during the annual Common Ground Country Fair. On top of having full access to MOFGA’s farming equipment and agricultural services staff, the farmer in residence is provided with living and education stipends.

Mapes admits this opportunity is a pretty sweet gig, one that’s invaluable to beginning farmers who are trying to make a go of a business of their own.

“I sometimes think about it and am like, ‘Wow, I’m really lucky,’” Mapes said. “It’s hard to imagine where I would be in this first year farming without being here.”

An invaluable experience

Farmers in residence are selected once every two or three years through an application process. Daniel MacPhee, educational programs director at MOFGA, said the farmer in residence program is ideal for farmers like Mapes who have several years of farming under their belt but face some barriers in getting footing on a farm of their own.

“We all come from different backgrounds with different resources, whether those resources are financial or family or land or skills we have. But depending on what we carry in our backpack it kind of colors the trajectory for a beginner farmer, so this program is one way that can make land more accessible and make an entry into the occupation as a serious commercial farmer more approachable,” MacPhee said.

Farmers in residence are selected based on their years of experience farming in a climate like Maine as well as for having a well thought out business idea. While MOFGA’s ground cannot support all types of farms — particularly livestock operations — the farmer in residence is encouraged to pursue a farming operation that makes sense to them and that they’re passionate about.

Most of the previous farmers in residence have grown diversified vegetables, but Mapes will be filling the MOFGA hoop house and field with organic flowers. Her business, Flywheel Flowers, is the result of dabbling in growing flowers while she was an apprentice on Cornerstone Farm in Palmyra, where she was tasked with harvesting weekly bunches of zinnias for market.

Aside from spending her days among an aesthetic crop, Mapes also was drawn to the idea of growing flowers because it would allow her to cultivate a manageable acreage while still generating enough income.

“[With flowers] you can cram a lot of crops into a pretty small area,” Mapes said. “It’s a pretty good dollar value per acre of what you’re growing, so it’s something that you can grow a pretty small acreage of and make a decent living.”

Mapes plans to grow about 50 varieties of flowers this summer, selling fresh-cut flowers at farmers markets in Bangor, Ellsworth, Camden and Northeast Harbor. Mapes will sell dried flowers at the Common Ground Country Fair in the fall.

As Mapes is getting settled as the farmer in residence, MacPhee said folks in the MOFGA community are intrigued with Mapes’ flower focused farm. With locally grown organic vegetables widely available across the state, MacPhee said offering organic flowers is a good way to stand out at markets.

“Ther marketplace gets pretty crowded,” MacPhee said. “Right now I think flowers are following in the footsteps of what local vegetables were doing a decade ago. […] It’s just the dawning of local flowers, and that’s really something.”

From monocrops to flowers

Mapes grew up on a 400-acre soy and corn farm in Iowa, but she didn’t plan on becoming a farmer.

“I never had an interest in agriculture growing up. […] But it was just like an unavoidable part of growing up in the community that I grew up in,” Mapes said.

However, growing up in that agriculturally rich community instilled a love of the environment. In college Mapes studied environmental education, with a plan to become a teacher. Upon realizing public speaking was not her strong suit, Mapes began working on a small CSA farm in Iowa after college.

When Mapes was looking for farming work in the Northeast, she accepted the MOFGA apprenticeship in Fail Better Farm because she had never been to Maine and wanted to explore. When she arrived and found a nature rich state with a dense community of small farmers and people who appreciate local food, she knew she found a place where she could achieve the lifestyle she wanted.

“For the past four years I’ve gone to the Orono Farmers Market almost every Saturday,” Mapes said. “There’s a crazy amount of community around that market. All the vendors know each other, all the customers know each other. That’s just a […] perfect example of why I stayed in Maine.”

Being able to farm in a community that embraces organic growing practices has also boded well with Mapes’ environmental consciousness. While she says the farming community in Iowa is becoming increasingly aware of the need for sustainable agriculture practices, she said the Midwest is accustomed to the traditional industrial-scale agriculture that the region has become known for.

Her father’s 400-acre farm is considered small compared to the 1,000-acre farming operations in the area, but Mapes said her father doesn’t quite understand why anyone would farm in the labor intensive way Maine’s small-scale farmers are.

“We’re starting to connect on things, but he still thinks I’m a little crazy,” Mapes said. “[In Iowa] there is an understanding and an appreciation for [small-scale farming], but at the same time it’s like, ‘Why would we do it this way?’”

With Maine stealing her heart, Mapes’ original plan to travel throughout the U.S. never quite panned out, and she’s still uncertain what the next few years will look like. Her hope is that the two years she will spend as the farmer-in-residence at MOFGA will help get Flywheel Flowers to a point where once her residency is over she can purchase land of her own and continue her business.

For now she sees her dreams for Flywheel Flowers unfolding in Maine. But Mapes hasn’t ruled out bringing the organic farming lessons she’s learned back to the family farm in Iowa at some point down the road.

“Not anytime soon,” Mapes said. “It’s something that I just think about, rumbling around in the back of my head.”

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