PITTSFIELD, Maine ― It’s not as if Heather Donahue and her husband Doug didn’t have enough on their plate when they decided to open the Farm House, a farm to table cafe and store, on their small dairy farm, Balfour Farm, earlier this summer.
The couple are regulars on the farmers’ market circuit throughout central, coastal and southern Maine ― traveling almost daily during the summer to sell their yogurts and cheeses to market shoppers and retailers.
But Donahue knew the old farmhouse that sat at the front of her property still had potential after she and her husband moved out and downsized to a tiny house on the back of the property.
With little rooms that suited themselves for quaint dining areas, and a kitchen that used to be her main creamery, Donahue set out to harken back to her teenage years spent in the foodservice industry by converting the space into a small year round cafe.
“For us [a cafe] made sense. We had the building, we had the kitchen already,” Donahue said. “We could have just done a bakery but we thought that would have been short changing us on the potential of the building because there is so much more to it to that.”
The Farm House cafe and store has been open since May for breakfast and lunch Wednesday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and a monthly Sunday brunch. With a local menu reflecting what’s in season, offerings change frequently. On a recent August Wednesday, the cafe’s chef, Blair Goodmen, had blackberry muffins baking in the oven while he was whipping up a green tomato spice cake. The full menu is available all day so customers can indulge in a Balfour Farm cheese plate for breakfast or a breakfast burrito featuring local sausage or bacon for lunch.
The store aspect of the Farm House offers assorted dried goods, honey, milk, Balfour Farm dairy products and locally made housewares.
Since the couple purchased the farm, Heather Donahue has always envisioned the farmhouse being turned into a bed and breakfast somewhere down the road. The cafe is the first start she is taking toward actualizing that vision. They plan to launch the bed and breakfast with the addition of a couple of rooms next year.
“It was always one of the things I had in mind when we bought this property because it was so big. But we didn’t want anything to do with that when we were living in the house, [Doug] likes his privacy,” Heather Donahue said. “I’m hoping that when we get the bed and breakfast rooms open, that will provide year round stability for us, with people either coming in for [Maine Central Institute] or training at Cianbro.”
The Donahues moved to Maine in 2010 from New York to start Balfour Farm. While living in New York the couple ran a 50-cow organic dairy farm, but when milk prices became stagnant, it became clear they needed to start adding value to their milk by making dairy products. With this in mind the couple moved to central Maine, where the price of land is cheaper and dairy regulations are less strict than in other New England states.
Over the last six years, the Donahues have grown and shrunk their herd of milking cows, settling at a present count of 11. They milk the herd once a day. And now Balfour Farm offers a variety of hard cheeses and soft cheeses as well as yogurts and butter.
After establishing their name and products through the farmers’ markets in the area, Heather Donahue hopes that the farm cafe will work in tangent with the farm in bringing their business success.
“I see the cafe as a cohesive kind of thing [with the farm],” Donahue said. “Balfour Farm at markets is marketing for the cafe and at the same time the cafe is marketing for Balfour Farm and drawing people here either through the store or through the cafe. I think that they kind of can work hand in hand and complement each other.”
The Donahues join several other farm cafes in the central Maine area that have sought to add more value to their farm and the products they produce by adding a prepared food component.
The Stutzman’s family has owned and operated their farm in Sangerville since the 1960s, and four years ago, the farm added a farm buffet and Sunday brunch running from spring to late fall. Rainie Stutzman and her husband, Sid, are the third generation to run the farm, and when their children became involved with running the farm they came up with the idea to open a cafe element.
Despite Sangerville’s rural location, the restaurant component has been a hit, according to Stutzman. Customers enjoying eating food grown on the farm, with a view of the actual land where the growing is taking place, she said.
In Dover-Foxcroft, Natasha Colbry and her husband, Dustin, opened a farm store and cafe last summer to complement the farm they opened in 2013 now called Spruce Mill Farm and Kitchen. The cafe not only serves as an outlet for any excess produce the farm has, it also serves as an outlet for other local farms to contribute their products to, further exposing customers to the food being grown locally around them.
“You really have to educate your customers on what you’re eating. We label everything, any of the vegetables in the salads, we tell people where they came from,” Colbry said. “I feel like somewhere in the last 50 years, we’ve gotten really far away from our food and where food comes from. A lot of people don’t know, and I think they learn the difference, they won’t go back.”
Since Balfour Farm is primarily a dairy farm, a lot of the food on the cafe menu is sourced from other local farmers including cured meats from the Charcuterie, flowers from Cornerstone Farm or vegetables from Snakeroot Organic Farm.
One of her favorite parts about working in the cafe this summer is chatting with customers about the farms where the food grown.
“Sometimes I get a little behind in serving because people ask questions and I can answer them and that’s a good feeling that I can visit with them a little bit and tell them a little bit about their sandwich,” Donahue said. “As much as the farm store and cafe provide another outlet for our products, it also provides an additional outlet for other farm products and other Maine made products.”
In the next month, the Farm House will begin offering farm dinners every so often, with dates being available on their Facebook page, and over the course of the next year Donahue hopes to get two of the house’s rooms ready to rent out to guests.
Taken altogether, this vision for the old farmhouse is something Donahue hopes she and her husband can fall back on when the day comes that doing the farmers’ market circuit is no longer feasible.
“At some point in our life we won’t be able to lug big coolers back and forth to farmers markets,” she joked. “It will be really beneficial to have a secondary business to fall back on.”