It started in a conversation around a dining room table in Woodland last year. It culminated last weekend in a visit to Aroostook County by members of the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
The initial conversation focused on Aroostook County agriculture and the future of the family farm. Rep. Terry Hayes of Buckfield was a guest in the home of Gail and Stanley Maynard of Woodland. Hayes had twisted Gail Maynard’s arm to run for the state Legislature and was helping with her campaign.
The Maynards operate Orchard Hill Farm, specializing in grass-fed organic Highland beef, one of a growing number of organic family farms in Aroostook County. The more Hayes learned about the issues facing small farms in Aroostook, the more she wanted to help.
“Why don’t we get the Ag Committee to come up here?” she asked.
“Do you think they would come?” was the response.
“We’ve just got to ask,” she said.
Hayes’ encouragement inspired the Maynards to “put together a skeleton” for a legislative tour that would introduce the committee members to Aroostook County farmers who raise beef cattle, dairy cows, sheep and chickens, and who grow hops, berries, grains, potatoes, beets, rutabaga, carrots, squash and other vegetables. It would be the first agricultural tour for legislators focused on diverse small farm enterprises, many organic, representing a dynamic interest in reviving the family farm in Aroostook County.
So many farmers responded to the Maynards’ call for people interested in giving a farm tour that they were forced to select the number of farms that could fit into one weekend and to find ways to include others who wanted to be involved.
“This is a totally nonpartisan event. No party has a franchise on good ideas,” was the message to farmers. “Good public policy is good politics. We look forward to broad, productive discussions.”
Hayes coordinated communication in Augusta, conveying the invitation for committee members to “a weekend tour of small County farms to learn about what great potential we offer, and how local development can be leveraged to contribute to the overall state economy.”
Organizers obtained support from the Aroostook Farm Bureau, Maine Farmland Trust, Aroostook Beef Producers, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Rural Area Meat Producers Support Group, and Coastal Enterprises Inc. Transportation was funded by the office of Maine House Speaker Mark Eves of Berwick and legislators were housed in homes “to enjoy County hospitality and learn firsthand about the people and places affected by their actions in Augusta.”
Responses to the call for housing also were enthusiastic.
“We had more beds than representatives,” Gail Maynard said, adding that people who could not host a legislator were disappointed.
Plans for a February visit were dashed by a blizzard and the tour was rescheduled for March 8-10. Four of the 13 Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee members and Rep. Hayes traveled by van from Augusta and visited family farms in Smyrna, Bridgewater, Mapleton, Woodland, Caribou, Westfield, Linneus and New Limerick.
They also toured the Northern Girl vegetable processing plant in Limestone and met with representatives of Maine Seed Co. of Mapleton and Maine Organic Milling, a statewide cooperative. County legislators Joyce Fitzpatrick of Houlton and Mike Nadeau of Fort Kent joined the tour along the way.
I caught up with the group Saturday when they dined at The Whole Potato Cafe and Commons in Presque Isle. Farmers included on the tour and those from other farms sat down for a meal of locally sourced food with Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee members Rep. Peter Kent and his 11-year-old son Dae of Woolwich, Rep. Craig Hickman of Winthrop, Rep. Bill Noon of Sanford and Rep. Bob Saucier of Presque Isle. They were joined by Hayes, Rep. Carol McElwee of Caribou and members of the organizations providing support for the tour.
“This is an exciting time for Aroostook County,” Matt Gregg of Maple Meadow Farm in Mapleton told the group during introductions after dinner. “People want local [products]. They want to meet their farmer. We are on the verge of things starting to change in Aroostook County.”
In addition to growing hay and alfalfa for the equine market, the Greggs host the annual Maple Meadow Festival, making the farm one of a growing number of agritourism destinations in The County.
“Aroostook County will be feeding the Northeast in the coming decades,” said Troy Haines of SPW meat-cutting in Mapleton, urging an understanding of the interconnectivity of farming operations — grain, beef, dairy and vegetables. “We need to get back to the family farm. We can do that.”
As the legislators returned to Augusta on Sunday, they talked about the challenges small farmers face and how innovation engineering could augment the enthusiasm they witnessed on farm after farm.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to meet real people engaged with their hearts and souls, to see the barriers to their success and [recognize] how what we do affects them,” said Hayes after the tour. “A recurring theme was transportation and distribution.”
Generosity was another theme she observed: Legislators gave their weekend and farmers welcomed them warmly with a wealth of information.
“The weather was perfect, the hospitality generous, and the farmers were excited to see us,” Hickman wrote on his website. “The weekend underscored just how vital the family farm is to economic development and prosperity in rural Maine.”
Both Hayes and the Maynards praised the quality of the conversations and relationships generated during the weekend.
“They were bowled over by the enthusiasm, talent pool and optimism,” Gail Maynard said, adding that legislators also were impressed with the number of young farmers they met. “This is a wonderful first step. We want to replicate it at least every two years and use technology in the meantime to keep the conversations going.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.
Aroostook farms on legislative tour
Lilley Farms, Smyrna (dairy and beef)
Wood Prairie Farm, Bridgewater (seed potatoes, vegetables and grain)
Aroostook Hops, Westfield (hops)
Chase Dairy Farm, Mapleton (dairy)
Orchard Hill Farm, Woodland (Highland beef)
Sunrise Farm, Woodland (sheep)
Goughan’s Berry Farm, Caribou (berries and vegetables)
Sunnyside Farm, Linneus (poultry and blueberries)
Nature’s Circle, New Limerick (vegetables)