Editor’s Note: This is the second in an occasional series about a young couple beginning a farming life in Monroe.
Early on a recent morning, Noami Brautigam and James Gagne sat at their kitchen table planning out their work for the day at Dickey Hill Farm in Monroe. It was about 6 a.m. With the list completed, Gagne headed to the barn to take care of the chickens, feed the pigs and make sure the cows had enough water.
By the time he returned to the house for breakfast, Brautigam had planned out the vegetable harvest for the afternoon’s farmers market.
Brautigam and Gagne made a major life change in February of this year, when they moved from a small apartment in bustling Portland to an 18-acre farm in Monroe. Since then, they’ve started a farm on the land, planting and laboring to cultivate crops to bring to market. Beyond the hard labor of farming, though, they have adapted to living in a new and unfamiliar area and learned about markets, customer needs and their land.
The move came after Brautigam and Gagne signed a unique cooperative agreement with the farm’s previous owners, Alison and Eric Rector. Instead of a direct sale, the Rectors are transitioning the farm to Brautigam and Gagne, allowing for shared ownership. During a two-year lease period, either party can back out for any reason. Brautigam and Gagne will pay off the farm and become sole owners over the course of 20 years.
The four established a limited liability corporation and signed a formal legal agreement that includes a set of bylaws that binds the shareholders of the LLC to do regular maintenance of the buildings and land and determines how the shares can be bought or sold. The Rectors also can continue to use the commercial kitchen in the barn and will help with the upkeep of the orchard and other aspects of the land during the transition period.
Brautigam and Gagne came to the farm with a business plan, some farming experience and goals. Among them, they planned to establish a small community supported agriculture program that, during their first growing season, would service 10 CSA shares and sell vegetables at farmers markets.
“We wanted to make sure we provide high quality vegetables to our CSA members. We didn’t want to over promise and not be able to deliver,” Brautigam said.
They reached their goal number of CSA members, but quickly realized they are growing far more vegetables than they anticipated. But, as Brautigam puts it, it was hard to change their plan midseason. Nine families joined their CSA program, and three Belfast-area restaurants also buy fresh vegetables from Dickey Hill Farm this season. Brautigam takes vegetables to farmers markets in Bucksport and Brewer as well.
Challenges of starting a farm
Have there been challenges? Of course. Brautigam describes them as twofold. First, she had to ensure that the farm grows an adequate amount of vegetables through the season to provide the promised amounts to CSA members. It turned out they were easily able to grow the needed vegetables. Much of what was left after selling at the markets, they’ve started preserving for themselves and donating to area food banks.
“It was a lot of guesswork the last winter, and we knew that coming into it this year that we are really going into it blind. We knew that was going to be our biggest challenge. I think it’s proven true.” Gagne said.
It’s been busy on the farm since the growing season began in mid-April. That late start came as a result of unusually deep snow taking a while to melt and delayed some early spring farm work. That was followed by the unusually dry summer, which has added more chores to their already long to-do list. It forced them to create with an irrigation system much earlier in the growing season than they anticipated.
While Brautigam works on the farm, Gagne has kept his full-time job as planned. He helps with farm chores before and after work, as well as on the weekends.
But that’s only part of it. The pair already are planning for next season, as well as marketing the produce that’s available for other customers beyond those who belong to the CSA.
“Growing the vegetables is only part of the big picture of running the business,” she said.
They already have accomplished many goals set for the very first season of Dickey Hill Farm, including obtaining a certificate from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. They also have been organizing, working on repairs to the barn, building a large walk-in cooler and applying for grants for additional infrastructure.
With days beginning around 5:30 a.m. and continuing through the evening hours, the couple also has begun raising chickens, pigs and continues to take care of the cows on the farm.
This fall, they plan to marry and are growing much of the food for their nuptials celebration as well. They’re also putting up and preserving as much food as they can for winter. What’s next? Finishing their first growing season and making more decisions about next year.
When recently asked whether they are happy at the farm, Noami replied, “When I remember that I’m happy, I am. When I have time to think about it.”
But the hardworking farmer did admit one thing. “I have secretly been craving wintertime, so I can sleep.”
The first story of this occasional series can be found here.