BOWDOINHAM, Maine — On a swath of land at the edge of Merrymeeting Bay, rows of kale, carrots and tomatoes spring from the earth. In this region of bountiful soil, where six rivers converge, a network of farms thrives in fields of plenty.
Clustered here are small, mostly organic farms, where growers freely share storage, wash space and equipment, and are building an emerging brand linked to quality organic produce: Bowdoinham.
Just as the town’s geography is shaped by a confluence of rivers, this Sagadahoc County community of 2,800 comes together in mutual support, united in the challenge of growing food from the earth.
“Farming is hard work, no matter where you are,” David Whittlesey, one of several pillars of Bowdoinham bent on keeping agriculture alive here, said.
With location, town officials, dining trends and Mother Nature on its side, Bowdoinham is quietly launching a crop of the most successful small farms in the state.
And this is no accident.
The land bordering the bay is rich with alluvial soil deposited when the glaciers receded during the ice age. The basin is the largest freshwater tidal bay north of the Chesapeake Bay. At high tide that means irrigation for crops and soil, producing juicy and tender produce — ideal conditions for organics.
Farms have always existed here, but the new food economy is edging out monocrops such as peas and corn in favor of diversified farms with vast vegetable varieties, from exotic peppers to heirloom tomatoes, appealing to a wider, more discerning customer base.
“It’s a great community to live in because of its proximity to Augusta, Portland and Brunswick. It has the rural feel and available farmland that farmers are looking for,” said Chris Cabot, a farmland protection specialist for the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust, a group that is active here.
According to Cabot, Bowdoinham’s landscape is an advantage because it’s “high in nutrients, great for growing crops, well-drained, not steep slopes.”
“The soils of Bowdoinham are some of the most productive in the state. It turns out excellent crop with little management. There is a big crew of organic farmers in Merrymeeting Bay,” Cabot said. And in true startup fashion new ones pop up each year.
With 30 farms, the town has the most in the region. By comparison, Brunswick has 20 farms, Richmond 19, Bowdoin 13 and Topsham seven, according to Cabot’s data.
One of the most successful here is Six River Farm.
Owned by Nate Drummond and his wife, Gabrielle Gosselin, the thriving organic farm employs 12 people and has expanded from 2½ acres to 14.
The couple moved to Bowdoinham nine years ago with no intention of staying. Renting a small plot of land, they tried growing a few vegetables. Before long, the Winterport native realized he was sitting on a good thing.
Like the waterways, a convergence of factors made them stay. “The land is well-suited for growing vegetables. The infrastructure is already here, and we have shared rental space,” said Drummond, who leases a storage and wash barn with a few other farms, such as Left Field and Fish Bowl.
Six River produce is a coveted sight at farmers markets, speciality stores and restaurants. He chalks it up to “hard work and good circumstances.”
Motivated groups have protected from the developer’s clutch this town of small working farms that multiply each year.
Town planner Nicole Briand said the unusual mix of great soil and “property owners willing to work with land trusts to add farm easements” makes it work. “It takes time, but people are investing the time to allow more land to be allocated for farming,” she said.
Partnerships between Maine Farmland Trust and Kennebec Estuary Land Trust are crucial. Both groups are actively protecting farming and wildlife areas here to keep land from development. Conservation easements have been placed on several farms to make sure they won’t be developed so farming can continue for decades. The town’s pro-conservation stance helps.
“More and more land trusts are seeing the value of conserving farms,” Cabot said. “It’s great to see there is a lot of buzz around local food these days. People are seeing the many benefits to eating locally as a result, providing opportunities for farmers through the state. Bowdoinham is a great example of a town that has taken advantage of this resurgence and the importance of eating locally, allowing the town to continue a long-standing heritage.”
Local momentum behind the Bowdoinham Community Development Initiative, which formed a few years ago to help a farmer buy a tractor, is one such support group for people making a living from the land.
“There is a history of farming here that goes many, many decades back,” Briand said. “People have a memory of it all being farms. Part of the character is the bay. People don’t want houses on the bay. They’d rather see farmfields.”
In the past five to 10 years, farming has been on the rise statewide. According to new numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture released recently, Maine added the most organic farms of any state in the country from 2008 to 2014 — an estimated 138 new organic farms. And nowhere is the upswing more acutely felt than in small towns like Bowdoinham, where the business mix is largely home-based.
“Agriculture provides a lot to our economy. We are always asking, ‘What can we do for our farmers?’” Briand said. “What do they need to grow?”
One idea is a distribution center where individual farmers can pool their produce en route to larger markets. But that’s a long way off. Every July the town holds an open farm day, when select farms give tours. It ends with a barbecue on the waterfront.
Such esprit de corps enables growers to thrive here. “No one worries about things like leaving mud on the road between tractor runs,” Ian Jerolmack of Stonecipher Farm said. “Bowdoinham cares about the farmers and does everything it does to promote us.”
Such conditions are paying off. Business is brisk this fall at Stonecipher, located inland from the bay. During this harvest season Jerolmack is selling fresh produce to 40 restaurants in Portland. Chefs at hotspots such as Hugo’s and Central Provisions create dishes around his organic beets and artichokes. This summer his farm’s shisito peppers ruled the range.
Bowdoinham is becoming a magnet for other farmers, he says. “There is no single town, shy of The County, that has the right conditions in one place.”
For Sean Hagan of Left Field Farm, tapping into the town’s informal farmer network was crucial.
The former employee at Six River, who went through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s journeyperson program, ended up in Bowdoinham by chance. After a year’s time, he was ready to go out on his own. “There were a couple acres unused next to where they farmed, and I jumped on it,” Hagan said.
Sharing a barn with fellow farmers allows the 34-year-old to scale up his business.
“I wouldn’t have been able to set that up on my own — it’s a big barn. I lease the space for cold storage and a big walk-in cooler,” Hagan, who also rents a tractor from Six River Farm, said.
This collaborative spirit goes a long way.
“I don’t have to put all of my money in. I have limited capital, I borrowed money from family and friends. The fact that I didn’t have to buy the tractor or build a wash area” means he can put funding into general supplies, which “allows things to work more smoothly.”
The social aspect matters, too. Farmers working side by side, instead of in rural isolation, learn from one another. Sharing equipment is one thing, but sharing knowledge is just as important.
“We are answering questions like, ‘Is a pest eating broccoli this year?’” Drummond said. “It’s helpful to have more people around.”