September 24, 2018
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‘We’re doing it’: Cooperation key for midcoast startup farm

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

BROOKS, Maine — Five friends, one small house, three dogs and one tilled acre.

While it may sound a little bit snug for some folks, this scenario is a dream come true for the young farmers of the new Streamside Farm in Brooks. The farmers, most of whom met through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association farm apprentice program, believe they may be among the first people in Maine to run their farm cooperatively. They have shared ownership, shared responsibility and shared hopes their unusual venture will be a success.

“I think we surprised a lot of people. They thought it wasn’t going to work out,” Sarah Simmons, 26, said this week while taking a break from putting up their new hoop house. “But we’re doing it.”

Simmons, originally from Kansas City, Kansas, came to Maine to be an apprentice at the Bahner Farm in Belmont. Once here, she became friends with the farm apprentices from her season and the next: Molly Rubin, 26, from Connecticut; Laura McLaughlin, 24, from Pennsylvania; and Alexandra Burge, 29, who’s married to the fifth farmer, 37-year-old Michael Burge, who are from Georgia.

The group had several important things in common. They all loved organic farming and learned a lot from mentors Mike and Christa Bahner, but they weren’t quite sure how they could strike out on their own. That requires land and money, neither of which were things they individually had in abundance.

“I wanted to take the next step,” Rubin said. “I knew I wanted to try and start my own thing. It made sense to do it with people I already knew.”

Daniel MacPhee, the educational programs director of MOFGA, said this week that while the cooperative model may be new, he expects that a lot more farmers will be using it in the future.

“I think it’s great,” he said of what the Streamside farmers are doing. “I think of that group of young farmers as kind of an alternative family unit. Being able to start a farm business takes resources. If you don’t have family land and you don’t have the benefit of financial resources to get you started, a cooperative is a great way to get in with a group of people you trust and to pool your resources. And the social thing, too. Imagine going through the struggles that a beginning farmer goes through — but with your three or four closest friends. I think it’s a really valuable way to get started.”

Even so, Streamside Farm might not have become a reality so quickly if it hadn’t been for a big stroke of luck. Kim Jacobs and Bob Klein of Brooks were searching for people to come and farm a parcel of land they owned on a southward-facing slope abutting the Marsh River. Alexandra Burge works at Gibbs Family Hardware in downtown Brooks and got to talking with Klein, who asked her to come look at the land.

“She said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’” Rubin recounted. “Then she thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’”

The five friends checked out the land and the simple house Klein built there and decided it just made sense for them to sign on. They worked out affordable terms for a two-year lease and moved in last fall. They tilled about an acre’s worth of fields and planted them in cover crop. They also planted strawberries and garlic, both of which are starting to poke green leaves above the soil in the lengthening spring sunshine.

Jacobs and Klein, who are traveling in Mexico this spring, could not be reached for a comment. But last fall, Jacobs told the BDN she was excited about the Streamside Farm farmers and their plans for the land. Those plans include planting the fields with about $1,400 worth of seeds and growing them organically, without pesticides, Rubin and Simmons said.

“We’re going to plant all the vegetables,” Simmons joked. “Greens, brassicas, cucurbits, onions, garlic, strawberries, tomatoes, herbs.”

In January, they launched a GoFundMe campaign to help defray startup costs for farm basics, including purchasing a truck and building 100-square-foot walk-in cooler. So far, that campaign has netted nearly $7,000 — money that has really helped them get started this spring, they said.

They have been accepted to the Ellsworth Farmers Market and are seeking customers for their first-ever community-supported agriculture, or CSA, share. With so many small organic farms in Maine, it can be hard for a new farm to find customers, but they are trying. One of the farmers, McLaughlin, has been selected for the MOFGA Journeyperson Program, which offers hands-on support, training and mentorship for young farmers.

“It’s technically for one person, but it really benefits the whole farm,” MacPhee said, adding that the odds that a MOFGA Journeyperson will succeed in farming are good. “The success rate of those farmers is extremely high, with 92 percent of the farmers who have participated since the program began in 1999 still farming today. And the vast majority are farming in Maine.”

That sounds good to Rubin and Simmons. The two women, who have their boot-clad feet firmly grounded in the rich brown soil of their new farm, said they might like to expand into mushrooms, pigs, ducks and a dairy in the future. But for the moment they are concentrating on growing some beautiful vegetables and giving back to the community.

“Organic produce can be so expensive,” Simmons said. “We want the people of Brooks to be able to afford it.”

Rubin, who sports a delicate tattoo that showcases her passion for farming, pointed out the various components. There’s a finely detailed bunch of carrots, a calf, a pig, a sunflower, tomatoes and a hand holding peonies. Next to the images is a quote from Willa Cather’s book “O Pioneers!” that means a lot to the young farmer who is just settling into a farm of her own.

“We come and go, but the land is always here,” the words read. “And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.”

 


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