VERONA ISLAND, Maine — Eric and Annie Woodbury have an international love story that matches the harvest they’re planning at the new East-West Farm on Verona Island. They’re busily putting down roots in Maine, while also planting such exotic seedlings as rice, taro, bitter gourds, hot peppers and sweet potatoes.
“Land is life for us,” said Annie Woodbury, a native of the Philippines. “We value the land. It’s what settles you.”
Eric Woodbury, a lawyer and writing teacher who lived and worked for years in the Boston area, agreed.
“It grounds you. It’s what connects you,” he said recently at their home, an old farmhouse with glimpses of the Penobscot River far below. “It’s your source of life.”
The Woodburys were taking a break from the work of renovating their antique farmhouse and tending to their fields while they recounted the tale of how they met. Annie Woodbury brewed strong, fragrant coffee that her mother had sent her in a care package from home, and they spoke of their different pasts and their shared dreams for East-West Farm.
The couple met in Ethiopia in 2013 when they were both doing volunteering at a teacher’s college. Eric, who had joined the Peace Corps after years working as a corporate attorney in Boston, was instructing students in how to teach English to special needs students. Annie, an engineer by training, was working in the school’s information technologies department and volunteering for the British-based organization VSO International. They became friends, and shortly before they were both due to go home, Eric told Annie that he would like to be more than friends.
“It was not love at first sight, it was love at last sight,” joked Annie, a petite, bubbly woman with a quick smile. “I said, ‘Come to the Philippines, and let’s see what happens.’ I wanted him to know who I am.”
As it happens, where she is from is a large part of her identity. Annie Woodbury is part of the Kalinga tribe of Luzon Island, located in the northern part of the Philippines archipelago. Her home is in a mountainous, indigenous region, known for its dances, music and traditional clothing, and her people have their own government and educational systems. Where she comes from, the villagers need to share and protect their natural resources of water, forests and fields and so have been using sustainable farming techniques for millennia.
“You call it ‘sustainable development.’ Well, we’ve been practicing it that way forever,” Annie said.
Another thing that is marked in her homeland is the importance of the community, and that is one thing Eric needed to understand before they married.
“I told him he will not only marry me but he will marry my whole clan,” she said. “In my tribe, if you don’t belong to the community, you are nothing … it is a wealth for us to be with our family and with our friends.”
Her family loved Eric, who was willing to marry into the clan, and so he and Annie wed at the beginning of 2015. As they planned their new life together in America, they thought of settling in Maine instead of returning to Boston. For decades, Eric had a second home on Swan’s Island and liked the slower pace of life and the more tightly connected community there. Annie, who had worked in the Philippines for Texas Instruments, wanted to be closer to the land in America.
Once Annie joined her husband in Maine last spring, they spent their honeymoon working as apprentices on an organic farm in Cornville. Every Sunday, on their day off, they drove around and looked for some land of their own. They wanted to stay within commuting distance of Husson University, where Eric had gotten a job teaching writing and literature, but were discouraged by what they found.
“We were almost ready to give up,” Eric, who also has opened a law practice in Bucksport, said. “The farmhouses were either going to fall down or were done up as high-end places with Jacuzzis and swimming pools, which we didn’t want to have. Then we stumbled on this place. The farmhouse is sound, it has a spring-fed pond and it has good soil. It’s good for vegetables.”
Annie liked it, too.
“You can do anything if there’s water,” she said.
The property had two buildings and 31 acres that stretched down to the river — enough space for the couple to plant fields, put up greenhouses for their more tropical crops and keep animals including pigs, chickens and ducks. Here, they will plant the Asian crops that Annie loves and misses, along with traditional New England root vegetables. They have been accepted to farmer’s markets in Bucksport, Stonington and Orono and are in the process of getting organic certification for their land.
“I am learning a lot about organic farming in America,” Annie said. “In America, they are going back to nature.”
Some of what she is learning feels surprising. In the Philippines, where her people have practiced organic farming for so long, recently many farmers have begun to replace bamboo piping with plastic and water buffalos with Chinese-made machinery. It makes for some delicate phone conversations with her family in the Philippines, who worry about her because her community in Maine is so much smaller than they would like.
“They told me, ‘It’s OK for you to be alone on the farm because you have all the machines,’” Annie said. “It’s hard for me to tell them that their practice is the best, because they want to try new things.”
One aspect of her old life that she definitely misses is the importance and role of community.
“Here, I am shocked. Individualism is practiced here, and community life is my upbringing,” Annie said. “For us, it’s a negative thing to be alone.”
Though she likes her Verona Island neighbors and the nearby town of Bucksport, she found the Maine winter to be pretty lonely, and the American emphasis on money to be disconcerting. But she made it through.
“I would love to thank Skype and Facebook and [Facebook] Messenger,” Annie said. “My family said, ‘What life are you living? You’re alone! It’s useless.’”
Those concerns were somewhat assuaged earlier this spring, when Annie and Eric invited the Philippines cultural group BIBAK New England to come to East-West Farm to hold a house blessing and a planting ritual, both of which are sacred ceremonies. The last weekend of April, 30 or so Filipinos came from Massachusetts, Connecticut and other places around New England to the farm to camp, work, celebrate and show their children their traditional ways.
“They were happy,” Eric said. “Their kids got to see a more traditional activity. They want to camp and be on the farm.”
Annie and Eric hope those kids, and others, will come back to East-West Farm. There will be animals, and fields to tend, rituals to hold and sunsets to watch over the Penobscot River — all activities they want to share with others.
“It’s a beautiful spot here,” Eric said. “It shouldn’t really be just for two people.”