WHITEFIELD, Maine — The Sheepscot General Store and Farm is located on a country road in the small Lincoln County town of Whitefield, but at lunchtime on a Tuesday afternoon in August it feels like it is the busiest, buzziest place for miles around.
The ladies of a local historical society gabbed and sipped coffee at one of the tables in the simple cafe while other customers ordered sandwiches, quiche and soup specials at the crowded counter. Others took a moment to check out the fresh produce that is grown at the farm behind the store, including deep green kale, rainbow chard and piles of plump red, orange and yellow tomatoes that seemed to glow enticingly in the summer sunshine.
This country store, located in a converted 1970s dairy barn on the Townhouse Road, has become a kind of de facto heart of the community during the five years that owners Ben and Taryn Marcus have been in business here. It hosts yoga and art classes, the local men’s group meet-ups and the town’s only lending library, which tilts heavily toward gardening books.
In short, it’s not exactly the usual model of a country store, and the customers know it. When asked what she likes best about the Sheepscot General Store, Priscilla Donham of Alna smiled.
“Everything,” she said. “It’s bursting with people all the time, and you always see someone you know. The food is great. They have a lot of variety.”
And, she said, Ben and Taryn Marcus are special, too.
“They’re wonderful people,” Donham said. “They’re earnest and happy, and they work very hard.”
The store, the farm and the farm family already seem deeply rooted in the town of Whitefield and the Sheepscot River valley. In Ben Marcus’s case, those roots have been growing his whole life. The 32-year-old grew up in Whitefield, the son of 1970s back-to-the-landers, and even though he left Maine for Washington State after high school, after seven years out West he was pulled back to the land, too.
“The biggest reason I wanted to come back to Whitefield is that it’s a good place to grow up,” he said. “I traveled a lot around the world, and as far as I can tell it doesn’t get better than this life and this place.”
He and Taryn met while studying agriculture at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. When they came to Maine in 2009, they lived on his family’s land and found other work to make ends meet. But they noticed that Uncas Farm, which they said has the best farmland in town, was lying fallow, and the natural food store located in the dairy barn on the farm also had closed.
“We approached the owner and asked to rent the land,” Taryn Marcus said. “He said, ‘Only if you open the store, too.’”
They said yes — a decision Taryn Marcus said she might not have made so easily if she had an inkling of the work that lay ahead for them.
“We would never have done it if we knew what we were getting ourselves into,” she said.
“We were very naive,” her husband agreed. “Which actually I think was the saving grace. And the community was very supportive. That was the reason we did it in the first place. We felt that support right from the beginning. It was the right place at the right time.”
Sometimes that support looked like amazing serendipity, they said, such as the time Taryn Marcus was fretting over purchasing $4,000 worth of bins for the bulk goods online.
“They were so expensive,” she said, adding that she was about to bite the bullet when a man drove up with an array of bulk bins in the back of his truck. He sold them to her for just $100.
The couple said they have tried to return the community’s support with the general services provided at their general store. Key among those services is their popular cafe, which started as a way to use their extra produce — and because so many people were hanging out in the store to use the free internet, anyway.
“We thought, we’ve got to have some food for these people,” Taryn Marcus recalled.
One reason why making the store into an area focal point is important to her is because she grew up in Chelsea, Michigan, a tightly knit community.
“I wanted to re-create that myself,” Taryn Marcus said. “I’ve got to make this the place that I want to be forever.”
So far, so good, they said. After five years of renting the 56-acre farm, last year they were able to purchase the property. They are making plans to expand their popular pick-your-own strawberry patch, which this season brought people from as far away as Washington County and Portland to fill their baskets with organic berries for $2.85 per pound.
“We were the only organic you-pick in the state this year,” Taryn Marcus explained.
Ben Marcus said he would like to increase the berries from 8,000 row feet to 20,000 row feet next year.
“I enjoy the pick-your-own,” he said. “I like interacting with the pickers. We have a really good clientele. We hear nightmare stories from other farmers [about pickers messing up the fields], but we don’t have that.”
This summer has provided challenges, too, including the ongoing drought. Still, the couple is in it for the long haul. After grabbing a quick lunch at the store, Ben Marcus walked into his dusty cabbage patch, pulled out a knife and began harvesting a couple of hundred pounds of fat purple cabbages under the hot sun. Later that day, he would help turn those cabbages into the lip-smacking sauerkraut that’s featured in the Reuben, one of the most popular sandwiches sold at the store. All in a day’s good work, he said.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Ben Marcus said. “I feel really fortunate I had this place to go back to.”