The Maine agricultural community is mourning the recent loss of a Hancock County man described as a pioneer of farmland conservation who shared his love of farming with horses with the world.
Paul Birdsall, who died June 12 at age 91, made Horsepower Farm in Penobscot into a destination for many who came to learn how he and his late wife, Mollie, successfully farmed with the help of their hardworking Belgian and Suffolk Punch workhorses. He was a longtime leader in the Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association community and was a pioneer of Maine land conservation, helping to found both the Blue Hill Heritage Trust and the Belfast-based Maine Farmland Trust. Over the years, those two nonprofit agencies have protected many thousands of acres of working farms and other land for the benefit of farmers and the public.
“He was always, always a very strong presence,” Heather Spalding, the deputy director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said of Birdsall. “He was an elder who everyone listened to when he spoke. He had such a gentle way about him. He really spoke from a voice of reason, experience and wisdom.”
Despite the role he played in the last 45 years of Maine agriculture, including the ongoing agricultural renaissance, farming was something of a left turn in the life of Birdsall. After serving as an Army medic in Korea, the Massachusetts native married Mollie in 1952 and became a high school teacher. The Birdsalls and their two sons would sail up the coast every summer, and on one of those trips they fell in love with Maine, according to a 2015 BDN story about Horsepower Farm. They searched for a place to live and found an old, neglected farm on the Blue Hill peninsula that looked like it had potential, and made their move in 1973.
“I don’t think they were planning on farming, but they didn’t like the situation and the scene in the rest of the country. They wanted a little more elbow room,” Andy Birdsall, their son, told the BDN in 2015. “This farm was probably the best place to grow up. My parents didn’t come up here to be back-to-the-landers, but they wound up entangled in the back to the land movement.”
Andy Birdsall and his wife, Donna, now run the farm, but Paul Birdsall never really retired from farming. Working in the fields and woods with the horses kept Birdsall fit and young at heart, according to his obituary. He loved his horses, and was always happy to share his knowledge of them with young farmers. Over the years, he and his family hosted around 150 farm apprentices, who came to Horsepower Farm to figure out if they could farm that way, too. One of those apprentices was David Fisher, who now runs his own horse-powered farm, Natural Roots Farm in Conway, Massachusetts. When Fisher came to the Birdsalls’ farm in Penobscot in 1997, it seemed like he was stepping back in time, and watching Birdsall’s joy with his farm and his horses felt revelatory.
“I feel extremely grateful for the opportunity I had to work with him, live with him, get to know him a little bit,” Fisher said. “I feel like since the time I spent with him, what he gave me has been at the foundation of my work, my life, my career. I certainly owe him a lifelong debt of gratitude for that.”
Many young farmers like Fisher benefited from Birdsall’s teaching ability and ability to inspire, Spalding said.
“He had a really amazing way of inspiring young people to try their hand at farming and gardening,” she said. “One of the things that the country is facing in agriculture is the aging demographic of farmers. In Maine that’s turning around. A big part of that is the work of people like Paul who trained the next generation of farmers. He really was a visionary in that regard.”
Even as he kept busy with his apprentices, his horses and his crops, as long ago as the 1970s, Birdsall also found the time to tackle the then-new idea of farmland preservation. In part, this was because he believed that the glacial soil in the Blue Hill area was exceptionally good. The idea of watching this land get developed was unacceptable to him, according to the website of Unique Maine Farms, a volunteer-run project aimed at promoting and documenting Maine farms. So Birdsall became a founding member of the Blue Hill Heritage Trust, and started its “Farmland Forever” program, through which he placed a conservation easement on his own 383-acre farm. He also was glad to be a founding board member of the Maine Farmland Trust, to do this conservation work on a statewide level.
“He’s basically the father of farmland conservation in Maine,” Ellen Sabina, the outreach director of the Maine Farmland Trust, said of Birdsall. “He loved the land, and also recognized its value for farming. That was a big thing for him. He knew that the soils were good for agriculture and that was important to protect. He wanted to make sure that agriculture could be successful here.”
Birdsall never lost the fun, or drive, in his life, his friends said. Even in his last years, he woke up early to feed the draft horses and clean their stalls, enjoyed his lunchtime sardine sandwich and cooled off on warm afternoons with a swim in the farm pond. He loved giving wagon rides and doing woodlot demonstrations at the Common Ground Country Fair and drove himself to board meetings of the Maine Farmland Trust, where he was a valued contributor, until just a year or two ago.
“He did a lot of incredible work on a lot of levels,” Fisher said. “He seemed like he had just experienced a lot of joy in life.”
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