I was fortunate to spend time at the “Common Ground Country Fair” in Unity. Only about 2,000 people live in the tiny town, but an estimated 57,000 people jammed the single-lane roads to swarm this year’s three-day event in late September.
The fair was part celebration and part education — a festival of first-hand knowledge about how to produce food in ways that focus on enhancing, not endangering, human and environmental health. Young and old gathered in yellow-and-white striped tents to discuss such topics as the marketing of organic lowbush wild blueberries, how to develop “micro-dairies,” and science that shows healthy, chemical-free soils can better sequester carbon from the atmosphere as a mitigant to the climate crisis.
The messages carried across the fairgrounds speak to the fact that alongside this jovial festival of food and farming are mounting concerns about a lack of leadership in Washington and federal promotion of the permissive use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in farming, as well as the monoculture cropping practices that have become a mainstay of U.S. agriculture and are stripping away essential biodiversity.
Earlier this month, a group of state leaders cut the ribbon on a project to help address those concerns by promoting sustainable solutions in Maine that they intend as an example for the rest of the nation to follow. The Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union opened its doors Oct. 8 as the first U.S. member-owned financial institution focused solely on funding small farms and food businesses that engage in sustainable agricultural practices. The credit union aims to provide financing for endeavors that improve access to fresh, locally grown food and are environmentally protective. With roughly 40 percent of the state’s 7,600 farms run by men and women under the age of 40, there is an appetite for progressive strategies to improve food production systems, supporters say.
“We are not there to finance commodity agriculture. We are organized to serve a revitalized and re-localized food economy,” co-founder Sam May told me. “The modern food system has it all wrong. It is killing the planet, the soil, our personal health and putting our civilization at risk. We are doing what we are doing in Maine because it needs to be done and we can do it.”
The founders have garnered the support of the state’s U.S. congressional delegation, including Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
The work is not just admirable but urgent. In addition to scientific reports linking industrial agriculture and agrochemicals to water pollution, sterile soils, human diseases and reproductive problems, recently released research shows additional links to sharp declines in important bird and insect populations.
Rather than heed the warnings, the Trump Administration is racing to rollback regulatory protections at a rapid rate.
It seems fitting that it was here in Maine, more than 50 years ago, where author Rachel Carson would retreat as she wrote about the dire consequences of a world awash in chemicals, a world where nature is sacrificed and the sounds of song birds going silent.
To visit a country fair in the fall in Maine is to see what that long-ago call for action from Carson looks like in modern form. These are people who recognize that they must protect and build upon systems that sustain and nourish, not systems that destroy. These are people who hope their children and grandchildren will always be able to behold a landscape of lush forests and rich farmland as far as the eye can see.
It’s a lesson the rest of the country needs to learn. There is no time to waste.
Carey Gillam, a journalist and author, is a public interest researcher for US Right to Know, a not-for-profit food industry research group.