Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

To Market, To Market (Jennie)

When I arrived at the Farmer’s Market this beautiful, fall-like Saturday, there were a number of things I did not know. I did not know that the Portland Farmer’s Market has been running for nearly 250 years. I did not know that the city manages the market, or that some of the vendors have been selling their wares in Deering Oaks Park for 25 years. I did not know that the only tempeh made in Maine is available at this market, and I did not know (though I should have guessed), that the farmers present are as diverse as Florida seashells.

The farms that we have been working with for the past ten weeks are notably varied. We have often rejoiced at the range of our experiences as we rotate from farm to farm. (“John found three baby chicks in the woodpile”, “We moved a lot of hay”, “I asked Miguel about his family in Spanish . . . and I understood the answer!”) We have often commented that this very diversity is critical to the success of our project. My trip to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday, however, was an extremely well timed reminder that these farms, these three farms that we have grown to know and to love, are only three farms among some 8,000 in the State of Maine (USDA 2008).

The two hours that I spent wandering with Claire among the many market stalls had the unexpected and delightful result of drastically broadening my view of farm production in Maine. As we conversed with first one farmer, then another, I became aware of various gaps in my own understanding slowly filling like plugs in a leak. Among the more fundamental of my discoveries: none of the farms directly collaborating on our project sell their products at market; therefore I have grossly underestimated the role of the farmer’s market in many a Maine farmer’s weekly routine and income. There are 90 farmer’s markets in the State of Maine. For many small vegetable farms, the market is the only place that products are sold. It represents the only time that the farmer interacts with a customer base. We heard multiple stories about the work involved in attending the farmer’s market; the crates and the tables have to be loaded on and off the truck; it’s a lot of heavy lifting; the bustle and activity of the market create a nice contrast to the solitude of work on the farm. And when I left, I understood a bit more about the choices that farmers make in the ongoing dilemma of how to bring their products to the consumer and how to make a living. I understood more about the choice between a CSA, a private farm stand, a farmer’s market, a co-op, and an agricultural production contract.

Our conversations with three of the farmers at the market were so lovely; I want to profile them briefly here:

Lalibela Farm

We talked for some time with Jaime, whom Claire has met on multiple occasions in her work at Silly’s. Jaime met her husband Andy while living and working on a farm in Oregon, and the couple chose to move back to the east coast five years ago in order to be nearer family. They rent their farmland and were originally matched with a landowner through the Maine Farmland Trust’s Farmlink program. After a season or two, they were approached by another landowner and moved to their present location in Dresden. When asked about the transition from working on a farm to running their own farm, Jaime took a deep breath and said: “We just . . . jumped in”. Lalibela’s products have been at the Portland Farmer's Market since their first season, and Jaime is now on the market’s Steering Committee. At the end of last season, after trying out a recipe for themselves, Jaime and Andy began selling their homemade tempeh at the farmer’s market. They sold out immediately and spent all of last winter making more. The Lalibela tempeh is now sold in 26 stores and restaurants throughout Maine.

Beckwith Gardens

As we approached the plentiful tables of the Beckwith stall, I introduced myself to a woman who had moments before been helping a customer. I explained our project, and that we were “hoping to talk with some of the farmers”. “Oh, I’m not a farmer.” She said. That’s the farmer.” She pointed us toward a tall and thin man named Jim who was replenishing the summer squash. (We have had many conversations over the summer about the definition of “farmer” . . . what makes a farmer?) We got waylaid on our way to speak with Jim, but we talked at some length with his nephew. We learned that four generations of the Beckwith family were at the market that day, and that the farm recently opened its own farm stand in an attempt to increase the presence of their product in the Yarmouth community. The nephew we spoke with had been working on the farm off and on ever since he was six, and he hoped that we were planning to include something about the weather in our play. “That’s a . . . “ he shook his head. “A lot of farmers had a really hard time last year, with the rain. Lost a lot of crop.” Beckwith Gardens has been attending the Portland Farmer’s Market for 25 years.

L & A Farm

We had a lively conversation with Lester Jordan; it began this way:

Claire: “It’s a beautiful day.”

Lester: “Considering my age!”

Lester is related to Penny, of course, and he farms 2 of 22 acres on Davis Point Lane in Cape Elizabeth. Lester wasn’t sure how much we already knew about the Jordan Family in Cape Elizabeth and wasted no time filling us in. “We were originally from Italy,” he said, “The Jordanis. We were horse thieves. So they threw us out and we went to France. Where we became the Jordáns. But we were still horse thieves. So they threw us out of there. And we went to England. But we were still stealing horses. So they threw us out of there and we came here. Haven’t been thrown out yet.”

Lester told us that he started farming a piece of his father’s land over 20 years ago, when he “retired”. Before actively farming his own land, Lester was a commercial fisherman and a manager for UPS. When he and his wife began their farm, they were farming all 22 acres of their land. They’ve limited their production increasingly in the past few years; next year they may farm only one acre, and “just do herbs”. Lester says that way he can work in the greenhouse, harvest from a chair, and control the weather.

To close, I find this history of L&A Farm from the Cape Farm Alliance website both beautiful and poignant:

“Lester Jordan grew up in a farmhouse on Two Lights Road, a stone’s throw from the ocean. His father, Raymond Jordan, owned and worked the surrounding 100 acres. Like most other Cape farmers, the senior Jordan grew cabbage, lettuce, and squash for the wholesale markets – until the big grocers stopped buying from local farmers in the 1970s. Lester says his parents arranged to remain in their home, but were forced to sell the farm to fund their retirement. The Broad Cove housing development was built on the farmland.

Today, Lester and Audrey Jordan worry that ever-rising land values and the difficulty of making a livelihood from farming will result in the disappearance of the few remaining Cape farms, but their love and devotion to L&A Farm keep them planting, harvesting, and hoping that there is a future here for working farms.”