Farm Hands

Farm Hands

With a fresh perspective, Colbians join farming's next generation.

By Molly Pindell ‰99 | Photos by Fred Field


 

Crisscross the country one more time to find the Winter Cache Project in Portland, Maine. The brainchild of three Colby alumnae and an alumnus, the Winter Cache Project is a farming venture that addresses the challenge of eating local fare in the winter in the Northeast.

During the summer and fall, New England is lush with fresh produce--from the first tender pea shoots in late spring to the tangy apples of October. But come winter, most New Englanders turn to supermarket produce flown in from warmer climes. In January 2004, Logan Perkins '01, Maia Campoamor '03, Jacob Mentlik '02, and Emily Posner '04 decided to change this pattern and create a local vegetable distribution network during Maine's chilliest months.

U.S. Farm Statistics

Number of farms
1950: 5.4 million
2002: 2.1 million

Land in farms
1950: 1.2 billion acres
2002: 938 million acres

Average farm size
1950: 216 acres
2002: 441 acres

Number of farmers by age in 2002
Under 25: 10,443
25-34: 59,950
65 or older: 400,054

Source: U.S. Farm Census, 1950 and 2002;
United States Department of Agriculture
35%#Urban dwellers just out of college, Perkins and her partners lacked both land and capital, so the first challenge was to find a spot to grow produce. They began calling local organic farms to inquire about exchanging labor for land and very quickly found Betty Weir. At 84 Weir had been farming organically for 40 years in Cumberland Center, north of Portland, and was delighted by the idea of providing land for the Winter Cache Project. With Weir's backing things began moving rapidly. "We made a seed order, planted onions, and then we were off," Perkins said.

That first summer she and her partners drummed up a hardy group of volunteers to help grow and harvest about half an acre of onions, potatoes, beets, cabbage, carrots, and winter squash. A basement in Portland was converted into a root cellar to store the harvest.

With winter came distribution. Every two weeks from December through March, the Winter Cache Project delivered vegetables to 15 households and to all volunteers who had helped on the farm the previous summer. In addition it initiated an educational component, holding workshops on canning, preserving, and seed-saving and sponsoring lectures and events.

Encouraged, Perkins and her partners added new crops the second year: rutabagas, turnips, parsnips, green beans, and tomatoes for canning, and leeks for freezing and drying. They also established regular weekly work parties on Sunday afternoons, at times managing as many as 30 volunteers at once.

Though Armiger's grandfather did not farm commercially, he did grow a large organic vegetable garden for his own use. Out of respect for this ahead-of-its-time commitment to growing things without pesticides and herbicides, Armiger decided early on that he would go through the process of having his farm certified organic.

Unlike Neale and Peters, who farm in relatively progressive pockets of the country, Armiger was an anomaly in his small community when he decided to go organic. He is surrounded by large conventional farms run by men well into their 60s who have been farming the same way for the past 40 years.

"In Maryland you've got good sun and good moisture," Armiger said, "so you simply put your crop in, spray it for pests and weeds, and watch it grow. It's not necessarily that these guys disagree with organic on principle, but they are old and set in their way of doing things."

Undeterred, he paid a visit to the Maryland Farm Service Agency and a few weeks later about 800 pages of paperwork arrived at the farm. One lackadaisical inspection, he says, $400, and three years later, Blue Heron Farm was officially organic. Armiger also has 18 acres of farmland along the Chester River enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, a government program that pays farmers not to grow crops in environmentally sensitive areas.

Neale's experience with the organic certification process was as complicated by bureaucratic paperwork as Armiger's, but ultimately worthwhile. "It's not necessarily very well-enforced or hugely meaningful," Neale said, "but it gives us that little sticker that customers want to see."
 
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Comments

  • On January 5, 2007, Bronwyn Shiffer wrote:
    Thanks for such a wonderful article. As a friend of a Colby graduate and also a young farmer-to-be, it is entirely inspiring.


  • On October 31, 2008, Cynthia Maddocks-Gallo wrote:
    I went to High School with Jane Brox and spent time on her farm. I was a friend of hers and have many wonderfull memories of her and her family. We would go to her family's farm stand every week for corn and vegtables. Her family also had fresh turkeys for Thanksgiving. My father is buried in a small cemetary next to the family house. I work at Colby now and was delighted to find her on the alumni page.