With knowledge of biology and ecology, food systems and economics, rhetoric and religion Colbians are helping to change the face of Maine, joining—and in many cases leading—the national movement that has made food and nutrition a defining goal for a generation.
“Once you start thinking about food and where it’s coming from and where it’s going, the complexities of our diet, it does connect all of these things: social justice, environmental changes, global trade,” said Professor of Anthropology Mary Beth Mills, who is teaching a course on the subject.
On these pages, and online, are food practitioners from Maine and beyond, drawn to change the world by affecting what we eat. As food activist, Diet For a Small Planet author, and former Colby Mellon Environmental Studies Fellow Frances Moore Lappé put it, “It makes perfect sense to me that food is such a powerful avenue for people to make sense of the world, to find a place for themselves with meaning.”
Ben Rooney ’10
Wild Folk Farm
Tucked into sprawling cornfields of the Kennebec Valley in Benton, Maine, is a series of rectangular troughs dug into the dense marine clay. The troughs, covering an acre, are filled with green grasses and irrigated with water from an adjacent manmade pond.
The grasses are rice—varieties with names like Hayayuki, Arpa Shali, Diamante. The ducks that paddle around the plants are for aeration and fertilization. The scene, like something from Southeast Asia, is the creation of Ben Rooney ’10, who is showing that rice can grow in northern New England just as it grows in northern Japan. “We want to figure out, is it worth it to do this excavation? Is it worth it to set up this system? What seeds work here? In terms of food movements, how can we get new things into people’s bellies that they didn’t have options for before?”
Wild Folk Farm is an experiment and three years in it’s proceeding according to plan. The only commercial scale rice-growing operation in northern New England is nearing its goal of producing 5,000 pounds of rice annually. Rooney is trying 25 varieties—from South Korea, Portugal, Chile, Russia, and Japan—gently improving the soil in the paddies and carefully monitoring the results. “What grows well here without us changing the soil a ton?” he asks.
The environmental studies major and ecologist traveled from Maine to Zimbabwe before a trip to visit family in the Philippines turned him on to “the beautiful paddy culture.”
His effort to transplant that culture to Maine has small-scale organic farmers and restaurateurs watching with interest as he carefully considers his slowly expanding operation. “It’s a steep learning curve,” he said, stepping into the water to open an irrigation valve. “A lot of it hasn’t been necessarily the specifics of what I learned at Colby, but the how.”
“In terms of food movements, how can we get things into people’s bellies that they didn’t have options for before?”
—Rice grower Ben Rooney ’10
Laura Neale ’99
Black Kettle Farm
Never had Laura Neale ’99 even heard the term “sustainable agriculture.” Until her first year at Colby, that is, when the reading for an anthropology course included Frances Moore Lappé’s landmark book Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity. Neale still has the book, on a shelf at her farmhouse in Lyman, Maine. “It’s all trashed and underlined,” she said, “exclamation points for the provocative things.”
She’s living “sustainable agriculture” now as the owner of Black Kettle Farm, a CSA farm that supplies members and hunger-relief programs from Portland to Portsmouth, N.H. One day last summer she and her employees and apprentices were in full harvest mode on the farm’s 4.5 acres of vegetable fields—eggplant, potatoes, squash, garlic drying in the barn loft.
“The food’s beautiful,” Neale said, leading the way through a tomato- and basil-filled greenhouse. “As much as I’ve been doing it a while, it’s really thrilling and awe inspiring.”
A native New Yorker, Neale began her journey in Colby anthropology, with subsequent stops as a Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association apprentice (she hires them now), work with a nonprofit in San Francisco, and farming in Santa Cruz, Sonoma County, Calif., Connecticut, and, for the past five years on her own land in Lyman, Maine. “I’d never said the word career,” Neale said. “I was just doing things that interested me.”
And nothing interests her like farming—the seasonal rhythms, the “mega” to-do lists, manual labor, the knowledge that she’s putting healthy food on people’s tables, the model of a CSA, capricious weather, the “constant humbling moments.”
“I am a really dedicated CSA farmer. I love it when we have a really diverse, really gorgeous share for folks. That makes my heart sing.”
—Laura Neale ’99
Jeff “Smokey” McKeen ’76 and Carter Newell ’77
Pemaquid Oyster Co.
Dredging had been underway for two hours as Jeff “Smokey” McKeen ’76 and Carter Newell ’77 crisscrossed their plot in the Damariscotta River one August morning, lifting hundreds of pounds of dripping, fresh oysters from the sparkling waters.
“It’s a good life,” Newell said, at the helm of the boat Oyster Girl. “Come out in December when it’s snowing.”
It is a good life for the partners in Pemaquid Oyster Co., whose oysters are in demand at high-end restaurants from Maine to New York City. (McKeen is featured in celebrity chef Mario Batali’s cookbook, America Farm to Table.) “At one point we were a hundred and fifty grand in the hole,” Newell said. “Now we’re running 30 percent profit.”
With Chris Davis ’78, the pair set out to reintroduce a species that had been killed off in Maine tidal rivers by pollution from upstream industry. Newell, a marine biologist with a master’s degree from the University of Maine and doctorate from the University of New Brunswick, brought a scientific approach to the problem that ultimately paid off.
Over nearly 30 years, McKeen explained, the oyster farmers learned to seed larger oysters to limit predation, to plant in a way to give each oyster sufficient space, and to hold their harvested oysters downriver in saltier waters before sending them to market.
Now demand for Pemaquid Oyster Co. oysters far outstrips supply, more oyster farmers have begun operations on the river, and stray oysters are surviving, restablishing a wild population. “It takes you twenty years to figure it out and another ten to implement it,” Newell said. “Oysters have made it.”
“The Colby experience in terms of writing grant proposals has been the best thing for me. You need to make a case. If you can’t communicate it by writing or public speaking, then you’re basically done.”
—Carter Newell ’77, Pemaquid Oyster Co.
When dairy farming is your calling, you answer
A biology and environmental studies major (he’s trained in land use and soil science), he went on to work with and learn from Polly and Prentice Grassi ’95, owners of Village Farm in Freedom, Maine, and Paige Tyson ’77 and Spencer Aitel ’77 at Two Loons Farm in China, Maine. The Monmouth purchase was made through the Maine Farmland Trust, which funded easements that will keep the property in agriculture for perpetuity.For Smith, it was meant to be. “I walked [at graduation] and I had cowshit on my pants under my gown,” he said. “I milked that morning.”
Joel Alex ’08
Blue Ox Malthouse
Serious professional building blocks—environmental studies and international studies double major, GIS courses, economics, work in conservation policy, graduate courses in strategic sustainable development at an institute in Sweden. For Joel Alex ’08 it all led to acceptance to a prestigious graduate program at Yale.
Which he turned down.
Instead, Alex created Blue Ox Malthouse, a company that produces malt, the main ingredient in beer, which, until now, has been controlled by a handful of massive companies in Canada and the Midwest. “One-hundred percent of all the ingredients of local beer, except for water, comes from outside the state,” he said.
From a space in a small industrial park in Lisbon Falls, Maine, near Lewiston, Alex intends to rectify that, turning barley into the germinated seed called malt. It isn’t just the beer, he said. In a state that leads the nation in craft brewers, a successful organic malting operation in Maine would provide Aroostook County farmers with an alternative crop to potatoes and boost the economy in that part of Maine.
To make his idea reality, Alex tapped the extensive support system for entrepreneurs, landing multiple grants that helped him refine his business plan. Along the way he was joined by mentor-turned-investor Steve Culver ’78, a former Hannaford exec who looked at Alex’s plan and liked what he saw, both on the bottom line and in his younger partner. “He can learn anything,” Culver said.
Alex describes himself as “a catalyst,” a brain-picker who isn’t afraid to ask questions.
“I consider myself an ecologist,” he said, beside stainless steel vats in the Lisbon malthouse. “It’s a systems science. You’re looking at broad patterns, impacts, how things interconnect.”
“I consider myself an ecologist. It’s a systems science. You’re looking at broad patterns, impacts, how things interconnect.”
—Blue Ox Malthouse founder
Joel Alex ’08
Mike Wiley ’03
Eventide Oyster Co.
The Honey Paw
Creative writing and literature were Mike Wiley’s passions at Colby.
Wiley ’03 studied with Ira Sadoff, Elizabeth Sagaser, and Elisa Narin van Court—but then he studied cooking at a private hunting and fishing lodge in Colorado and at Le Bosquet in Crested Butte. No surprise that his thesis in a master’s program at University of Colorado Boulder was on the aesthetic rhetoric in The French Laundry Cookbook by the chef/owner of the renowned Napa Valley restaurant of the same name.
When he found himself preparing wildly ambitious snacks for grad school get-togethers, Wiley knew it was time to “go back and work in a kitchen.”
He did, at the Black Cat farm-to-table bistro in Boulder, where his writing skills were enlisted to write menus, and later at Hugo’s in Portland, Maine, where he rose quickly to sous chef and was asked by chef/owner Rob Evans (Wiley’s English major credential again) to proof an ad offering the restaurant for sale.
Wiley proofed the ad and then he and his partners bought Hugo’s, and quickly opened sister restaurant Eventide Oyster Co., a raw bar that has garnered national raves and down-the-block crowds. “We said, ‘Well, if we get beautiful little plates, commit ourselves to getting the freshest, most local stuff we can, we can have a great lineup of oysters and have fun with the food.’”
Deflecting praise, Wiley says the timing was perfect, that Eventide opened as oysters became very hip, and “we just have an awesome group of farmers and purveyors that we work with.”
The trio of restaurants (The Honey Paw noodle restaurant completed the set) buys whole animals for its meat dishes, fresh fish (and Pemaquid Oyster Co. oysters) from a local supplier, and veggies and mushrooms and plants from area farmers and foragers (including milk from The Milkhouse creamery).
“It’s so funny when people get committed to things like making food beautiful and delicious,” Wiley said. “It just so happens that what’s beautiful, in keeping with our politics, is also the most delicious.”
“It just so happens that what’s beautiful, in keeping with our politics, is also the most delicious.”
—Mike Wiley ’03, chef/restaurateur