By Jean English
Lee Humphreys’ and Ib Barfod’s Meadowsweet Farm on Finntown Road in Warren could just as well be called Renaissance Farm, for they have excelled at music and environmental education (Lee); engineering (Ib); community activism, farming and parenting (both). Add woodworking to Lee’s list … and we can even talk about the ghost that inhabits their home.
Lee says that she “wasn’t born with pavement under my feet,” explaining her aversion to congested cities. She was born on Long Island and lived there when truck farms still populated the middle of the Island, when pristine beaches and a perfect climate prevailed. “It was like zone 9, our garden was filled with rhodies and dogwood and laurels, and it was absolutely lush, but we always had winter, we always had ice skating, we always had snow…. We had … lots of woods all around to go exploring, and we did, we just lived outside. Spring just went on and on and on, and summers were not that hot.” As the island became more developed and paved, however, the cooling breezes that Lee had been used to in summer rose and didn’t arrive until 5 o’clock in the afternoon – if at all. Today, where Lee’s home once sat, a parking lot contributes to the development climate. “I never go back there!” Lee exclaims. “My roots are buried in concrete! Just like Joni Mitchell’s song – They’ve paved paradise.”
A Musical Beginning
Lee earned her Bachelor of Music degree in Flute from the University of Michigan, and her Master of Music in Flute Performance from the Manhattan School of Music. After graduation, she lived in New York City with her young daughter (Lee had been married when she was very young) and worked as a musician until she “just decided I needed to get out of New York City. It was … very expensive, very dirty, and I always liked having new adventures.” She auditioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and made the finals there, “which really gave me a boost to go on” – and eventually took the principal flute job in a new orchestra in Venezuela.
“I just took a chance and went,” she explains. “My daughter was in a public school. It was one of the best ones in New York City, but that doesn’t say much. It was still pretty grim, and she hated it. So we went down to Venezuela … and the orchestra almost folded before it opened, which was scary, because I’d burned all my bridges.” Her daughter was anything but scared. She went to an international school “and she came home from school the first day – she was in third grade – and she said, ‘Mom, I love it! ‘ and I thought, ‘It’s worth the whole thing.’”
They stayed in Venezuela for two and a half unstable years. “Sometimes you’d go to the bank and your money wouldn’t be there,” says Lee. “Or enough people had been ahead of you so that it had been drawn down. I had to keep changing banks.”
Lee and her daughter left the beautiful, interesting, Third World country when she got a job with the Hong Kong Philharmonic that was “too exotic to refuse.” There she met her second husband, an Englishman with two children, and together they eventually decided to move to Maine, “a new foreign country,” says Lee.
One of Lee’s first jobs here was with the Great Eastern Mussel Farm, thanks to the foreman – an “opera freak” – who saw her musical resume. Through working at Great Eastern, she met all the local fiddle players, a trumpet player, and got her first gig.
Lee and her husband later ran Thomaston Marine for about three years and “found out that was a great way to lose money,” so they sold it. It was a very small marina that was once used for local businessmen, but then people started getting bigger and bigger boats, beyond what the marina could handle. Lee and her husband got involved in fuel issues while there. “We had some very bad oil and diesel tanks. They were grandfathered, so we could have left them there, but they were much too close to the restaurant on the property; they were sometimes floating in water. We went to quite a bit of expense to have a concrete containment thing built, then found out some environmental organizations were kind of sniffing around because we were in a flood plain. I think it’s almost impossible to have marine fuel that’s not in a flood plain,” Lee observes. “We had it so that it could survive probably a hundred-year flood, but there’s nothing perfect. That’s when I joined the Georges River Tidewater Association – partly to find out what they were saying about us! It was a funny motivation, but …. We tried to be a sensitive to any sort of problem.” Eventually, federal regulations suitable for big marinas – such as requiring a $500,000 pumpout system – were imposed on small marinas as well, “so it was a good thing we sold it,” Lee concludes.
Lee’s next adventure involved enrolling at Unity College, because she “wanted to do something totally different. I could always go back and get a doctorate in music, but … BORING! It’s much more fun to break into something new, and I just loved it, and I learned so much. Unity has some wonderful teachers. It’s a real counter culture school. There are guys there who sleep under the stars. The mineralogist taught Geology of Environmental Problems and he also taught Ice Climbing. It’s the sort of school where they … have the freedom to do that. I had a couple of wonderful professors, and it was a real hands-on thing. We had to write an environmental impact statement on the Unity dump. That’s probably the most studied dump in the world! My degree was a little bit of everything – chemistry, biology, freshwater limnology – and I used every bit of that education when I got out!”
She became an environmental educator with the Knox-Lincoln Soil and Water Conservation District, doing a different research project every year and taking it around to schools. Lee also worked for four years with Knox-Lincoln Cooperative Extension doing water quality work.
Lee was both a musician and environmentalist for a while, but found that she had trouble switching gears. “I’d come from doing a water workshop and I’d be all salty and then go to a rehearsal and have to sort of unbend my fingers … and I found if I got too much in the environmental thing, I just hankered for my flute and for getting away.”
She shifted back to music again, teaching flute at Bates College and at high schools for six years. She eventually left the Bates job because of the long commute but still does a lot of teaching, plays in a trio with a violinist and cellist, and in a chamber ensemble.
Last year Lee applied for and was appointed to Maine’s Board of Pesticides Control to regain that balance between music and environmentalism. “I really wanted to use the skills that I’d developed and keep learning things, and I feel very committed to the environmental movement. I feel that I really would like to make some sort of contribution.” She is especially interested in the board’s work on reducing pesticide use in schools, by homeowners and by the lawn care industry. She is the first certified organic farmer to sit on the board.
Ib has also traveled the world, beginning when his mother would look out the window of the family home in Denmark and watch him and his sister playing Sinbad the Sailor or Cowboys and Indians. He moved from Denmark to New Orleans in 1948, and there met his first wife, Emily, who died six years ago. Together they had three children.
Ib and Emily lived in several southern and Midwestern cities, then in Boston before coming to Maine. Trained as a chemical and process engineer, Ib moved wherever plants needed to be designed, built or run. “To design a plant and build it, that’s fun,” he says quietly and happily. After a friend invited him to visit Maine and told him about a job at Marine Colloids (now FMC) in Rockland, Ib and Emily moved to Camden. He worked at Marine Colloids (which makes extractives from seaweed) for 15 years. After retiring, he worked as an independent engineering contractor for another nine years, “then I said the hell with it.”
Lee and her second husband lived in Warren Village, where they had a big garden. “That’s where I think one of the first organizations I became involved in in Maine was MOFGA.” She brought warm, fragrant memories of her father’s Long Island garden to Maine: “I sort of remember my sled going into his mulch pile, feeling how hot it was, these kinds of memories,” but having lived in cities for 22 years after that, “I had just everything to learn about gardening.” Her husband, a former sailor, “desperately wanted to garden” now that he was on land. “He really got into gardening, and we started going to MOFGA meetings, and I remember going to Common Ground Fair and seeing all these women and men with long hair, long skirts, and it was like being in a time warp. It was sort of like being back in the ’70s,” even though it was actually the late eighties.
“Then we went to the local chapter – Beedy Parker, Eve Emshwiller. We started getting to know some of these gardening people, and they shared a lot of useful things. We both liked it because it was such an eclectic group of people.” The pot luck suppers took Lee’s British husband by surprise. “At that time my husband was still kind of English meat and potatoes, so he just thought it was all too weird, but over the years he got more into it and realized these people have got so many good gardening ideas, and simple and inexpensive. And that became my favorite organization, because it was so positive. When I was getting my degree in environmental policy, there was so much depressing material, and I’d go to a MOFGA meeting, and it was, ‘You can grow things and it’s fun!’ It was probably one of the most positive things when I first came to Maine.”
Ib, too, gardened – perhaps a natural occupation for someone whose last name, Barfod, means ‘barefoot.’ (His first name is not unusual in Scandinavia, either, he says: Consider the famous playwright Ibsen – son of Ib.) From the limited garden his family had in Denmark, to gardens in Georgia, Boston and Camden, he and Emily grew some of their own food. When they bought the farm in Warren in 1978, “we had a sheep flock, and we enlarged it year by year. We got up to 18 to 20 ewes. With lambs and rams, it was a 50-member flock there. We also had chickens, also one year we had two pigs. Particularly Emily was active in doing the garden out here in the back.”
After Lee and Ib were both widowed, they met each other when they served on the “dump committee” for Warren. “Now it’s called the solid waste committee,” jokes Lee. Ib, she explains, because of his background in chemistry and engineering, “did all the work with the DEP, set up monitoring wells, interpreting the data, and then … designed a transfer station. Then we started recycling, got various people to man the recycling station, get people used to it …. ” Ib put in five years, three of which were almost full-time volunteering for the dump.
The town’s goal was to recycle 50% of its waste (by weight). “We got up to more than 40 percent in Warren,” says Ib. “Statewide now is about 15 percent. Last year [in Warren it was] about 27. Some of the islands, Vinalhaven, maybe North Haven, have [it] way up, like seventy. So you can, if people get serious about it and they’ re organized ….
“There is a bag charge in Warren,” he continues. “That is very important. There was quite some resistance; I was the one that was behind getting that bag charge in. Those that bring the waste in should pay for it! It’s that simple! If you pay for it, then you try to recycle as much as you can, at least those for whom it makes sense.” The bag charge is 50 cents; Lee thinks it should be a dollar. Lee and Ib lament the fact that the recycling rate has “kind of lapsed” in Maine. “Part of it,” explains Ib, “is of course that the state significantly reduced the funds for the Waste Management Agency. You have to have a department that informs, sets goals and makes you meet them.”
“The energy has to come back,” Lee continues. “I guess it’s like a lot of things, like our co-op,” which has gone through periods of high and low energy. “At our [co-op] meetings, [we ask] how we can recapture that energy and get things moving forward again. But it’s just human nature. You get excited about something, and you see yourself going toward a goal, and then the hard part is continuing.”
Our talk of recycling moves into the realm of sludge and composting toilets. Lee talks about how great she felt about Unity College when it put in composting toilets as part of some new construction. She also tells of the environmental center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Ib’s daughter works. “I was so happy when I went there,” she says. “They went to all ends to … find where they could use recycled things. Tiles were made out of recycled rubber … and they have composting toilets. We asked them how they’re working out, and [Ib’s] daughter said, ‘Well, we had some glitches, but they’re working fine.’ We asked the engineers how they felt, and they said, ‘Well, you know, imagine $2000 for each toilet ….” but they said if you can afford it, it’s the way to go, it’s a learning experience for everyone involved.”
“I’m waiting for the day,” says Ib, “when you have indoor beds of plants, which I understand that one individual in Atlanta, Georgia, has – it’s some reeds … and all the effluent goes through those reeds, and there’s no smell …. I mean, it’s right inside the house! Of course you have the eternal problem of how do you assure that there are no pathogens.”
“But,” counters Lee, “there’s a problem with the traditional method of disposal; … there are still pathogens, and what they do to kill the pathogens kills other things.” She mentions problems with sewage treatment plants that use chlorine and then discharge effluent into bays – and the chlorine makes shellfish sterile; problems with trying to use ultraviolet light as a substitute for chlorine when a treatment plant hasn’t been built to accommodate a UV light system. She adds that a state-of-the-art facility in Thomaston is spraying treated effluent on a forest there, “and now there’s a new hiking trail through there where you can observe all this, but you’re not supposed to go too close on spraying days.” However, with Thomaston State Prison shutting down, the loss of the prison’s user fees will create a challenge for the town to continue running the plant.
An Old Enough Farm
Lee explains that Ib and Emily bought the farm from Kate Parker, one of MOFGA’s founders. One day, Kate’s son returned and asked Ib and Lee if he could show his new wife the farm where he’d grown up. “He came in and told us all about the house from a child’s standpoint,” Lee says. “You know, ‘You can go up in that field and there’s a hollow, and you can lie down and nobody can see you.’ He told us all about the ghost in the house. I think we really do [have a ghost]. You know, Ib and I, part of us, says ‘nonsense,’ but on the other hand, so many people have stayed here …. My niece said, ‘Lee, I don’t know how to tell you this, it’s so weird, but there’s a presence in the room.’ It’s usually a female presence, and it’s usually a very welcoming sort of thing.” Kate’s son told them “where some of the other ghosts were, and he said they were mischievous …. ” He told about the time he and his sibling “left their cap guns in the root cellar. They went back to get them, and there were these two ancient cap guns and theirs had been taken. They went to their parents and they said, ‘Why did you put those old, useless cap guns there?’ And the parents knew nothing about it.”
“This house started in about 1790,” says Ib; “There’s been enough time for ghosts.”
“I felt something in [Emily’s weaving] room when we first came here,” Lee adds. “It was very welcoming and very nice. And we’ve had other people stay here and say the same thing, and these are people you would not think would be very receptive.”
Less spectral beings have inhabited the farm as well. “I think it’s historically been a farm,” says Lee. “The Parkers had sheep, and people had cattle before that.” The land is part of an original farm that measured about 150 acres. “I hoped from the minute I got this place,” says Ib, “which was at that time 40 acres, I hoped to get the … original part [back] together.”
Just last spring, they did enlarge the farm from 40 to 116 acres when part of the old farm came up for sale. “The Maine Farmland Trust and even the agriculture department has taken a real proactive stance for trying to help farmers keep their farms and pass them on to new farmers,” says Lee. “That’s where we really see ourselves at some point. This is a very small operation, what we have here.” But the soil is well drained and has had organic matter added for years, so “it’s excellent. Somebody could really farm the whole area. We’ve left a lot of the fencing up in case somebody had animals someday. And now that we have the woods, Barry Brusila is a very good forester, and she’s going to do a forest plan for us, so it can be a working forest. Hopefully, we’ll improve the timber stand and at least keep the wildlife habitat, maybe improve it as well. For us, it would be nice to have enough to cover the taxes, but for a young, energetic couple, they could have a year-round living, hopefully, with both the forest and the farm. We don’t know how that will work out, but we’ll see.”
The Working Farm
Meadowsweet Farm – one of two organic farms in Warren – devotes only 1/4 acre to cultivating MOFGA-certified-organic vegetable crops, “but I replant a lot,” says Lee. “When the peas come out, that will be lettuce,” or chard. To facilitate succession planting, they start seedlings in wood-framed boxes that sit right in the garden. Aluminum storm windows turn the boxes into cold frames when necessary. Earlier in the season, seedlings germinate indoors under fluorescent lights close to a furnace, then are moved to wooden shelves in the dining room and other parts of the house – shelves that Lee learned to make at a woodworking class for women. In the cooler ell of the house, where Lee has her teaching studio, seedlings harden off.
Unraised garden beds enriched with Land and Sea compost support a healthy growth of salad crops, beans, tomatoes, vine crops, and more, all arranged for a four-year rotation. When garlic is planted, for instance, the soil is first enriched with 1/2 inch of Land and Sea. Lee thinks that the diversity and balance of nutrients in Land and Sea compost increases crops’ resistance to disease. A soil test shows all nutrients in the optimum range.
Most of the garden work is done by hand; the beds haven’t been tilled in five years. Lee and Ib prefer ground level to raised beds because they have only a shallow well that they don’t want to deplete. (Raised beds dry out faster than level beds.) They mulch with shredded leaves and grass clippings to conserve moisture too – once the slug season has passed. By not tilling or walking in the beds, and through frequent additions of organic matter, Lee finds that when weeds do germinate, they are easily pulled.
Many of the leaves used to mulch the garden during the growing season and over winter come from a friend with whom Lee barters. Lee spreads the leaves on the lawn, then, while cutting grass, the leaves are shredded. Whatever isn’t used on the garden right away is stored in barrels and bags for later use. Mulch that sits on the garden over winter is raked into the paths in early spring to keep slugs from seedlings. Later it is moved back around the seedlings. Areas that become excessively weedy are mulched with newspaper, cardboard and hay.
Mulch is just one way that water is conserved at Meadowsweet. Garbage cans are filled with water from the shallow well, then sun-warmed water is taken from these cans and applied to crops by hand as needed. Aqua Spikes from Gardeners Supply direct water to the roots of tomato plants and “work well, especially with mulch,” says Lee.
After having “terrible problems with cucumber beetles and squash bugs,” they started covering susceptible crops with Reemay two years ago, and that “has really worked. The cucumbers we sold paid for the compost for the entire place.”
Two hundred asparagus plants and a few rows of raspberries are mulched with recycled black plastic that remains in use for years because it is covered lightly with hay to protect it from the sun, and it’s taken up in the fall and stored inside. Black plastic mulch is also used in a newly tilled area where cucurbits are growing. The area was thick with quackgrass. Lee and Ib covered it with black plastic, cut holes in the plastic for cucurbits, added a lot of compost to the holes, and transplanted the crops. “It gave me a great appreciation for no-till,” says Lee. At the same time that she transplanted cucumbers, zucchini and yellow squash, and winter squash, she put a couple of cucurbit seeds in each planting hole “as a backup – and it gives a second crop of zucchini and squash.” A ring of wood chips around the cucurbits (and between asparagus rows) helps keep slugs off of the plants. When planting holes are cut in black plastic, incidentally, the removed plastic is saved and duct taped to other plastic that needs to be patched.
One of their two vegetable gardens is surrounded by thick-growing flowers and herbs that help keep the grass out, attract beneficial insects, and “make [the garden] a nicer place to work.” Mint, bee balm, Echinacea, oriental poppies, meadow rue (Thalictrum), baby’s breath, maltese cross, sea lavender and yarrow are included in this living bouquet, as is oregano, which makes a “wonderful dried flower and attracts beneficial insects.” Lee uses many of these border plants to make dried bouquets for Christmas presents and to sell.
This year Lee hired two teenage boys to work on the farm, “and these young boys are not what I expected. I was sort of picturing teenage girls. You know, when we make our salad mixes, a little cilantro here, a little dill there … that kind of stuff. I don’t know how these boys are going to work out for that, but for digging new beds and that kind of stuff, they’re great and they really go at it!”
We built some wood-framed boxes in which to grow beans, for instance, because the weeds got out of control in the bean area. “I smothered everything with cardboard and newspaper and built raised beds on top of it, and they [the boys] just filled those boxes in record time. They also mulched my onions. It was nice to have that kind of boost, and these jobs [shoveling, wheelbarrowing], I can’t do so much or I really don’t operate well the next day, so I have to pace myself and it can take two weeks …. They did it in an hour and a half!”
At the end of the summer, Lee reported that they boys, Randy Ganeau and Scott Hamilton, and one girl, Crystal Davey, worked out very well on the farm. “All of them have taken one or more horticulture courses at [Medomak Valley High School]. I applaud [horticulture teacher] Jon Thurston for his enthusiasm for growing things that obviously gets transmitted to the kids. They helped with planting, weeding, mulching, harvesting, lugging compost, making bean teepees. The guys liked the heavy work” but were “not too keen on weeding.” Then Lucy Funkhauser began working for us two days a week on harvest days, with Crystal as sub and extra. Lucy has worked on Horsepower Farm as an apprentice and since then on many other organic and biodynamic farms. Lucy has been a great help, loves to weed and do garden maintenance.”
Basil sells well at the Rising Tide Food Coop in Damariscotta, as does a salad mix with seven kinds of lettuce, snippings of herbs, pansies, and ‘Peach Melba’ nasturtiums, but the salad mix “is a lot of work,” says Lee.
In addition to selling to Rising Tide and Fresh Off the Farm, Meadowsweet has a small farmstand at the end of the driveway that’s open two days a week. Four senior farmshare members also buy Meadowsweet produce. “I’m actually going to deliver” the produce, says Lee, recalling that she got this idea from a MOF&G article about someone who delivered vegetables. “We have four widows, mostly around 80, and some of them are housebound, so I’ll be delivering to them. They all love vegetables, and they all love to cook.
“One of them lives on her family farm. She has a conservation easement on the farm …. She could have sold the farm, but she and her husband wanted to keep it a farm, so she lives very frugally so she can keep it a farm. Her dad had a vegetable wagon that went to Thomaston in the summer when she was growing up. Now I’m delivering to her.”
“When I lived in Hong Kong,” Lee recalls, “there was a vegetable lady who came around in her little truck. She’d come to a block of flats, and most of the women would come down. It was sort of a social occasion. The woman would set up her wares on crates and be there for about an hour, and people would shop and she’d go to the next place. This was in Hong Kong, which is very developed! And there was fishy man too, who would come around and knock on your door, and he’d spread out some newspaper and clean the fish for you right there. So I always thought that would be great – to have a vegetable truck. So now I have a vegetable Toyota. It’s only four bags of groceries once a week, but I think it’s a wonderful program because it helps farmers and it helps senior citizens. These women still love to cook. It’s a way of helping people stay independent. I said, ‘You can tell me what things you don’t eat.’ They said, ‘I eat everything!’ That’s so nice; you don’t hear that these days.”
This fall, Lee said that the senior farmshare “has been gratifying. Several of the ladies said they loved the fresh produce, were freezing some for winter, felt healthier eating all the greens, and that this is the way they used to eat when they grew up on farms. I like all of them. They have been appreciative customers. I did not charge them organic prices, but the difference was made up in satisfaction.”
Lee and Ib buy their seeds from Fedco (F), Pinetree (P) and Johnny’s (J). Here are some of their favorite varieties – as well as varieties that their customers favor, both for looks and flavor.
Lutz Winter Keeper beets, especially for the greens (F)
Deep Purple scallions (J) and Crimson Forest scallions (P)
Zephyr yellow squash (J)
Lebanese White bush summer squash (F)
Thai Magic basil (J)
Sugar Buns and Lancelot corn (F)
Nelson carrots (F)
Redwing onions (sold with the treen tops – gorgeous!) (P)
Pruden’s Purple tomato (their favorite heirloom tomato) (F)
Bright Lights chard (F, J)