Jamie Graeger—The Middle-Aged Farmer and the Sea
by Jean English
Copyright ©1998. This article may not be reproduced in part or in whole without permission of the author.
Jamie Graeger leads an amphibious life. For three-week stints, he is at sea with the Merchant Marine; during alternate three-week periods, he is firmly grounded, raising certified-organic garlic, gathering and boiling maple sap, and raising nursery stock for Fedco Trees. You might expect his life to be a see-saw affair, and to a certain extent it is, but he has managed to use both land and sea to further his commitment to the environment, and land and sea meet when sea-going friends might be found helping him plant garlic or compare the taste of various maple syrups.
This is all a long way from life in Detroit—Michigan, not Maine—where Jamie grew up.
Even then, though, he had always had an interest in boats and in workhorses, but never dreamed he’d end up with both in his life. He went from Detroit to Ann Arbor, where he graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.S. in Natural Resources, specializing in Wildlife Management and Environmental Education. He was aware of issues relating to organic agriculture even then, shopping at the local food co-op, for example. After college, he worked as director of the regional office for Greenpeace in Ann Arbor for four years. He had started a support group for Greenpeace in the early ‘70s, started the Great Lakes Regional Office in ‘79, then became director of that office. He was also on the national board of Greenpeace for many years, dealing primarily with toxic waste issues, and he was the National Toxics Coordinator for a couple of years. His office also addressed issues relating to nuclear power, Native Americans, and acid rain in the Midwest.
After several years of such work, he was ready for a change. "I had never been to Maine," he says, and "I didn’t have much money. Maine seemed like a good place to run out of money." He came here in the early ‘80s and worked with Cooperative Extension, helped develop and teach courses in environmental education at Camp Tanglewood in Lincolnville, worked with the Department of Conservation and with Non-game Fisheries.
He also got involved with boats by going to Camden and "talking with a lot of people."
That led to a job as first mate on a 65-foot schooner that was being refit and was chartered out to the School for Field Studies in Massachusetts to do education and research projects. The schooner later was chartered by the New England Aquarium to go to Nova Scotia to look for right whales—and that led to a marriage.
"That’s where I met Martie [Crone]," he says, "on the boat." Martie, who had received her degree in biology in Wyoming, was working for the Right Whale Project at the New England Aquarium in Boston, which entailed a field season in Lubec to track and observe the whales that had been found in that area by surprise. A proposed deep water port for oil tankers for the area required an environmental impact statement, and through that process the whales, thought to have been extinct due to hunting by Basque Whalers in the 1600s, were found.
"The Project was doing ground breaking work," says Jamie, by identifying and studying the population of about 300 whales. "They were working with a population they didn’t know anything about." A lot remains unknown. "They know that the cows go to Georgia and Florida to calve. They don’t know where the males go. Every once in a while, they’ll have a cow and a calf in the Bay of Fundy that they never saw in Georgia or Florida."
While mysteries remain, Martie herself learned a considerable amount: She "was involved for about 10 years and could almost identify each of the 300 whales by sight."
One result of the Project was the publication Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in the Western North Atlantic: A Catalog of Identified Individuals, edited by Martie J. Crone and Scott D. Kraus.
After the field season in Lubec, Martie would go to Florida during the early winter to do aerial surveys to look for right whales, and Jamie would stay on the schooner, which spent the winter as a cargo ship going among the islands of the West Indies. "We’d go to the duty-free islands, pick up wine and booze, and bring it to the casinos and hotels. It was legitimate!" Jamie insists. "We had a regular schedule of five or six islands that we went to, and we hauled just about everything—bananas, a lot of water, a monkey once; he got seasick. There weren’t many boats there with a regular schedule. The little trading boats would go in [to dock] until they had a full cargo. It might be a week or more."
He also worked as an endangered species observer for dredging operations in the South, watching for sea turtles and whales.
The couple spent late winter and spring in Boston so that Martie could work at the Aquarium, then headed back to Lubec for more field work. "It was always a hassle to get short rent in Boston, so we got this place in the mid-‘80s, and I’d be based here."
Jamie and Martie were recently divorced but remain close friends. She is doing Global Information Systems (GIS) mapping for the state and title searches for a lawyer and is hoping to pursue her interest in birds. After a decade with whales, "I think she was ready for something new," says Jamie.
He insists that she shares full credit for their F&A Farm—or the Farm for Fat and Aged Critters. "Everything you see here," he says as his waving arm designates the house, barn, fences, gardens and fields, "both of us did it together."
They bought their farm down a long, quite, rural road in Palermo after drawing a 20-mile-radius circle around Belfast, a city that had attracted Jamie as he got to know Maine, and looked for a place within the circle. They found one just two miles outside the circle. "This was half way between [Boston and Lubec], so it seemed like the right thing to do. There was a large garden area out back. It needed to be filled."
After buying the place, they started acquiring animals—cats, rabbits, chickens, sheep and a playful Bernese mountain dog named Bernie—and "noticed a trend. They all seemed to have a story—usually of neglect—behind them, and after they had been here for a while, they seemed to get fat." Some of Martie’s fellow researchers from the Whale Project started talking about the farm as a home for soldiers and sailors, and from that the Home for Fat and Aged was derived.
Their workhorse, Sarah, a registered Belgian mare, had no such story. "I needed a good workhorse," says Jamie. While he hand cultivates his home garden, which is all in raised beds, Sarah helps prepare the ground for garlic, pull firewood from the woodlot, and collect maple sap. "Everything I can do, I do with her," says Jamie. He had no experience with horses when he started farming, so he "got an old, fat gelding" that first year. "I had to get a neighbor over to show me how to put a harness on. He had done a lot of work [with horses], so I learned a lot. We’ve had a couple of other horses and some borrowed horses. We got Sarah about five years ago." Although her spunky, independent nature can be a challenge when she’s under harness, "she’s working out well." Jamie recommends that beginners start with an older, slower horse. "Sarah’s real sweet, but when she’s under harness, you have to be real alert. You have to stay right on top of her to prevent a serious situation."
As they accumulated animals, Jamie and Martie also added to the structure of their farm.
They enlarged the warm, cedar-shingled house, raising the upstairs to accommodate the many friends who spent time with them, and adding a brightly sunlit "summer kitchen," where seedlings are potted and produce can be carried directly in from the garden, washed and processed.
They also built a beautiful, sound, tight barn, where animals and hay are kept downstairs and garlic is dried upstairs. They kept lists of jobs to be done on the farm and, Jamie reminisces with amusement, one list read, "weed this, cut that, build a barn..." as if each item required equal work.
Destined for Garlic
Jamie knew just what he wanted to plant after buying the farm. "When I lived in Ann Arbor, I walked by a guy’s house every day. In his front yard he just grew garlic. No lawn—just garlic. I thought, ‘That’s cool!’ He supplied a couple of restaurants and the food co-op. It just intrigued me."
Then a friend’s sister went to Berkeley, became involved with a film group, and produced a film about garlic. "She came back and showed the film at Ann Arbor. I thought, ‘That’s cool.’ So when we moved here, I said, ‘I’m going to grow garlic.’ I didn’t know anything about garlic.
"I went to the Belfast Co-op and asked where they got their garlic. They said Paul Hayes, who was a long-time certified grower in Morrill. I stopped by there and said, ‘I want to grow garlic.’ He said, ‘I’ll give you some seed and help you out with whatever, as long as you don’t sell to the Belfast Co-op.’ I bought 15 or 20 pounds that first year. Last year I harvested about 1600 pounds. That was Hayes’ last year selling." Now Jamie supplies the Co-op. "They go through a lot of garlic in Belfast," he says. "More than some of my markets in Portland." (He also sells at the Common Ground Fair, the Portland Whole Grocer, Portland Green Grocer, and Royal River Foods in Yarmouth.)
Garlic was "a great crop to get into at that time. Not many people were growing garlic.
At Common Ground, everyone was sharing information, competition wasn’t there. I still don’t feel there’s a competitive thing where somebody is trying to nudge somebody [else] out. I usually go just Saturday and Sunday. That leaves Friday for the others to sell garlic without competition. It’s nice to be involved in something that doesn’t involve cut-throat competition."
Not only does Jamie sell seed garlic at the Fair, but he has a poster there telling Fairgoers how to grow garlic. "I keep thinking I’m going to talk myself right out of a market.
People come back and say they planted it ant tell me what kind of luck they had. This year I sold 200 pounds more than ever before at Common Ground! I guess I’m not going to work myself out of a job."
Garlic is a "fun crop," says Jamie. "It’s more exciting than carrots. I have a garlic planting party every year. People come. The whale team from Lubec would come and plant garlic and we’d have a big party, we’d eat garlic and plant garlic. That would go on for a few days. I don’t think you get that kind of enthusiasm for planting peas or carrots."
With garlic, "people are into the whole aspect [of it]; it just has a mystique about it."
Jamie plants a little more than 1/3 of an acre of garlic in eight beds that are each 40" wide and 175’ long, setting five rows per bed, with the garlic spaced 6" apart within and between rows. He has tried four rows per bed, but found that the heads didn’t grow any larger with the extra spacing. He prepares the field by plowing and disking it with horse-drawn implements, then uses a borrowed, tractor-pulled bed shaper to make the beds. He has found that most of the equipment for using horses in vegetable production is designed for teams. "Trying to find most equipment," such as a bed shaper, "for a single horse is difficult."
Nutrients, including about an inch of compost, usually are incorporated during these operations according to annual soil test recommendations and the appearance of the previous crop. "You have to have extremely good soil to grow garlic. It’s a heavy feeder and likes organic matter," Jamie points out. He has used rock phosphate, alfalfa meal, cover crops, compost and lime on his field, and finds that he has to pay particular attention to potassium, which gets depleted easily and requires applications of sulpomag.
"Every year my garlic does better," he says.
This year, rather than spreading compost before field preparation, he tried just topdressing it across the whole bed, raking it to a uniform depth, and then planting through the compost. "I’ll be able to tell this year if it worked," he says. He used Knox Hill Farm compost this year, a combination of fish waste, crab waste, hardwood sawdust and "a couple of other things." He’s been satisfied with fish and crab waste compost in the past, especially because they don’t add weed seeds to his plot, and because he believes they add minerals that "regular, terrestrial organic fertilizer" wouldn’t. It seems a likely philosophy for someone who spends so much time at sea.
Right after planting, he mulches his plots with a good 4" of fluffed hay—enough to suppress weeds but to enable the garlic to poke through, as well. Garlic "doesn’t like competition from weeds at all," says Jamie. During the summer he keeps an eye on the plot, pulling any weeds that make it through the mulch. While straw would be ideal for preventing additional weed pressure, hay is cheaper and more readily available. "Last year I had it a little too heavy," he explains, "and I had to go through and loosen it. We had a long fall last year, and I think the garlic started to come through the mulch [in the fall]. The first leaf on garlic is modified to push up through the soil; it’s heavier than the other leaves. I think that leaf died with the freeze and couldn’t push up in the spring.
There were some areas where I had to go through and help the garlic through."
The garlic isn’t irrigated. "I’m not set up for it, and it takes forever for water [from overhead irrigation] to get through the mulch. With the hay mulch, there’s only been one year when a lack of water affected the garlic." Not only is the hay mulch conserving soil moisture, but each year Jamie goes through his plot after harvest with a Graveley walk-behind mower to chop the remaining mulch, then disks it under. "I’m disking and plowing under 100 bales of hay a year. I think that has a lot to do with my soil fertility and organic matter levels"—and with soil moisture retention.
The hay mulch has one drawback, however. "Around harvest time," says Jamie, "it keeps moisture around the base of the stalk of garlic and can lead to more decomposing of the papery layers. Each leaf represents a paper layer around the bulb itself.I need as many [paper layers] on as possible to go to market, because the bulb gets handled quite a few times. Some get worn off, but I try to keep as many as possible so it still looks nice when it gets to market."
Because of the rot potential, he keeps a close eye on his garlic in midsummer and harvests according to how it looks and how the weather looks. "I usually figure the end of July, beginning of August" for harvest, he says. "If it looks like we’re going to get a lot of rain, I’ll pull it early. Some years, only an eighth of the leaves have died back. Last year, about a third had died back. The weather was so dry, I figured there was no added benefit to leave [the garlic] in the ground. You can also get molds on it if it gets wet."
He used to hang his crop to dry it, but now cuts the tops off right after harvest and dries the bulbs on racks in the second story of his barn. "Some people think that cutting [at harvest] cuts down on the storage life. I haven’t found that." The Russian Red rocambole (hard neck) variety that he grows stores well until April.
After the garlic dries for two to three weeks, Jamie borrows an air compressor to blow it clean. "Last year I cleaned 14,000 heads individually," he says. "I used to brush them," but something on the upstroke of the brushing caused a severe allergic reaction when it reached his face. So now, he modifies the compressor hose with a fine nozzle, holds it right next to the garlic, and cleans it. There is an art to this that Jamie "has the knack for.
You can blow off all the paper layers." Still, "other people could get the knack. All you really want to take off is the outermost layer" with its accompanying soil.
Jamie has a two-year rotation established for his garlic. His green manure year starts in late summer, when Jamie plants oats where a crop of garlic had grown. In the spring he sows berseem clover; he used to grow perennial clover, but found that it became a weed problem. The clover is plowed under in the fall and the next crop of garlic is planted there. Any Berseem clover that survives plowing is winterkilled.
Syruping with Sarah
When Jamie describes sap collecting trips through his woods with Sarah pulling a sled and clomping through the soft snow, you get the impression that romanticism is much of the reason for doing this "job." Taste is another. This small, commercial enterprise produces 30 to 50 gallons of syrup from about 150 trees, with one or two taps per tree.
"It’s good syrup," says Jamie. "I think small producers get a different flavor than large producers. When they’re pulling off 40 gallons an hour, it’s just a different product than when you’re pulling off a gallon an hour. Cooking it longer adds to the flavor.
"We never make an extra fancy [grade] because we’re not sophisticated enough to do that." Still, "when Martie was doing the Right Whale Project, we had a big syrup tasting party, with syrup from all over—New Hampshire, Canada... Ours definitely had a stronger, more maply flavor. It won hands down."
The operation is all done with buckets and a horse. "I didn’t want to have plastic running around my woods," says Jamie. "It just didn’t seem right." He has a collecting tank that Sarah pulls on a sled or wagon, depending on the weather. "Usually we start with a sled and end with a wagon. A few years it’s been all with a sled. That’s a lot of fun, a lot easier on the horse. Other years she’s been up to her knees in mud."
The syrup is brought to a holding tank that sits outside of and slightly uphill from the sugar shack, and around which Jamie packs snow until the syrup can be gravity-fed into one pan to be preheated, then into the flue pan (made in Warren) to be boiled. "I used to stay up all night doing it," he says. "Not anymore," although his sugar shack—a wood-framed structure of boat storage design that has been covered for the past nine years with the same sheet of used greenhouse plastic—is "like a chapel" at night when the single, warmly glowing spotlight is on and the sap is steaming the air.
Jamie and Martie’s friend John McIntyre is "our brewmeister—our syrup meister," says Jamie. "He likes to tend the fire." In years past, in fact, when John lived in Portland—
Oregon!--he would fly east every year to do the syruping with Jamie and Martie. Eventually he moved to Waldo County. "I think he’s probably missed only one or two years" of syruping. When he’s available, he does all of the boiling while Jamie and Martie collect the sap. "She’ll probably still help if she can work it into her schedule.
She loves syruping." The sugar shack holds about a cord of wood, handy for the boiling process.
Ironically, if anything had to go for financial reasons, it would probably be syruping. "It takes way too much time to make any money at this scale, but it’s fun, with the horse kicking up the snow, the sun coming through the trees..."
Some of the syrup is sold, some is given away. Even though Jamie hasn’t advertised, he still has orders from Michigan, California, Florida...even England, all by "word of mouth."
For six years, Jamie has been selling about 500 lilac plants each year through Fedco Trees—for which he also works now. Fedco is "really developing a market for a lot of people," he says.
Jamie buys one-year-old rooted cuttings and grows them in his vegetable garden, rotating them along with his vegetables in that "super rich soil." He has about 1,000 growing at any one time--500 to be sold during the current year, 500 next. He can plant about 100 cuttings in an hour.
"In two years I’m growing out a 2- to 3-foot shrub, sometimes 4-foot, which is almost too large. In one year, they’re not large enough. In two years they’re almost too large, I think because of the fertility of the garden area." He mulches the lilacs, although not as heavily as he mulches his garlic. He digs them in early April in time for Fedco to ship them dormant. He hasn’t had any problems with insects, diseases or rodents, although deer sometimes "take the top inch or two," but this does no lasting damage.
Jamie is trying to grow different colors of lilacs and would like to grow more varieties of these and other kinds of shrubs, especially those that attract wildlife. The work involved is not too difficult. "They need a couple of weedings during the first year, but during the second year they’re on their own. It’s a good money maker for the time [involved]. I could probably grow 1,000 plants a year for Fedco if I added one or two other species."
The vegetable garden in which Jamie grows nursery crops is ideally situated on a slight south slope and has good soil—amended each year by manure from his horse, sheep, goats and chickens—and gets good sun. "We were lucky when we got this place," he says. "It has a long growing season."
Time for Reflection
Jamie has been a certified organic grower for 11 years. He has worked on educational, research and cargo vessels. He has worked on ships in the South, searching for endangered species to satisfy environmental impact statements. He has done what some people might call radical environmental work for Greenpeace. Now, finding himself in need of a steady income, he is working for the Merchant Marine as "the lowest of the low—an ordinary seaman." While "keeping the deck together," he gets to be outside almost all of the time and to be on the ocean. He reflects on how his life has—and hasn’t— changed.
Regarding dioxins, for example, "I can read the papers now," he says, "and think, ‘Jeez, these are the things I was totally immersed in back then [in the early ‘70s] and they’re still going on!’ I guess that’s the way things go. I was pretty pessimistic when I left [Greenpeace]. It was our lives, we were totally immersed. I thought back then, ‘If things don’t get better in the next few years, it’s hopeless.’ But things are still going on and the issues are still here. It makes you realize how forgiving the planet is that it can continue to absorb all this stuff for so many years and still produce life."
Now he’s optimistic. "We have a good generation of kids coming up." They know about "issues I never knew about when I was a grade school kid. Even the whale issue—I know grade school kids who collect money and send it to [whale conservation] organizations."
He believes that education is one important component of environmental work.
"Being certified organic is another facet of the whole thing. I went from being real outspoken, real radical, to working a little more quietly but a little more broadly. I felt good about what I did with Greenpeace, getting the issues out with national and international media campaigns, hanging off of smokestacks, putting up banners about the Clean Air Act, but you also tend to alienate some people that way. Now I’m just as radical and outspoken, but I’m working on ships with some people who are not environmentally oriented at all and they’re making a living that way. You have to work a little more gently, work around the edges and create an interest. It takes years but it’s just as important."