Keynote Sarah Smith

Winter 2012-2013
Sarah Smith of Grassland Organic Farm told how people of all income levels can eat healthy foods, during her keynote speech at MOFGA’s Common Ground Country Fair. English photo.

Sarah Smith and her husband, Garin, own and operate the MOFGA-certified Grassland Organic Farm in Skowhegan, where they milk 45 cows and raise 3 acres of mixed vegetables as well as organic beef, pastured broiler chickens, laying hens, and pigs – and their three young children. They sell through a seasonal CSA and four year-round farmers’ markets. Also, Sarah manages a multi-farm CSA in Skowhegan, the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market, is active in many community events, including Skowhegan’s Food Hub, and is a MOFGA board member. She gave the Common Ground keynote address on September 23, 2012.

Sarah Smith’s interest in farming was nurtured in childhood. She was born in Hebron, Maine, where her parents raised draft horses and bred dogs. They divorced when she was 4 but continued to pass on their love of growing food.

Her father made his primary living from a farm he bought in 1987 in Skowhegan. The federal dairy buy-out earlier in the ‘80s prohibited him from having milking cows there for five years, so, said Smith, he studied the neighbor dairy farmer closely for that time, bought his first milking cows in 1992, and, in 1997, certified his herd as organic.

With her mother, Smith spread horse manure on flower gardens. And, Smith recalls, “from the broccoli she harvested, I recall about a thousand worms being on the counter the next morning, although she says it was just one or two. I didn’t think I would ever eat freshly harvested broccoli again.”

Smith didn’t like spreading manure any more than eating broccoli then. “I was a typical teenager who did not want anything to do with the farm.” She was a cheerleader, gymnast, dancer, an excellent student, and hardworking – at 14, she started busing tables at a restaurant.

Smith completed high school in three years, having “followed the standard protocol of a college-bound high school kid – the job shadowing, career building. Nothing seemed like a good fit; nothing excited me.”

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree with Sarah Smith and Smith’s daughter, Charlotte. English photo.

Finding Herself in Farming

After a year off, she started college, majoring in deaf education and, later, psychology, but neither felt right. So she went back to work on her father’s farm, and “that summer changed my life. I had my first vegetable garden, I was milking cows … I helped several cows birth their calves and started to eat meat again.”

Smith enrolled in Warren Wilson College in North Carolina that fall, “feeling stronger, smarter and more proud than I ever had in my life. For the first time I felt like I was doing something that was right for me and good for those around me.”

While majoring in pre-veterinary biology, she also worked on the college farm. (All students there work to pay part of their tuition.) The college has a 275-acre pastured livestock and small grains operation and a 6-acre organic vegetable garden producing food for the school café.

“The day I went to the farm, a couple of young ladies were castrating piglets. I jumped right in. I was very interested.” Those students told their boss to hire Smith, and for her first year she worked on the general farm crew – “days and days of weed whacking, and we built miles of beautiful fences that season, digging each hole with post-hole diggers by hand.”

The next year she worked on the pig crew, which oversees the pastured pork operation. By the second semester that year, she was the student crew manager due to her organizing skills. She instated and wrote the school’s first breeding program for its hogs.

At Warren Wilson, Smith realized that farmers are veterinarians, soil scientists, plant taxonomists, meteorologists, mechanics. “It’s the epitome of the Jack-of-all-trades job, and I loved that.

“Farming is the most rewarding and frustrating job you can ever have. They days are so long, but each day is different, and each day is interesting. Farming gave me a sense of empowerment and pride I had never felt before.”

After two years, she began working on the 6-acre vegetable garden, part of a crew of six with no supervisor and almost no experience. “We grew a fantastic amount of vegetables, despite the North Carolina heat” and the state’s numerous pests and weeds.

“It was awesome. I realized I loved growing food, I loved working hard, I loved eating good food. These are all important parts of wanting to keep going when you’re farming.”

Smith did all the tractor work on the vegetable acreage, became the manager’s assistant when one was hired, and later, after he left, managed the garden with another alum.

“We did a good job, and it led me to where I am today.”

Love Via the Pig Book

At the end of her senior year, Smith fell in love with Garin, a sustainable agriculture major who “asked me out in the pig book” – the journal where anything done with the pigs that day was recorded.

Both wanted to farm, so in 2005 they had their first garden together at Smith’s father’s farm and sold at the Farmington and Skowhegan markets.

They returned to North Carolina so that Garin could finish school, and moved back to Maine permanently in 2006 – the same year daughter Cedar was born, Garin graduated, they got married – and they started selling at two additional markets, Orono and Waterville, and took over managing the Skowhegan market.

Grassland Farm was slowly dying, said Smith. She and Garin worked for no pay that year.

“It was really challenging and insightful; if we could make it through that year, we could make it through anything. We supported our young family with our garden, and by the end of that year we knew that we either needed to buy the farm or that the farm was going to go, and we were going to be moving on.”

They bought the farm in 2007, continued producing meat, eggs, milk and vegetables, then added hogs.

“We have spent a lot of time and investment turning our farm around,” said Smith. Despite neighbors’ initial skepticism, Smith thinks that “now our community is very proud of us. We realized early on that when you buy a farm, you buy into that neighborhood. We have honored that as farmers in our community.”

They are now buying and building infrastructure and a labor force to make the farm more effective and efficient.

Changes with Motherhood

“The life of a woman farmer changes tremendously when her children are born,” said Smith. At the time of the keynote, Cedar was 6, Reed, 3, and Charlotte, almost 1, and “farming as I once knew it is long gone. I can’t work 14 hours a day anymore in the field, and I can’t skip two out of three meals. My farming today looks a lot more like sitting in front of a computer and doing marketing and sales than working in the field. When I had one child, I could wear her in a backpack, but three is nearly impossible.” Each day “is totally crazy.”

Accepting the change in her life as a farmer was difficult.

“For years I felt so validated in my work, because every vegetable passed through my hands; every egg – I washed it myself … Choosing to make a living farming with a family certainly means making sacrifices. We do not get to take family vacations; no camping trips; no days at the beach.” It can be painful, she said, when her kids want to go to the playground on a beautiful summer day, and the farm is always the priority.

“However, I offer them many things by farming with them. They eat like kings. They get so much time outside. They are learning about the cycles of the seasons, about the science of growing food and about the cycle of life and death. They are learning how to talk to people in this world where very few people connect anymore. And they know what it’s like to talk about what you’re passionate about.”

If they choose, the farm holds “a place for each of them, in production or sales and marketing, and it’s nice to know that our farm will be able to support them in the future.”

Good Food: A Right in Skowhegan

“My story of farming and raising a family is no more interesting or inspiring than any other young woman farming in Maine,” said Smith, “and there are many.

“I think what does make me unique is that I have an undying love of my community. I live in Skowhegan, and I have donated hundreds of hours, along with others in my town, helping to bring local food full circle in our community.”

She has managed the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market for six years. Originally “four vendors hidden behind a building on a busy traffic circle,” it now has close to 20 vendors at the Skowhegan Grist Mill, with free music and family events every week, such as kite making, an observational beehive, mozzarella stretching and an apple festival.

Through a partnership with Cooking Matters, put on by Somerset Heart Health, a Healthy Maine Partnership Program, Taste of the Market programs let customers try local foods.

This is not a wealthy community. Smith said that more than half of Skowhegan’s citizens receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). Somerset County has the highest monthly average for households using SNAP. More than 18 percent of Skowhegan’s adult population is obese. The town has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the state, and Somerset County has the second highest unemployment rate, 7.9 percent, in Maine.

“It has always been the motto of the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market,” said Smith, “that good food is a right, not a privilege. I wanted to be true to that when I took over the market. I wanted our delicious organic food to be available to everyone.”

In 2007 this was one of the first Maine markets to accept the wireless EBT (electronic balance transfer) card – a card like a debit card that replaced food stamps.

“When food stamps were paper denominations, farmers anywhere could accept those,” said Smith. “But when the government shifted to electronic debiting, many farmers lost the ability to reach those dollars.”

Also in 2007, the market connected with the Wholesome Wave Foundation, a Bridgeport, Connecticut-based nonprofit promoting produce and fresh foods for low-income families. The market started a Double Dollars Program, allowing food stamp customers, WIC moms and Maine Senior Farm Share recipients to double the value of their federal benefits up to $10 per market, so customers shopping there twice a week can get $20 worth of free food each week.

“This is significant,” said Smith. “This program has changed the demographic at our market. It has made our market open and welcoming to everyone who lives where we live. It has helped people to try new foods.”

Smith also manages the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, in which pregnant women, and children with a body mass index greater than 30 percent (the obese category), get a doctor’s prescription for free fruits and vegetables, and they redeem those prescriptions at the farmers’ market, where they get tokens they can use to buy any fruits and vegetables. This partnership with Skowhegan’s Redington-Fairview General Hospital is changing lives.

“One woman in the second year in the program has lost so much weight that we thought she had had a gastric bypass,” said Smith. “These folks are reporting to us that the feel better, they have more energy, they have less stress, they are finding more time to get outside and take walks with their kids … A lot of them try new foods; it’s no risk to them … Some families come back looking for specific vegetables, because they’ve learned to love them.”

Smith said she has found a sense of empowerment through farming, and she tries to offer folks in her community a sense of empowerment “by being a part of something; by feeling like they can come down there and sit and listen to music. They don’t need to buy anything. They’re just a part of something in town. That is really making the vibrancy of Skowhegan so amazing.”

In 2011, Smith began managing a new multi-farm CSA in Skowhegan called The Pickup, which supports more than 40 producers selling weekly bags of food to almost 100 families, distributed at the Somerset Grist Mill – the Skowhegan Food Hub.

“This program has reached people who might not shop at the market,” said Smith; “ … folks who want to buy local food but may not have the time to walk around the market or don’t feel comfortable doing that. We’ve been getting great feedback from our community about trying new foods, about mother and daughter teams cooking together around these foods,” and extended families sharing weekly meals with the foods.

“Simple changes in people’s lives are making huge differences,” said Smith.

The Pickup’s commercial kitchen offers an all-local brunch café every Saturday using products from area farmers. By sometime in 2013, the café should be open Wednesday through Sunday. Flour from the Grist Mill is also sold there.

Smith said she is proud that her farm and community efforts bring the highest quality food to area citizens and institutions while providing a new market for central Maine farmers.

“There is an economic driver happening,” she said, “where customers spend more money with the farms, the farms make more money, they turn right around and put that money right back into the local economy, buying supplies, infrastructure, all in an effort to meet this growing demand. This economic stimulus has a long-term positive effect that is fairly well protected against outside forces. It is creating an inertia that is saving farmland, encouraging young and new farmers to move into our area and increasing the health of our community – both the health of our friends and neighbors and the health of our economy.”

Smith encouraged fairgoers to “take some piece of this positive dynamic that you feel when you come here, and go back to your communities and keep that going. It’s so simple to go home and just continue supporting your local, small, organic farmers … You can help save your downtown, you can help save the planet, you can prop up local businesses, and you can provide a space for your community members to mingle and talk, to get together, just by simply supporting your local organic farmers.”

Step outside your comfort zone, said Smith, and talk to a farmer selling wares, or bring a friend or colleague and expand his or her comfort zone.

“Be more adventurous and join a CSA where you are forced to try new foods and new recipes.”

Smith finds that local organic food is usually far less expensive when bought directly from farmers than from big box grocery stores. “However, if you find that something is 50 cents a pound more, or $1 more, what is that worth to you? Is it worth supplies in a farmer’s child’s school backpack? Is it worth protecting a local stream from pesticide runoff? Is it worth looking out your window at an old farm in the distance and seeing that green space and what it maintains for your community? Is it worth having a local food economy” that extends beyond the actual food itself?

“I hope that your resounding answer is yes,” Smith concluded, “and that you continue on with the spirit of Common Ground … just by supporting local food and farmers just like myself, no matter where you live.”

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