Agritourism in Maine: On-Farm Events Equal Business Diversity for Farmers

June 1, 2024

By Sonja Heyck-Merlin

“We built a bar right over the manure gutter. It’s still a little mind-blowing. I’m only just now not seeing it as a milking pattern. I still half expect to see cows when I walk in,” says Heide Purinton-Brown of Toddy Pond Farm in the rolling hills of Monroe, Maine.

For nearly a decade, Heide and her husband, Greg, ran a micro-dairy in this now reimagined space. They have since traded the din of dairy equipment — the vacuum pump and refrigeration compressor — for live music and the crackle of a wood-fired pizza oven at their farm-to-table venue. Rather than driving down their long private dirt road to deliver crates of yogurt and coolers of frozen meat up and down Maine’s coast, they now stay put and up to 150 people a night drive to the farm on weekends. In the winter, they can comfortably service about 35 people per meal.

The transformation from micro-dairy to restaurant didn’t happen overnight. After seven years of caretaking the 500-acre property, the Purinton-Browns purchased the farm, which has a mile of frontage on Toddy Pond. The dairy income, however, wasn’t adequate to support the property, farm infrastructure and expenses, including a substantial property tax bill, so they decided to diversify with agritourism.

The concept wasn’t new to them: In the early years of the farm, they offered “farm stay” vacations in their on-farm rental house as well as a children’s summer camp. In 2019, they added a Friday night “grill and chill,” serving burgers from their grass-fed beef to guests in what was then their working hay barn. Increasing the amount of meals served at the farm and offering entertainment was an opportunity to create further value from their grass-fed meats and dairy. It was also a natural extension of their love for cooking and eating meals crafted from Maine ingredients.

“It’s an expensive property that’s very beautiful,” Heide says. “And so, while it’s lovely to live here from a dairy perspective, that wasn’t an expense that we could pass on in the yogurt. Cows don’t care about the view or the water frontage. So, agritourism is a great way to be able to utilize this asset that is a huge part of our budget in a way that makes sense.”

Initially, the farm dinners were fairly simple and small — with rustic seating in the hay barn and food prepped in the creamery and grilled outside. The combined workload of dairy farming and running the dinners proved unrealistic. In the spring of 2022, the Purinton-Browns stopped milking and shifted their focus to raising livestock and the agritourism enterprise, converting the milking parlor to indoor heated seating and adding a wood-fired oven.

Hart Farm dinner
For Hart Farm’s 10 farm dinners each year, owners Andrew and Becky Toothacker draw inspiration from Maine culinary traditions and the food they produce. Here’s a dessert featuring pie crust of lard and Misty Brook Farm grains, with vanilla custard and Beddington Ridge blueberries. Courtesy of the Toothackers

The restaurant business has now grown to a year-round endeavor including hiking, biking (mountain in the summer and fat tire in the winter) and snowshoeing on their 9 acres of wooded trails; weekly live music; and lunch and dinner service on weekends. Meals are centered around the proteins raised on the farm — pork, poultry, beef and some lamb — while they buy vegetables and dairy from the plethora of nearby Waldo County producers.

Like Toddy Pond Farm, Andrew and Becky Toothacker of MOFGA-certified Hart Farm in Holden didn’t initially intend to incorporate agritourism into their farm business. The couple purchased their property, with its expansive southwards view towards the Penobscot River valley, in 2020 and intended to focus solely on producing mixed vegetables and meats for a community supported agriculture (CSA) program and farmers’ markets.

“The first season that we were growing on the farm, we decided to have a pop-up community dinner because it became apparent to us once we bought the farm that it was the center of the community,” says Becky. “So many people were curious as to what we were doing and had their own story to share about Hart Farm and what it meant to them.” Despite Becky being nine-months pregnant at the time and a 6-inch deluge of rain the night before, the dinner was a success, and given Andrew’s experience as a cook at Fore Street Restaurant in Portland, they decided to keep the momentum going.

Hart Farm currently offers about 10 ticketed farm dinners a year. For the outdoor dinners, which are hosted in two wedding tents, they can seat about 60 people. When the weather turns cold, they shift into their seedling propagation house and can seat about 25. These multi-course meals, featuring their meat and produce, supplemented with foods from other Maine producers and makers — fisherman, beekeepers, dairy farmers and mushroom foragers — now make up about 20% of their gross sales.

Hart Farm aspires to build their own commercial kitchen, but in the meantime they’re grateful to be able to rent kitchen space for meal prep at the Village Kitchen in Hermon. The prepped meal components are then cooked, most often over fire and wood charcoal in an impressive assemblage of cast iron, before being served to the diners.

“Live fire is a very consistent theme with all our dinners, and it makes the whole thing portable,” says Andrew. At their November 2023 farm dinner, guests feasted on brown bread with confit rabbit and smoked apple, winter squash soup with oregano and savory Maine chili crisp, and smoked and braised pastured pork with Maine grains and Maine potato dumplings. It was followed by a dessert of sheep’s milk yogurt and ground-cherry compote.

For MOFGA-certified vegetable growers Kelsey Gibbs and Matt Silverman of Wanderwood in Nobleboro, agritourism was embedded into their business plan as they began searching for property in 2016. “We had weddings in our business plan,” says Silverman. “Just knowing with vegetable production, it can take time to develop your customer base and converting from non-organic to organic. We always hoped to make income from non-farming activities on the property.”

Gibbs and Silverman spent their first few years on the farm renovating a 1920s farmhouse, which provides rental income, and a historic 1870s post and beam barn. The planned diversity of the enterprise was fortuitous when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, as they were able to focus on their ½ acre of intensive no-till vegetable and flower production while they postponed their first season of scheduled weddings. They currently sell their produce and cut flowers through a CSA, a farmstand and to various restaurants and caterers, some of whom cater the weddings hosted on the farm.

Becky & Chris
Wanderwood in Nobloboro built weddings into their business plan from the start, as a way to add diversity to their MOFGA-certified mixed vegetable operation. Photo by Carolina Marles Photography

Currently, Wanderwood, which has frontage on Pemaquid Lake, hosts a number of weddings each year. The couple’s goal, to intertwine their farm with sustainable events, was in part born from the waste they saw while working events prior to buying the farm. When couples book a wedding at Wanderwood, they receive a list of guidelines — but not requirements — regarding how to minimize trash, including how to avoid single-use plastic; decorations recommendations; vendors that focus on supporting Maine-grown products; and how food scraps will be handled to enable composting. Gibbs says, “We encourage folks to rent dishware when possible. We also offer a lot of reusable items for our couples to borrow to make less of a negative impact on the world around us.”

Most wedding couples book the farm for the entire weekend. From May through October the capacity is 200 guests per event, and in the off-season they can accommodate up to 75 guests. The weekend event package provides the exclusive use of Wanderwood’s 95 acres from Friday morning until Sunday afternoon. The weekend wedding rental also includes the use of the farmhouse, the barn (which has heat, a commercial kitchen and bar space available), bathrooms, lawn space for a tent, sound equipment, tables and chairs, and an evening campfire area. Many wedding couples purchase and arrange cut flowers grown on the farm; Gibbs also offers arrangements for tables but prefers to leave the bridal bouquets to the florists.

While weddings are a mainstay for Gibbs and Silverman, in 2024 they plan to add more community-oriented programming, such as a mushroom inoculation workshop, farm dinners in partnership with local chefs, and live music. They will also begin booking stays in their two newly completed elevated lean-tos equipped with amenities like beds and mosquito netting.

Wanderwood agritourism
Wanderwood’s weekend event package provides exclusive use of  95 acres, with frontage on Pemaquid Lake, and also includes their farmhouse, a barn equipped with heat, a commercial kitchen and bar space, bathrooms, tables and chairs, and guidelines on how to minimize trash. Photo by Yaritza Colón Photography

The farm is also available for private events. When they host a retreat or family reunion, they give guests the option of renting the lean-tos and the farmhouse. While they could likely book a large wedding most weekends through the spring, summer and fall, they’ve intentionally opted for a combination of labor-intensive weddings and smaller community events.

“It’s for the well-being of ourselves but also for the property and just the vibe of the place in general. We try to find a nice balance of larger full weekend events and those smaller, either ticketed or private, events that have a little less impact on the property and the farm,” Silverman says.

Heide at Toddy Pond Farm, who lives steps away from their renovated milking parlor and event space, agrees that it’s important to achieve a balance — both philosophically and practically — when opening up the farm to agritourism. In 2024, Toddy Pond Farm is taking a break, after seven years, from hosting their very popular children’s farm camp. The camp ran Monday through Friday, followed by busy weekends in which they were joined by a myriad of diners and at least 12 staff members.

“There was somebody always here,” Heide says. “So there was never a break, and it was just a need to carve out at least two days where there aren’t a ton of other people on the farm.” Despite the decision to stop the farm camp, because of their weekly rental house, there is always someone other than family on the farm in the summer.

Toddy Pond Farm is also working to streamline their menus for the ‘24-‘25 season. In past years, they’ve offered only four to five entree choices a night, with the menu changing weekly. This year, the menu will expand but have less rotation, making it easier to train staff and efficiently source ingredients.

While Heidi loves planning farm meals around their meats and Maine-grown ingredients, gleaning inspiration from her hundreds of cookbooks, she is hoping a more expansive but static menu will offer guests a variety of choices while helping the farm run the kitchen more economically with less stress. Their winter menu includes entrees like wood-fired lamb riblets; braised pork loin with apples, figs, rosemary and thyme on heirloom polenta; meatball Parmesan; spiced lamb and beef kofta; and chipotle black bean and quinoa chili. In the summer, there are grilled favorites like burgers, steaks, pork chops and chicken, and pizzas from the wood-fired oven.

For the Toothackers of Hart Farm, their goal is to remain primarily a production farm, using their farm dinners to inspire community members to join their year-round CSA and to showcase the culinary traditions of Maine. (Andrew loves vintage New England cookbooks like “Maine Cooking: Old-Time Secrets” and “Mainstays of Maine” by Maine-born Robert P.T. Coffin — a Bowdoin College graduate and 1936 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry.) With their primary focus being on production, the Toothackers aren’t worried how diners will react to squealing pigs, some burdocks sticking up in their pastures or totes stacked up on the side of a field. “People aren’t expecting perfection, and they don’t want it. I think people want reality and connectivity to something that’s real,” Andrew says.

New Gallery
Wanderwood offers more than wedding rentals — the farm can also be booked for private events, such as a retreat or family reunion, and has plans to expand into farm dinners, live music and community-oriented programming. Katie Arnold Photography

The Toothackers also aren’t looking to deviate from their simple well-cooked foods with a focus on the flavors of Maine. From a culinary perspective, their goal is to focus on nailing basic techniques and providing meals that are filling and check all the boxes they believe are vital to supporting Maine’s rural economies: Is the food local? Is it healthy? Are the animals pasture-raised? Are they fed Maine grains?

Between 2017 and 2022, according to Bangor Daily News reporting on newly released agriculture census data from the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of farms engaged in agritourism in Maine — including education, hospitality, outdoor recreation and entertainment — stayed nearly the same at 241. Yet farm income from such activities doubled, accounting for $12.2 million. And, in the attempt to make a go of supporting their families full-time with farming, Toddy Pond Farm, Hart Farm and Wanderwood are each checking multiple agritourism boxes while remaining focused on the production agriculture side of their businesses.

Andrew of Hart Farm says, “I see interest in other farms doing this kind of thing, and I really applaud it because farms, especially now, need every tool in the bag to make it. We don’t need to keep losing farms, and we need people who are devoting themselves to Maine and Maine farming to make it. We need all of us to make it.”

About the author: Sonja Heyck-Merlin is a regular feature writer for The MOF&G. She and her family own and operate an organic farm in Charleston, Maine.

This article was originally published in the summer 2024 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener. Browse the archives for free content on organic agriculture and sustainable living practices. Subscribe to the publication by becoming a member!

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