By Rhonda Houston
I woke up Monday morning with a hangover of questionable origin. It was the typical feeling of a semi-trailer truck running you down, but something was different this time. The truck wasn’t carrying pints of Guinness, but 50,000 organic folks and all the falafel you could eat. Yes, I was the rookie MOFGA staff person seeing the Common Ground Country Fair from the inside.
Having joined the staff in June, my entire career had involved rerouting contracts and tracking down booth fees. I suddenly realized that 2,000 volunteers need someone to coordinate them and that every last detail, including signs on the bathroom doors explaining the mystery of dual flush toilets, needs to be done before the third week in September.
My first few months seemed like a buildup to an invasion, but one we were encouraging by blanketing the state with press releases and posters. The three days came and went. Four falafels, two pair of wool socks and one Beyond Coffee later, I was curled up by the woodstove wondering what happened.
After the last tent was gone and the last die-hard volunteer had pulled away, I looked around the eerily quiet fairgrounds and wondered, what now? Unlike the 17 years of Common Ground at Windsor and 4 years at Litchfield, we were not pulling up stakes at Unity. No windows were boarded up, no gates were locked, no phones were disconnected. We were, in fact, settling in for a wind-whipped winter on our own farm.
The dream of a home for the Fair and for MOFGA began long before ground was broken in Unity. As soon as the Fair grew beyond a small group of political leftists into a grand celebration of everything rural, the need for a permanent Common Ground became obvious. Three days were simply not enough to celebrate Maine’s rural, organic, agricultural heritage. Common Ground was needed year ‘round to help MOFGA encourage organic agriculture and sustainable living.
In October of 1997, Common Ground officially came home to the Crosby Brook Road in Unity. With 230 acres of fields and woods, MOFGA finally had a place to begin demonstrating what it had been teaching for nearly three decades. In September of 1998, the first fair was held in Unity. I came, as a fairgoer only, and enjoyed the open fields of this new home. Unlike the previous years, vendors seemed to have room to breathe, and fellow fairgoers were allowed to stroll the grounds at their own pace, losing the mob mentality that often prevailed in Windsor. Traffic was a nightmare, but only added to the idea that this truly was a rural home not prepared for the demands of a four-lane highway. (The traffic problems were solved by the following year.) I went home, tee-shirt in hand, eagerly anticipating the next third weekend after Labor Day, assuming that everyone else was going home too.
A few years passed and I found myself employed by MOFGA. I could hardly believe my luck. I wasn’t going to have to fake a third cousin’s wedding or sudden case of the stomach flu that weekend to get out of work. I was actually going to be working at the Fair. Of course, I could never have anticipated the amount of work that went into the Fair or the number of volunteers who make it happen. They seem to crawl out of the woods in early September and retreat when the last tent has fallen. A few folks stay on, however, and I was to be one of them.
A Year of Events
I quickly realized that the Fair is just one of a series of events, workshops, meetings, demonstrations and celebrations that occur here year ’round. October is a quiet month, unless you consider the immense task of disassembling the Fair. During the first weekend in November, the MOFGA staff runs the Farmer to Farmer conference. This weekend in Bar Harbor is a time for farmers to gather and share ideas that have worked well, or not so well. Workshops cover anything from growing your own cut flowers to pasture management. They’re conducted by fellow farmers in a round table discussion of techniques, successes and failures. The food, as always, is local, organic and outstanding. The company is even better.
Midway through November, Common Ground is invaded by woodsmen and women with their horses for a weekend of work and demonstrations in MOFGA’s sustainable woodlot. Anyone who is interested in horse and oxen-powered low-impact forestry will take away an extraordinary amount of knowledge. The forestry weekend is a perfect example of the hands-on learning the MOFGA folks have been envisioning for years.
Fruit is emphasized in November, too. This year, on Nov. 10, The Great Maine Apple Day will feature dozens of varieties of apples that grow in Maine – and their taste raw, in cider and in pies. (See the news item about this event in this MOF&G.)
In December, January and February, MOFGA hosts meetings of dairy farmers, cheese-makers and committees of Fair planners, board members and certification directors. Workshops on financing and marketing as well as basic introductions to organic growing help build a base of successful organic farmers. The MOFGA staff also puts together yet another information-packed program for MOFGA’s portion of the Maine Agricultural Trades Show at the Augusta Civic Center in January.
March marks the beginning of spring, and with it comes the annual Spring Growth conference. Modeled after the fall Farmer to Farmer conference, Spring Growth features a day of expert farmers speaking about their methods; it’s a chance to break the tedium of winter and encourage growers to look toward the coming season. This year’s lectures included pastured poultry with Joel Salatin, crop rotations in Aroostook County with Jim Gerritsen, and dairy farming with Butterworks’ Jack Lazor. Also in March, the Seed and Scionwood Exchange gives growers an opportunity to expand their collection of heirloom seeds and share their prized varieties with others.
In early May, orchard enthusiasts come to learn the art of tree growing with workshops on soil health, fertility, pruning and variety selection. Also in May, the annual Breaking Ground offers a day of lectures and hands-on workshops that give participants a chance to learn gardening skills while helping prepare the grounds for spring.
June begins with Herbfest, a day of workshops covering the medicinal, culinary and aesthetic uses of wild and cultivated herbs. The summer solstice is welcomed with the Rockknockers Picnic and Stonecutters Ball. Participants learn the art of stonework while dancing in the summer season.
August, while shrouded with details of the looming Fair, is time for a break from the busy harvest season. Farmers are encouraged to participate in the Small Farm Field Day, where fellow farmers discuss and demonstrate what they do every day on the farm.
September, well, we all know what goes on in September. The Fair brings together all the pieces from the previous year in a three-day celebration. The Fair is a time to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done and for a harvest season coming to a close. It is also a time to begin planning for next season, and with all the opportunities MOFGA offers to learn and try new skills, next season may be the best one yet. Perhaps best of all, the Fair is a chance to come together with the phenomenal Maine (and beyond) community of organic enthusiasts – folks we may see but once a year but folks who share the deep bond cultivated by MOFGA and Common Ground.