Journeyperson Program

Summer 2003

By John Bliss

Last spring, Stacy, Emma and I moved from Pennsylvania to Maine; two whole shades of difference on the zone hardiness map! So for us, spring seemed to last twice as long last year.

Before the move, our first set of seedlings broke through their moist soil and stretched toward the window overlooking our West Philadelphia neighborhood. Across the street an abandoned building and a vacant lot served as a resting place for plastic bags and ruffled pigeons. Also nearby was the community garden where our seedlings were destined to root themselves. The weather was still cold, and the city outside was still closed, like a seed. The promise of spring was scattered about the apartment – seed packets, the garden map, transplanting materials, and our nearly tangible ambition to create; to make an impact on the crumbles of West Philly.

Walking Emma to school each morning, Stacy and I marveled at the potential in each abandoned lot, each trash-picked window turned cold-frame and each burned out city-dweller. However, we also felt an equally strong force that worked against our idealism. When we looked beyond the spring, into the future, we saw the prison-like schools, the rising costs of living, and the shoe-string of motivation that other gardeners clung to in this harsh urban environment. Stacy had just finished her training at UPenn in nurse-midwifery, and we had reached a moment of transition. We agreed that we wanted more than one spring of committed work. Whatever it was, it had to be a five-year plan. Taking a few hints dropped by my family (based in Maine), we decided to explore options Down East.

Driving to Maine was like going back in time through the weeks of spring. In Philadelphia tulips were pushing up through the leaves, but Maine was still hibernating. In Unity, we walked the grounds of MOFGA’s Common Ground Education Center with executive director Russell Libby. Emma made snow angels while Stacy and I re-evaluated our options for the hundredth time.

Stacy and I knew the satisfaction of growing our own food and we both wanted to take another step toward self-sustainability. I had been participating in urban gardening projects in Arizona, and Stacy had the “book learning” from an agricultural degree. Emma’s games in the park and on the city sidewalks seemed to center on rural characters: rabbits, mice and the occasional fox. Most importantly, we envisioned ourselves at the end of five years. “Where should we go in search of the good life – to find a way in which we could put more into life and get more out of it?” we asked ourselves. Following the inspiration of the Nearings, we moved to Maine.

Learning and Connecting

The Journeyperson Program at MOFGA is a next logical step from the very successful Apprenticeship Program that has introduced so many young people to sustainable farming. Since 1999, MOFGA’s journeyperson program has built on the vision of rejuvenating Maine’s farmer population by connecting young farmers to experienced mentors in the business of agriculture. The program is still very much in its infancy, but with the resources MOFGA has acquired over the years, it will flourish.

Journeypersons are expected to invest two years working with more experienced farmers. Members of MOFGA’s board of directors and advisors mentor the students and provide opportunities for them to pursue specific interests. Participants must complete a business plan, describing the diverse sources of income that make up any small scale family farm.

Networking is what MOFGA does best, and before long we found ourselves moving into a farmhouse surrounded by pasture. Sunrise Acres Farm is an oasis of farmland not far from Portland. Beef cattle, sheep, poultry and a garden thrive here. Since the 1840s, owner Sally Merrill’s family has farmed this gently sloped land. For over 17 years, Sally has dedicated herself to the formidable challenge of farming in a region of Maine that has lost much farmland to development. She is passionate about the nutrition, the ecology, and the lifestyle that emerges from Sunrise Acres’ operations. We quickly realized that we shared with her a similar philosophy of self-sustainable, community-oriented agriculture, so Stacy and I accepted the position of managing the vegetable CSA program.

Managing a CSA

To many, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) stands as the single most promising solution to many of society’s ills. Also known as subscription marketing, our customers buy shares of the harvest before we actually grow the crops. We distribute a wide variety of vegetables each week of the summer to our members, so people eat what is in season, local, organic and economical. Our customers are actually “members” of the program and are welcome to help and learn about growing vegetables.

By late April we were sprouting another set of seeds, for a very different sort of community garden than our plot in Philadelphia. We did germination tests on the previous year’s seed and ordered what we would need to provide vegetables for 75 CSA members. I remember stepping into the garden the first week and looking at the scale of two and a half acres compared with our former 12- by 20-foot community garden plot. The challenge was evident, but we took it one day at a time and spent most nights reading and researching about what the next day’s project would entail. If you tried to take out any books on large scale gardening from the Portland Public Library last spring, I apologize: We had them!

Stacy and I had been offered a wide range of possible farming situations, from straight leasing of property and equipment to more co-managerial type jobs. At Sunrise Acres we found a satisfactory balance of structure and independence. With her grass-fed beef cows, pastured poultry, organic egg production, and a herd of 70 sheep, Sally Merrill has her work cut out for her. She encouraged us to see the garden as a separate enterprise, with the resources available for us to use. We turned in compost, put up a hoop house, weeded the perennials and planted the first rows in what would prove to be rich and fertile soil. Stacy and I also took on the marketing component by advertising the CSA, putting up fliers at local businesses and distributing information at Portland’s Earth Day.

Midseason, Stacy took a job as a midwife in Portland, and although she still had an active role in the process, our housemate joined in working part-time in the garden. My first season of gardening on this scale was flying past, and any poetic analogy to peaceful transformations would be off the mark, but we harvested vegetables by the tons and distributed over 1500 bags of produce. We worked with over 50 people in the field; as many as 12 at one time. We ate well, had great conversations and were feared by the weeds.

Experienced Farmers Share Information

In learning a language, one is well advised to go to the country where it is spoken. Many of my needs this past spring were met simply by talking shop with other farmers. Fortunately, my mentors speak the language fluently and eloquently. Don Beckwith and Bruce Hincks of the Beckwith Farm in Yarmouth have been growing for market for decades, and I came to their farm to consult and be consoled. They continue to guide my progress with advice, anecdotes and, perhaps most importantly, by their own example.

Richard Rudolph, who chairs the education committee of MOFGA, keeps in touch with Stacy and me about our goals and specific interests. In just six months, I had been to workshops ranging from beekeeping to horse-logging, cover cropping to herb production, marketing to composting. Sally Merrill, owner of Sunrise Acres, has also taken an active role in my education. Together, we traveled to Indianapolis to an annual sustainable agriculture conference where we saw at the national level the momentum of the local food and environmental farming movement. As long as the snow was blanketing the garden, I had work in the form of books to read, people to meet and planning to be done.

I believe that learning is never finished until one becomes the teacher of another. When I have the opportunity to tell a novice about trellising tomatoes or cultivating carrots, that’s when the knowledge really sticks. During the past season, the garden has hosted a number of educational groups. Starting on May 1, we invited children from the surrounding community to a May pole dance, and we thanked them for ushering in the fertility fairies for the spring. On the state-wide Open Farm Day, we led dozens of community members up and down the rows of crops. Late in the season, as the weather dipped to freezing temperatures, we invited “Food Not Bombs” to the garden – a confederation of gleaners who prepare free meals for the community from food that would otherwise have been wasted. (For more information, contact Eva Writt at 797-9241.) Each opportunity to welcome people to the garden has been indispensable to our continued motivation and positive energy.

The Journeyperson Program itself grows in this same sort of reflective spirit. I have been working with Keith Zaltzberg, a journeyperson living at the MOFGA homestead, to move the program to a new level. We share a vision of a community of new farmers, helping each other grow crops, create viable businesses and learn the craft of farming. The Apprentice Program at MOFGA has been functioning for over 25 years, educating young people and supporting the labor needs of Maine farmers. Its success lies in part in the mutually beneficial nature of the work, and the Journeyperson Program must ultimately follow its lead. Although the program maintains a high priority in MOFGA’s mission, its future is largely unwritten. Over the winter, this was another inspiring project on which to work. Taking the lead from MOFGA’s model, young farmers in Maine have been networking and building support for each other. Besides working on challenges of land ownership and business development, we have been focussing on education for ourselves and for those just emerging from apprenticeship roles.

We arrived in Maine just over a year ago, although the time seems much longer. Taking the step from Philadelphia to Cumberland transformed my ideals into action and my abstract thoughts into physical labor. As I tested leftover seeds for germination this spring, and Stacy helped me order from catalogs, and Emma kept her eyes peeled for rabbits, mice or the occasional fox, my hopes were high for this season, and my plans extended beyond the original five-year plan.

For more information about MOFGA’s Journeyperson Program, please contact the MOFGA office at 568-4142 or [email protected].

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