MOFGA Farmers

Summer 2000

By Jean English

A strong drive to produce an abundance of healthful food is the force common to Tom Roberts and Gloria Varney, MOFGA’s “farmers in the spotlight” at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta last January. Roberts and his partner, Lois Labbe, raise organic crops at Snakeroot Organic Farm in Pittsfield, while Varney and her husband, Gregg, raise crops and animals and sell many value-added products at their Nezinscot Farm in Turner.

A Hippie Farmer

In 1971, “a commune of us hippies came up from Boston” to live in Maine, said Roberts. They had a large garden and 15 acres of blueberry land. That first year, “we sprayed like they told us we had to” and sold their blueberry crop wholesale for 15 cents a pound. “The next year we had time to think about that,” said Roberts. “We didn’t spray. We put the blueberries in quart containers. That got us off into marketing.” The growers enjoyed going to Mom & Pop stores to sell their crop as well as marketing right from the farm.

Some of the people who started that commune are still there, but by 1980, Roberts had moved on to Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, joining Ben and Ariel Wilcox, who farmed there then. “I really wanted to be a farmer,” said Roberts, while “others in the commune didn’t. Peacemeal was developing a reputation for quality. They were growing things that could be stored … They didn’t grow things like tomatoes at that time. After a few years, they grew an extra large garden and sold [surplus vegetables] at a farmers’ market.” This was a new experience. “We came home with money! We had cash flow in the middle of the summer!”

Roberts worked into an equity position at Peacemeal, and over the next few years, the growers found that farmers’ markets were great for them. “Quality Organic Produce” was the slogan for the farm then, said Roberts. “We had to put the “quality” in at that time, because a lot of organic produce wasn’t quality.”

He continued at Peacemeal for 12 years, and during those years, he and the Wilcoxes found that the more people they hired, the more they could grow and market. By the end of 1987, though, “we found that this was too much work. It was not fun anymore.” They were tempted by too many options, too many outlets, so they learned to drop some for the sake of sanity.

Peacemeal broke up around 1993, and Roberts reviewed two basic lessons he learned during his time there. First, take care of your equipment, from the hoe to the disc harrow. “They need greasing and washing … Don’t abuse them, know when to use them,” he recommended. “That connection is not immediately obvious to a new grower,” he said.

Second, timing is critical. “Things that are easy [to do] this week will not be so easy next week and will be impossible the next week.”

In 1995, Roberts bought a farm on the Snakeroot Road in Pittsfield, and he and Labbe – whom he met at Peacemeal – have been farming it since. Labbe works off the farm as a registered nurse, and Roberts edits a newspaper, but most of their income still comes from the farm.

Labbe is responsible for most of the herbs, roots and greens grown on Snakeroot’s 2 acres of tillable land. Roberts grows mixed vegetables, but “no corn” because it’s “a waste of space, and I don’t like the kind of customers who come for corn … and [because] at Peacemeal we could make as much selling corn stalks as corn – it didn’t seem right.” He also doesn’t grow “odd” greens, such as arugula and mesclun mix. He does grow carrots, spinach and lettuces in raised beds in a greenhouse, in a soil made of compost, peat and sand. Leaf mulch is placed in the aisles, and “worms and tomato roots love it.” He also grows cucumbers in the greenhouse.

Roberts advised that in marketing produce, growers promote themselves whenever they can. For instance, he sells “not just carrots, but Snakeroot Organic carrots.” Also, by naming the farm after a well-known road in town, he helped people find and remember it.

Snakeroot markets from the farm and from the Orono, Unity and Pittsfield Farmers” Markets. He said that Pittsfield, a town of 4,000, had been considered too small for a farmers’ market. While it is “a smaller pie,” he related, having a small market there gives local growers “a bigger piece of a smaller pie.” Also, that market is just 3 miles from his farm, so if customers don’t find him on the two days a week he’s at the market, they can just drive up the road to get what they want.

Snakeroot also has a CSA plan, in which customers pay for $100 shares by May 1 and can buy $125 worth of produce for the share anytime they come to the farm or the Farmers’ Market from June 1 through December 1 of that year. “This combines the CSA idea with customer choice. You may say that’s a 25% interest rate on their loan,” Roberts added, “but I get to pay them in vegetables, and I have vegetables.”

Roberts looks beyond the dollar in marketing. “Farming is not just the money you get in your pocket – although I like that – but the warmth you get in your soul” when, for instance, a customer tells him, “You can’t get this at a supermarket.” He likes to make customers feel like each one is a special person, “because he is.” He adds, “Ten dollars to me is much more than $10 to a supermarket.”

With almost 30 years passing as Roberts found his place in the farming world, he is now “thinking about what we’ll do with the farm for the future. We’re doing stuff [planting] on the farm that won’t be good for 25 years or so. We have no kids,” and Labbe’s children from a previous marriage are not interested in the farm. So Roberts and Labbe are looking at the idea of a land trust or of selling development rights, then finding particular people who will work with them over a few years to eventually take over the farm.

Five-Year Plans Pay Off

Gloria and Gregg Varney raise 100 dairy cows, pigs, turkeys, chickens, sheep, goats, and an acre of vegetables, and sell the meat and produce at farmers’ markets and at their farm store in Turner. Gregg bought the farm from his parents after they sold their dairy herd during the dairy buyout. He was left with “excellent crop land,” said Gloria, and a small herd of heifers.

Gregg and Gloria were married in 1987, the same year she graduated from the Univ. of Maine at Farmington (he graduated from UMO), and she started working as a fitness instructor. “I was writing down what people needed to eat daily – but [found that] they didn’t know where their food came from.” After awhile, Gloria realized that was not the way she wanted to teach people about food.

In 1990, she started a yarn shop at the farm. “At least that got people coming to the farm,” she said. When they came, they started asking for other products. “I realized, here’s my niche – how to teach nutrition and health.” So the Varneys expanded their farm store to carry meat (beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken and turkey), raw milk, and baked goods (including 10 kinds of breads, as well as cookies and muffins).

In 1994, Gloria did apprenticeships at Vermont dairy goat operations and then brought dairy goats to the farm. “Gregg and I always had a five-year-plan,” said Gloria. “One thing in my plan was to learn how to make cheese and raise small scale animals with minimal grain purchases.”

They hit a wall, however, when the Department of Agriculture said they needed a state-inspected facility and pasteurizer. The latter would cost between $5,000 and $10,000. They couldn’t get a loan, because they had already borrowed enough money, so they started a CSA-type operation: “I asked customers to help me purchase a pasteurizer in return for food at the store.”

The cheese operation has been a success. The Varneys milk goats between April and November, which fits in with their farmers’ market schedule and the Thanksgiving season, then gives them a break beginning at the end of November, when “we only work 12 hours a day for six months instead of the 16 hours a day during the busy six months.”

By 1995, everything on the farm was organic except the dairy cows. They had about 10 cows that were organic, so they transitioned to organic dairying and now have over 100 organic cows.

“We treat our animals extremely well,” said Gloria. “We work on prevention rather than treating problems. We keep the barns clean, give them fresh bedding, clean water, put them out as early as possible in the spring for five or six hours a day.” In the winter they’re inside, untied, so that they satisfy their need to walk.

Their product line has expanded in their store. “What we don’t sell goes into value-added products,” said Gloria, such as pickles, relishes and stewed tomatoes. Other excess is used to feed the pigs and chickens. This integrated system is a hit with the customers, who have no question about where their food originates now: Gloria said that people now come to their farm not just to buy their food but to spend time there as well, to let their kids see the animals.

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