|Karen and Paul Volckhausen. Photo courtesy of Happy Town Farm
|Sheep are an integral part of nutrient cycling at Happy Town Farm. English photo
|Karen’s cut flower business has grown since she retired from nursing. Photo courtesy of Happy Town Farm
Paul and Karen Volckhausen were the “farmers in the spotlight” at MOFGA’s 2017 Farmer to Farmer Conference. Both suburban kids originally, they learned about farming through trial and error – and from MOFGA – when they rented a farmhouse and 100 acres in Surry, Maine. There they cultivated a big garden and raised sheep, ducks, hens and rabbits, growing a lot of what they ate.
Expanding the Homestead
In 1978 they and another couple bought Happy Town Farm on the Happytown Road in Orland, Maine. The 50-acre piece had been farmed until the late ‘50s, after which woody plants grew up everywhere except in a 40- by 60-foot garden spot.
They built their house and spent the first three years homesteading – growing everything they ate, adding more animals, curing and smoking meat from pigs – while both worked off the farm as well. They borrowed a rototiller and tractor to expand the garden.
“In those early days MOFGA played a great part in our education and development, especially through the Hancock County chapter, which was really active,” said Karen. “We had monthly potluck meetings, always with a speaker. We knew … a lot about gardening, but not farming. We had some superb mentors: Dennis King, the best farmer we’ve ever seen, and Frank Eggert, who was a professor at UMaine. Our chapter members helped us put up our barn – Frank and Barbara Eggert, Paul and Molly Birdsall, Dennis King and others.”
When Paul became the Hancock County chapter representative on the MOFGA board, “I quickly got sucked in over my head,” he said. “Before I knew it, I was treasurer. Then I was acting executive director when MOFGA was in a crisis for a few months. The following year I was president,” while consultant Marjorie Fife, hired by the board, helped restructure the organization.
“We steered MOFGA through a reorganization and hired Nancy Ross as executive director,” Paul continued. “I had to admit to Russ Libby later that I was the one who voted against him then because he was so young. We did bring him into the organization, and he eventually became the executive director.” Paul was involved with MOFGA’s certification and agricultural services programs for years, as well.
Becoming Commercial Farmers
In 1981 Karen started selling produce from their quarter-acre garden on Thursdays at the Ellsworth Farmers’ Market. “I went with a card table, summer squash, Swiss chard and lettuce. I had to explain what Swiss chard was.”
Other vendors were busier. “I paid my dues and learned a lot about the need to have variety and a lot of produce to market successfully,” said Karen.
They hired a farmer and his large tractor to bush hog more land, with Paul walking alongside the tractor and cutting trees that were too big to bush hog.
“A lot of the farm was beyond that stage and was in woods, which we cut for firewood,” said Paul. “After we cleared it, we put up electric fence and put pigs on the land, at first buying piglets in the spring and raising them until fall, when we would slaughter and sell them.” When they realized the pigs “weren’t doing serious digging until fall,” they got a couple of sows and a boar to keep over winter.
“We hauled a portable pig house around behind the 1951 Allis Chalmers C tractor. The pigs would root up the rocks and stumps and turn the soil. Then we’d plant a cover crop. We were working with MOFGA on a SARE [USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education] grant trying to incorporate hairy vetch into farms in Maine. We’d plow the land and plant rye and vetch for the summer, let it grow, and plow it the next spring and grow vegetables.”
By the mid-‘80s, their land partners had decided not to farm. The Volckhausens bought their share of the farm and had most of the land cleared back to the original stone walls. They frost-seeded cleared areas with clover and timothy as they progressed.
Their original plans to get certified were delayed when a plane spraying the blueberry farm next door contaminated their land, but they have been MOFGA-certified organic since 1986.
They also started leasing nearby land to cut hay. “We had a small hay cooperative – three of us farmers found any available fields we could where we could mow hay,” said Paul. “By this time we also had sheep and were doing intensive rotational grazing to convert land from brush and shrub to pasture. The farmers’ market was expanding then, also … so we went to Monday and Thursday – and eventually Saturday. We kept putting more land in production to keep up with that demand.”
Their initial goal was to sell everything at market and go home empty-handed, said Paul. “But as the market matured, we said that wasn’t fair to the people who come at the end of the market. We want to have as much to sell at the end of the market as at the beginning.” They did that and sold the leftovers to restaurants and stores.
“Marketing was never a problem for us,” said Paul. “There was always more demand than we could supply. Our philosophy was that if we put out a quality product and serviced people well, we would do all right. And we did.”
Around 1988 they attended a MOFGA meeting at Johnny’s Selected Seeds to see hoophouse tomatoes. “So we constructed our first hoophouse, bending pipe with a pipe bender and welding it together,” Paul related. “It came apart in 21-foot sections, so as tomatoes rotated around the farm, the hoophouse rotated with them. That house lasted for about 25 years, until 2014, when a heavy snowstorm wiped it out.”
Their goal had become, and remains, to grow food that was healthy for the consumer, the farmer and the environment, to make a living doing that, and to have a sustainable system and improving soil conditions.
The Zenith Years
Karen described the ‘90s as the “zenith years,” when they had the most land in production, including 5 acres of crops on their own land and on 8 leased acres. They carried a ram and 20 to 22 ewes and their lambs for years. They cover cropped the leased land section by section with hairy vetch and rye, planting vegetables on that section the following year, until all 8 acres were improved. Then, after cash cropping a section for three years, they plowed it and put it into three years of alfalfa and oats; eventually 4 acres were in vegetables each year and 4 were in alfalfa. They cut another 12 acres of hay on leased land for their animals and to sell.
At first neighbors and apprentices provided labor, but by the zenith years, paid labor was the rule, except for some CSA work shares.
They tried various projects, “including,” said Karen, “for a couple of years, baby vegetables, which a guy from Rockland shipped to Boston. I remember being out there and picking these tiny radishes that had no taste, and I said to Paul, ‘This is crazy, I don’t care how much we get paid.'”
They contracted with a baby food company, growing a half acre of green beans the first year and then 2 acres on leased land. The day before harvest, “Bambi and his family got in there and chewed 2 acres of beans down,” said Karen. They installed an electric fence and the beans regrew, but by harvest time the baby food company was going out of business, so they sold the beans to Hannaford. They then were part of a growers’ coop in Blue Hill that sold to local restaurants and stores for a while.
By early 1982 Paul worked on the farm full time, while Karen was a contract nurse for Family Planning, with a flexible schedule and summers pretty free.
In the fall of 1999, the owner of the 20 acres they leased no longer wanted them to grow vegetables or graze sheep there because it was too much activity; they could only cut hay.
“We were devastated,” said Karen. “We were looking at spring, thinking, ‘What are we going to do?'”
After Paul explained the situation during a presentation to Stewart Smith’s sustainable agriculture class at UMaine, the students – including Mike Gold, Mark Guzzi and Beth Haines (all now quite involved in Maine agriculture) – developed a cropping system for Happy Town Farm.
“They recommended strawberries,” said Paul, “but because we grow alfalfa, tarnished plant bug was a problem when we had previously tried strawberries.” (The bugs move from alfalfa onto strawberries.) “Birds and weeds were also problems. Other recommendations – raspberries, asparagus, mesclun, putting up another hoophouse – we followed. Also, because we had developed a customer base for our vegetables, we plowed up our cover crops and put all 5 or so acres into vegetables.”
Then they heard Ed Person of Ledgewood Farm in New Hampshire speak at a Farmer to Farmer Conference about the value of growing tomatoes in hoophouses. “We’d been doing that with our moveable hoophouse,” said Paul, “but when we looked at the value of a permanent, stationary hoophouse, we bought one and put it up that spring, and put the little one beside it so we were no longer moving it around the farm. We also heard Eero Ruuttila talk at Farmer to Farmer about growing mesclun. We followed everything he said, and that has become one of our bigger crops.”
To ensure continuity for their customers, particularly for crops such as lettuce and mesclun, they enlarged their 50- by 50-foot by 8-foot-deep irrigation pond, making it four times the surface area and twice as deep. They haven’t pumped it dry since.
They had been growing an acre each of corn, squash and dry beans when they had the rented land, but they dropped those low-value crops when that land became unavailable. However, people would drive up at the Ellsworth Farmers’ Market, roll down their window and yell, “Got corn?” When Paul said “No,” they’d drive away – so the Volckhausens put corn back into their rotation.
Smith’s class also recommended rotating four years of vegetables with two of alfalfa. Since a third year of alfalfa had been less productive and witchgrass had moved in, the Volckhausens eventually worked to achieve that four-two goal.
They added more hoophouses over the years – originally mostly for increased production, but also, with changing weather and climate, for more dependable cropping. The houses also give their crew something to do on rainy days.
They were rotating crops through four hoophouses, with tomatoes in one, peppers and eggplant in another, greens and cucumbers in the third and flowers in the fourth. After tomatoes were harvested (the end of October then; now mid-November), they planted winter rye, which grew 3 to 4 feet tall. (Hairy vetch didn’t germinate in those conditions.) Since a tractor wouldn’t fit in the houses, they cut the rye with a weed whacker in 6-inch sections and then used a Troy-Bilt rototiller to incorporate it. They also go through the hoophouse soil periodically with a broad fork to avoid a hardpan.
Karen returned to school, became a nurse practitioner in 1996 and got a job that took 60 hours a week. “So I left the farm, which was really a wrench. I did have flower gardens, and more flower gardens … and by 2004 I had ten. As soon as I sold the first bunch in August 2004, I was caught. I made $50 that year! Since then [and especially since she retired from nursing] I have developed this into a nice micro-business.”
Also in that decade, their growers’ coop fell apart. “Cooperating is hard,” said Paul. They then started their CSA with King Hill Farm through Food AND Medicine (a labor organization) in Brewer, and in 2007 they started another CSA in the Ellsworth area, eventually reaching their 100-customer limit.
“So the end of the story,” said Karen, is that “the farm got smaller and we started making more money.”
Today: Happy and Able
Today the Volckhausens grow on 4 1/2 acres, which had been divided into eleven 50- by 300-foot strips – eight in cash crops and three in cover crops. Alfalfa plowed under in spring was followed by winter squash or corn, then a light feeder, then a root crop, then a brassica. They took out some pasture and put in more raspberries and asparagus, which have been very successful.
Their biggest issue now is labor. Paul, 66, and Karen, 76, say they can no longer take up the slack when labor fails to come through.
“We like to have four workers on the farm,” said Paul, but in 2015 they hired 16, with an average length of employment of two weeks each. “We only got about 75 percent of what we wanted to plant planted. This was becoming an annual problem, so we decided to cut back 25 percent.” Consequently, instead of having 11 sections of 50 by 300 feet each, they now have 12 sections of 40 by 300 feet, which fit in the same area and give an additional 20 by 100 feet for flowers – and enables them to maintain a rotation of four years of vegetables and two years of cover crops. They also added a fifth hoophouse to increase the variety of crops under cover. “We may like one more hoophouse,” said Paul.
“We’re pretty content,” Karen concluded. “Our plans were to keep going as long as we’re happy and able to do it. So far we are. Eventually we want to find farmers to take over our farm.”
Q & A
Asked about their current pasture, Paul said that in addition to pasture, sheep graze the rotated alfalfa strips. In the first year they plant oats as a nurse crop for alfalfa, and they sow white clover, yellow clover and orchardgrass with the alfalfa. When the oats start to head out, their animals graze them down and let the alfalfa and clover come up. Both take two years to establish their deep roots. “In the second year yellow clover and alfalfa are just incredible.”
Karen added that getting their parasite-resistant Katahdin ram helped reduce worm problems significantly. They still are pasture-shy for their 14 ewes (and 24 lambs last year) and would like to find a secure pasture in the neighborhood, “but,” said Paul, “we’ve leased eight or 10 pieces of ground over 35 years, and eventually every one has been taken away – mostly because the owners or neighbors don’t want farming in the neighborhood. Happytown is becoming gentrified.”
They now buy pigs in the spring and raise them until fall.
They still make maple syrup. The 1998 ice storm devastated many of their trees, so they now have about 120 taps instead of 180, and they always sell out.
Asked about their interest in El Salvador, Karen said that after a wonderful trip to Guatemala one winter with a medical group, “I came back and joined PICA” (Peace in Central America, at the time) – a group that formed against the Central American wars. “I went with them to their sister city in El Salvador. It changed my life.” When Bangor Sister City brought the president of a Salvadoran NGO who was working on water issues, including agriculture, to Maine, that person met with MOFGA members. Salvadoran farmers’ problems and solutions that she described were much like those of small farmers in Maine, so she suggested an organization-to-organization sistering relationship. Hence, MOFGA now has a relationship with CCR (addressing issues) and CORDES (providing technical help). The MOFGA committee travels to El Salvador every other year to share information. “Sharing what small farmers are doing has opened all of our eyes to agriculture as it’s practiced in the world, free trade agreements, climate change …”
Regarding irrigation, Paul said that anything on plastic has drip line underneath it, including all the hoophouses. They have some overhead, fed by their pond, but don’t always have the help to set it up when needed – which led to losses the last two years. They irrigate with drip for eight hours once per week if there’s no rain. In the hoophouses at peak production, they irrigate for eight hours twice per week at night. This year all the water came from a 450-foot drilled well. “This year we ran the well 24/7 during the drought – including for washing vegetables,” said Paul.
They don’t fertigate. “Part of my philosophy,” said Paul, “is to feed the soil. I’m a big believer in green manure crops. Our philosophy of farming is that we want this cycle of life to go on,” which is why they have animals (their bedding and manure are made into compost, which goes on the fields; and the animals eat excess produce and weeds). “To really stimulate the biological activity, I believe you need green manure crops and compost.”
Organic certification continues the philosophy of organic that the Volckhausens have developed over the years. “From the beginning we wanted to be certified even though we didn’t need it for our market,” said Paul. “But we felt that it was important to stand up and say we’re organic; we follow these rules. It’s not a negative philosophy that I don’t spray pesticides; it’s a positive philosophy that we build the soil, we grow healthy plants in healthy soil. That’s been the focus of MOFGA from the beginning.
“When the NOSB [National Organic Standards Board] started in the early ‘90s, there was a very strong organic movement in New England, but all of a sudden all this organic produce was flooding New England from California,” which had much more lax certification standards than New England. “It wasn’t affecting us as much as others, especially Deep Root Cooperative in Vermont – they were getting hammered by lettuce coming in at way below our cost of production. We saw that if we didn’t do something, organic would be diluted to the point that it was meaningless. We eventually agreed after long discussions to support a national organic label.”
Regarding current attempts to dilute certification standards, Paul said, “When Jim Gerritsen [of MOFGA-certified organic Wood Prairie Farm] first talked to me a couple of years ago about this add-on [soil-based, among other things] certification, I was opposed. Now I think, given what’s happening with the NOSB, that we have to recapture what we are – soil-based agriculture that is concerned with the health of the soil, the health of the farmer and the health of the consumer.”
Asked what they would have done differently if they could, Paul said they might have invested more in the farm. “I have a tractor that’s the same age I am – made in 1951 – and it’s been completely rebuilt. I would have tried to be more business-oriented and do more planning in the beginning instead of just looking at it as a passion.”