The Fine Art of Farming at Old Stage

Spring 1997

By Jane Lamb

It’s one thing to strive earnestly for self-sufficiency – raising your own food, chopping firewood, reliving the rural New England tradition of thrift. It’s quite another when you add an aesthetic dimension that raises the whole experience to the level of art.

Anyone who visits the Old Stage Farmstand on Route 5-A (the Old Stage Road) in Lovell sees at once that Susan and John Belding are artists. Elegantly arranged cut flowers, many in Susan’s trademark blue bottles, gleam seductively among tempting seasonal vegetables. Flowers are a major attraction. Delicate spring bulbs appear in April, rainbows of June perennials and midsummer annuals follow and then, until the first hard frost hits, a blaze of red-orange Sunset cosmos and cobalt-blue larkspur dominates the display, all of it MOFGA-certified.

A stroll through the Beldings’ thirty-odd garden plots, twenty of them terraced on the hillside below their 1810 farmhouse, confirms that there are artists at work. Contrasting colors and textures of herbs, vegetables and flowers intermingle everywhere – elephant amaranth and potatoes, asparagus and basil, yellow cosmos and giant kohlrabi. “Some of the prettiest gardens I’ve ever seen have been a combination of pansies, parsley and lettuce,” Susan says. “I think it makes a big difference in the pollination,” John adds, “and it’s aesthetic, too.” (The Beldings don’t need hives, he notes. Wild bees abound.) Five varieties of standard-size apple trees that will be producing in a few years have their place among the gently-curving levels of the hillside.

In the greenhouse beside the garden, plants in various stages of growth flourish summer and winter, their endless shades of green accented by the brilliant blossoms of plants grown indoors for one reason or another – tomatoes in hanging baskets, ornamental peppers, nasturtiums. In pasture and pens, Scotch Highland cattle, Alpine goats, pigs, chickens, geese and turkeys animate the scene. Beyond Kezar Lake, lying hidden in the valley below, rise Mt. Kearsage and more distant ranges of the White Mountains, completing a picture the Beldings cherish.

A Family Act

Susan and John are Mainers by choice, but they don’t fit the back-to-the land model of many MOFGA members. Susan spent considerable time on Matinicus Island, where her family, from Maryland, had a place. She graduated from Keene State College in New Hampshire and later worked in Portland and the Lovell area, where she has lived for 13 years. As a boy, John moved with his family from Ohio to Long Island, N.Y., where he graduated from high school. After earning a degree in forestry from the University of Maine, he settled in Otisfield and, since 1980, has had his own surveying business.

Each with separate lives in Maine and divorced, Susan and John “just found each other,” as John puts it, “and we were both avid gardeners.” It was reason enough to join forces and families and settle on the old Charles homestead, which they bought in 1990 from the descendants of the original owners. John works as a surveyor four days a week and farms part time. “With six kids to support, three of mine, two of hers, one of ours, I have to,” he says. “The farm is doing better and better coming up with its part,” Susan contributes. “I quit all my other work and farm full time.”

“Farming” is hardly an adequate term for the Beldings’ full life. “We try to be as self-sufficient as we can,” says John. “If there’s something we can make and not buy, we do it.” That includes his baking all the bread for the family. He can get eight loaves at a time in the old Garland gas stove, a real workhorse that will keep four canning kettles going at once. Two chest freezers complement the canned-food shelves. The house is heated, without backup, with the wood John and the older boys cut on the farm’s 35 acres.

The Beldings grow from seed all the flowers and all the vegetables they need for their own use and sell the surplus, except the corn, which they raise just for themselves. Not wanting to compete, they put a sign out front that sends people up the road to a neighbor who has a big corn operation. They raise all their own meat, some of it for sale. This is their only product that is not organically-certified, for the same reason that constrains other MOFGA growers – a lack of affordable organic grain. Susan raises flower seeds for Seeds of Change in New Mexico, sends cut flowers by overnight mail to a New Jersey florist and has a flourishing business supplying local weddings.

The whole operation is a family act. “We couldn’t do it without the kids,” John says. “The big boys rototill, mow lawns, cultivate, weed-whack, set up the drip irrigation, clean pens, spread manure, help with the hay.” Eli, 11, on his first day at middle school, came home lamenting, “Mom, I didn’t have time to finish the questionnaire [about his home life]. The last question was chores.” Myriah, 13, does “all the milking [of goats – the cattle are for beef],” says her mother. “Not all,” corrects John. “I do the morning milking when she’s in school.” Johnny, who graduated from college last year, has a job in Brewer, Jason is in college and Ben goes to high school in Florida, where he lives with his mother. But all three older boys are around a lot, especially in summer, and they always take a full cooler of farm products away with them. Zach, 7, the youngest, “just bugs people,” according to his parents.

“The kids are all involved in chores,” John says. “I don’t think there’s a better way to bring up children. They get the whole thing, from life to death. We do all our own butchering.” Myriah took a collection of herb tea bags to sell in the Youth Enterprise Zone at Common Ground Fair, herbs she’d dried herself in their homemade dryer.

Compost Teams Up with Drip Irrigation

Besides directly supplying the table, the animals have other roles. “The pigs are the first line of defense when clearing land,” John says. He keeps moving their pen as they root out an area. He also believes they keep deer at bay with their distinctive odor. “That’s what I attribute to a lack of deer problems,” he says. The geese, along with the eggs they add to the chickens’ efforts, are the watchers, night and day. More importantly, however, the whole livestock population is a vital link in the cycle of self-sufficiency. When he cleans the animal pens, John waters the bedding and manure as he tosses it into the manure spreader and hauls it down the hill to his composting operation. There he spreads it in long windrows which he keeps well watered. “The essential ingredients, oxygen, moisture, nitrogen and carbon, all have to be right,” he explains. “Garden waste and manure supply the nitrogen. I don’t usually add a thing. The bacteria and microorganisms in the manure do their job.” He uses a 3-foot compost thermometer to monitor the piles, which get up to at least 140, sometimes 160 degrees. When the temperature starts to drop, it’s time to turn the pile to incorporate more oxygen and moisture. With a tractor bucket, he turns the pile into another windrow. Over a period of a year, he puts two or three piles into one big one, ready for the next spring.

Once the compost is finished, when it doesn’t heat up anymore, John runs it through the power take-off shredder on the tractor. “It shreds into beautiful black gold you can pour out of a bucket,” he says. He side-dresses everything with compost, which provides sufficient nourishment to keep the entire range of crops healthy. Compost, vermiculite and a little peat moss go into a cement mixer, which turns out load after load of soil mix for the greenhouse operation.

The other vital factor in the Beldings’ successful growing scheme is drip irrigation, which they installed last spring. “For the whole month of July, I was scratching my head, wondering whether I was out of my mind,” John says, recalling the incessant rainfall that month. In August he was very glad he had done it. With more than 5,000 row-feet of drip piping, almost every bed is served. Supply lines from two hydrants, each with a water filter and pressure gauge, go on a roundabout route throughout the gardens. Drip lines run off each supply line to individual beds. The supply lines are permanent, but the drip lines come up in the fall and are put down again in the spring after tilling has been completed. “Drip irrigation puts all the water where you want it,” John says. “You don’t water in between rows, or the weeds in between rows or the grass around the garden.” He can control the flow to seven different zones, which he doesn’t irrigate all at once. Luckily, the water supply is not a problem. A shallow well behind the house was sufficient for the old Charles place before the days of indoor plumbing. It went dry the first couple of summers the Beldings were there. Walking around the property John found an old rocked-up spring where the farmer had apparently watered cattle. He had it dug out and installed four 4-foot well tiles. “It fills right up as soon as it’s empty,” John says. “We don’t have to drill a well and don’t intend to. It’s wonderful water.”

The Joy of a Greenhouse

This has been the first full year the Beldings have had a greenhouse year round. In February of l996, John realized a longtime dream when he and the boys finished the solar pit greenhouse he designed. “It’s all made of cedar,” he explains with pride. He made a small scale model last year and found he had enough space to have a second floor, an idea he was glad to see corroborated by John Pino’s two-story greenhouse (The MOF&G, Spring 1996). The plank walkway with wire shelving on either side gains not only space but an earlier start for seedlings in the warmer temperatures at the upper level. Starting in January and continuing through most of the season, the Beldings raise 1,000 to 1,500 trays of seedlings a year.

Sunk into the south-facing hillside beside the house, the greenhouse sits on a 4-foot poured concrete frost wall, the only professionally contracted part of the job. The foundation is insulated with two inches of foam. “I don’t like foam,” John says, “but there was nothing else to do.” A foot and a half of crushed stone in the floor serves as a heat sink. The pitched metal roof on the north side is insulated with two inches of foam, separated by an inch of air space. The south pitch is glazed with 8-millimeter (8 mm) polycarbon, made of two layers with an air space between, which provides minimum R-value but considerable solar gain. John plans to add another layer of plastic to improve the insulation. An interesting feature in the greenhouse is the use of perforated 4-inch PVC pipe for stair railings, which double as growing trays for small plants. This ingenious space-saver holds moisture better than little pots, Susan has found.

The greenhouse’s three 15- by 20-foot sections can be individually closed. Only the first, where Susan keeps perennials for cuttings and starts seedlings, is heated with gas in the winter. Hardy spinach, lettuce, violas and pansies in the unheated sections basked at 70 degrees last January when the outside thermometer read zero in a 30-mph gale. Susan had to open the vents to keep plants from cooking. John hopes one day to pipe hot water heat to the greenhouse from a wood-fired Tirolia cookstove he plans to install in the basement, where it could do double duty baking bread and beans.

Saving Seeds

Unexpected summer dwellers in the greenhouse are nasturtiums, which Susan keeps in hanging pots. It’s the best way, she says, to ensure proper collection of the seeds, which must dry out completely and drop off in order to be viable. Most striking among them is Empress of India, a flaming crimson with unusual dark foliage. This nasturtium and others are among the eight flower species Susan raises for Seeds of Change, the certified organic seed company in New Mexico [P.O.Box 15700, Santa Fe, NM 87506-5700]. Her prize specimen is a black hollyhock. “Thomas Jefferson saved seed from black hollyhock, so it’s of great heirloom value,” she says. To make sure the seed comes true, she had to get rid of all her other holly­hocks. She also raises Chinese forget-me-nots, sweet peas, venidium, centaurea, larkspur, foxglove, cleome, lupines and dame’s rocket for Seeds of Change. After a trial year, she had her first contract with them last year.

Susan also saves “tons” of flower seeds for all the plants she propagates every year. She even raises things like fuchsia and clematis from seed. The only seeds she buys are new flower varieties to try and vegetables, the latter in order to get true results, because the number of varieties in the garden makes cross-pollination inevitable. The key to saving flower seeds, she says, is to have only one variety of a given type and to mark everything very carefully. “I’m a firm believer in letting the seed mature as far as possible on the plant,” she adds. This has its drawbacks. Birds, who seem to know exactly when seeds mature, descend in droves to feast on them. “As soon as the birds arrive, I know it’s time to cut the seeds,” Susan says.

Flowers are the Future

The Beldings sell about half of the 25 turkeys and a couple of the pigs they raise each year. The two Scotch Highland cows, Angel and Lollipop (Their owners disclaim the sugary names, which came with the animals.), have been joined by a handsome white Highland bull to produce beef for sale. John dreams of eventually having a goat cheese operation. The farm stand is attracting a steady clientele for vegetables and herbs, which are big sellers. But it’s the flower business that is galloping ahead, faster than Susan can keep up with it. You make more money with flowers than vegetables, she has discovered. “It’s amazing that people will spend five dollars for a beautiful bouquet, but won’t spend the actual growing cost of lettuce, the food they eat,” John marvels.

Susan started making flower arrangements for various occasions, including a couple of weddings. The next year she worked with a florist who came up from New Jersey to do a wedding in Lovell, where the scenic background and the established summer population make for a lively wedding trade. “It gave me courage to do it myself,” Susan says. “It’s a big money maker.” Before she knew it the wedding business went wild. Last summer she did nine weddings, “about as many as I could,” she reports. “On two weekends I had two weddings. I didn’t run out of flowers, but I almost ran out of time.”

“And out of family,” John puts in with good humor.

“They don’t like it if I have two weddings at a time,” Susan responds. She hires a couple of local women to assist with weddings, the only outside help on the farm. To meet the growing demand of her business, she plants hundreds of bulbs. “I couldn’t do flowers as well without bulbs. I’m selling flowers from the very beginning. The hardest part is to have every color throughout the season. Everybody likes different things. Some want pastel mixes, some just buy yellow or blue.” For example, Susan depends on a big crop of larkspur in August to take over the bright blue slot from the bloomed-out delphiniums. To help customers select bouquets, Susan takes color photos of her arrangements, which are notable for their open, natural style and the unusual flowers she has available in garden and greenhouse.

But cut flowers are only part of the operation. The Beldings sell seedlings, perennial plants and all manner of potted things, from petunias to ornamental hot peppers to sunflowers, a special short variety called “Big Smile” that brightens the pine-shaded farm stand in late summer. In spring hanging baskets are a big item. Moss baskets, which Susan made at first, but soon gave up as too time-consuming, are refilled at a discount if people bring back the wire frames the next year. Free Mother’s Day bouquets are another farm stand feature.

Susan can predict without hesitation what will be the first plant or bouquet someone will snap up in any season. In late summer it’s the Sunset cosmos and blue larkspur in the blue bottles. “Those bottles sell flowers, that’s for sure,” she says. Arizona iced tea comes in blue bottles, which she buys back from stores for the five-cent deposit price. She also purchases some from bottle suppliers.

Any Color So Long As It’s Blue

“I guess I’m blue crazy,” Susan says, referring to the decorative blue bottles on a kitchen shelf, the blue electric mixer on the work counter and the blue and white bathroom, one of the many amenities the Beldings have added to the farmhouse. Unoccupied for many years, no one knows for how long, the house was full of remnants of the past. The attic was stacked with old magazines from 1890 to 1905. John and Susan papered the kitchen with articles and advertisements from some that weren’t in good enough shape to save. “I couldn’t see leaving them where you couldn’t read them,” John says. In the barn’s second story they found all kinds of quaint relics, from an ox cart with huge wooden wheels, to teeth in a jar to rags ready for rug-making. “Nothing of any value,” he says. “People have pilfered things over the years. The ox yoke was gone. The barn was 3 feet deep in porcupine manure.”

With six kids in one small house, John and Susan quickly converted the unfinished upstairs to their own quarters. “The kids stayed downstairs. We figured that out real quick,” John says with a laugh. The parents are not without their arts to pursue when things quiet down enough. Susan is quite literally an artist. Her father wouldn’t let her major in art in college, she says, but she has never used the psychology he prescribed. Instead, she has always been able to sell her art. Besides designing such practical things as signs and flower arrangements, she spends her winter evenings making collagraphs, prints made from collages of a variety of materials – very often flowers. John’s hobby is “making things to drink.” His beer and wine taste much better than any you can buy, he maintains. He grows the hops and the black currants and puts a 55-gallon barrel of cider in the cellar every fall to make apple wine. But his favorite is “Antipodal Mead,” from a recipe of the same name, the only reason he thinks it might be wise to have some beehives to supply him with plenty of honey. And if he’s not in a brewing mood, he can put his art into six kinds of homemade sausage or a new variation on goat cheese. “It’s great fun,” he says, to which Susan nods full assent.

About the author: Jane Lamb, formerly of Brunswick, Maine, is now retired in California.

Scroll to Top