“Breaking Ground”

Spring 2021

What follows is a collection of stories from MOFGA members, staff, volunteers and the community in response to the theme: “breaking ground.” These stories first appeared in the MOFGA Stories segment in the spring 2021 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

We bought the land in 2012: a 9-acre field, once sheep and cow pasture, that had fallen into a decade of annual brush hogging. That September, we sowed oats and peas into newly tilled soil. A month later, a different kind of seed rooted in my womb.

Long before we first broke ground I had a vision of our farm, what it would look like in some future, complete form: lush rows of vegetables and flowers, a patchwork of annuals and perennials, greenhouses, a farm stand, children running through the field.

But the peas and oats grew only a few inches before frost descended that first year. Snow flew as we raced to raise a small barn for our sheep. In March my husband slept in the seedling house to stoke the woodstove on cold nights as our first crops germinated. By April we were tucking transplants into soil.

All the while, my belly grew. It grew through frost and snow, through not enough rain and too much rain, through bountiful lettuce and meager tomato harvests. It grew into July, forcing me to give up the broadfork and set down the trellising twine, until the peak of summer when one morning my water broke, and we finally welcomed our son into the world.

Now, nine years later, I’m coming to accept that the farm work will never be finished and yet there will be thousands of completions: springs that turn into summer and fall; seeds that grow into carrots and kale; rows that transform from freshly raked soil into green mats of salad mix.

That first year I looked toward the outcome: the harvest, the birth. But farming and life aren’t so much about completion as they are about cycles. The moment a sunflower is harvested or the salad is eaten or a baby wails for the first time, a new cycle is already set in motion.

So we break ground again, turning cover crops into soil, seeds into food, flowers back into seeds, and show up day after day to grow along the journey.

– Kate Spring, Worcester, Vermont

Gasping for breath I let myself fall backwards to lie on the ground next to the taut and straining come-a-long. I gave it everything I had but the roots of the stump were unyielding in their resolution to stay at rest. I lie there for a bit to catch my breath and gather my resolve, my heart pounding in my ears from the labor. When it quieted, I got up, grabbed the maul, and headed over to have a persuasive argument with the stump. 

Our new backyard was an overgrown tangle of opportunistic species: multiflora rose, alder and horsetail to name a few – along with a healthy infestation of European fire ants. Walking around, I became convinced that our backyard had originally been part of the adjoining field next door that someone had let go. I fired up the chainsaw with the goal of bringing it back. It took that summer and fall to cut, burn and finally chip everything to where I could get a good look at the property.

It had been quite a while since I had been able to have a garden and there was a nice-looking spot for one. Long on determination and short on cash I started pulling stumps with a come-a-long, shovel and maul – old school. The soil seemed great to me, with not even a pebble to be found in it. By the third spring I was able to build a fence around the spot, till it up and plant a garden, including my favorite crop: Silver Queen corn. When September rolled around, I sat outside eating Silver Queen off the cob and admiring the garden and thought, “You know what we need now? Another garden and some chickens.”

– Tim Billings, Southwest Harbor, Maine 

In August 1987, I moved to Wellington, Maine, with my future husband Steve Cayard and my daughter Amber Reed, leaving behind my beloved West Virginia and my Italian family. Both sets of grandparents were Italian immigrants who came to work in the coal mines. I spent a lot of time with my mother’s parents. By then they were nearing the end of their labors, but they still baked bread outside in a homemade oven, tended animals in pens and kept a huge garden, terraced on the side of a steep hill. My grandfather made his own beer and sat on the porch at the end of a long day playing his accordion and drinking home brew that had a thick sludge of yeast at the bottom. My grandmother made dog and cat food from scraps. 

So, coming to the backwoods life was in my blood. The day we arrived in Wellington I was exhausted and it looked a lot less appealing than it had in early summer when Steve’s friend had shown it to us. I walked in and surveyed the cabin with the hard eye of my father. I realized that we could not sleep in there that night. We had to get the mice and wasps and squirrels out first. We had to sweep and mop – and there was no water. Steve reminded me that we had planned to carry water for a while. I walked outside, took my sleeping bag out of the car and laid it on the high grass, making a spongy resting place that was some comfort. “I forgot a broom,” I wailed from the front yard. I lie there and looked up at the sky. What did I do? How would we manage? What had I done taking Amber from her dad and our family? Their recriminations echoed in my head. A little while later Amber ran up shouting that they had made a broom and “to come see, come see.” She was framed by the sky and her hair was flowing around her excited face. I hoisted myself up like every mother does a thousand times over. Steve had fashioned a broom from fir tips tied to a stick and Amber was sweeping. 

We camped outside for two weeks and made it a passable home. Amber started second grade and Steve and I befriended our neighbors up the road whose daughters attended the same school. We’ve lived in the same house all these years and Lucy Cayard, our daughter, was born right here. I came to Maine near the end of the “back to the land” movement. Like my grandparents, I came to a “new country,” and like them, I looked back and cried many times for the “old country,” but in the end this spot became my home.

– Angela DeRosa, Wellington, Maine

When I first began thinking about what to write for the “breaking ground” theme, I decided to look up what “breaking ground” means. From a quick Google search, the results were: 1. Do preparatory digging or other work prior to building or planting something; 2. Do something innovative and beneficial.

I couldn’t ignore just how appropriate this description was for when we set out to start our own farm four years ago by breaking ground. Although we are a small farm employing no-till methods, we still chose to break the ground initially in order to mix in some minerals and raise the pH. (Oh and to remove the many “New England potatoes”!) This field was only hayed minimally before we arrived so the soil organisms must have had quite a surprise that day when we plowed through their intricately designed homes.

Although soil disturbance was inevitable, we knew this was part of the preparation in order to grow healthy crops that would in turn bring the soil life back to its previous abundance as well as feed the community with nutritious food. In this way, it certainly was beneficial – but innovative? I’m not sure if anything is as innovative as nature itself, but we’d like to think we’re doing our part to make sure our farm is teeming with life, both above and belowground. And maybe that’s just innovative enough for a couple of veggie farmers!

– Yoko Takemura, Putnam, Connecticut

Pasture pine, gray birch, old field juniper and poison ivy – all of these “undesirables” managed to survive on a meager 2 to 3 inches of poor topsoil over bedrock shale at the top of the hill; on towards the bottom of the hill, 4 or 5 inches of the same tired dirt covered what looked like beach sand. That’s what I started with. I’m not complaining. The land, which had been clear-cut 40 or 50 years before, was given to me by my folks. If it wasn’t for them I’d probably be living in an abandoned bus somewhere.

I started in a sunny spot, cutting and removing enough vegetation to put in a small garden of cukes, tomatoes and corn. Over the years, I cleared more land and added compost, manures, leaves, hay, seaweed and wood chips. The soil came alive and the vegetable garden grew, and then came the perennials. I started with a half dozen common varieties given to me. When I divided them, I set a few divisions on a table near the road with a “for sale” sign and, after that, the perennials took centerstage.

The garden became an acre, and I now grow over 300 varieties of perennials for sale along with vegetables, fruits, etc. for my own use, though these take the backstage and will until I retire at 100.

I never applied for organic certification – having never felt the need – though if I sold vegetables I certainly would have. You farm organically because it works and it is the right thing to do. In “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson wrote, “How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”

– Kenneth Rice, Saco, Maine

“That’s not the way we do things in Aroostook” was an expression I heard my share of times in the early years. In search of good soil to farm, I’d moved to the promised land of Aroostook County, Maine, in 1976. I was 21 years old and acted on a hunch ­– I’d never been to Maine or even met a Mainer.

Evidently, my organic inclinations and peculiarities were perceived sufficiently odd so as to elicit frank commentary from good Aroostook people who customarily are diehard adherents to Maine’s “live and let live” golden rule.

As we set about farming we developed a work-hard-and-keep-your-head-down tact and moved ahead doing what we felt needed to be done to build up our soil and grow good organic crops.

Experience taught us we could grow organic potatoes in Aroostook. By the late 1980s we had invented a unique means of selling potatoes: We would focus on growing organic Maine Certified Seed Potatoes and sell them directly to farmers and gardeners with a mail order catalog. Of course, those were the days before cell phones and the internet. Years later we added a transactional website to our catalog.

It was also many years later that a local farmer spilled the beans on a secret we had not been privy to. Three years of our four-year crop rotation, our potato fields are hidden by woods and not visible from our house. It turns out that during Aroostook’s late blight epidemic of the early 1990s, unbeknownst to us, local potato farmers were making weekly pilgrimages to our potato fields on Saturday evenings. Parading slowly by in their pickup trucks, farmers were marveling at the health of our potatoes in light of the fact that they were spending a king’s ransom on hot fungicides while we were not.

In Aroostook County, respect is earned from works. We all tend to get carried away with words.

– Jim Gerritsen, Bridgewater, Maine

In the earliest days of MOFGA in Unity, there was a landscape committee consisting of volunteers who sought to bring some tree life onto the barren, 35-acre main campus. Ernie Glabeau was the committee chair at the time and in the fall of 1998 he somehow got wind of a nursery going out of business and looking to liquidate their tree inventory. I don’t recall much hesitation among our volunteer group and soon the stock was delivered. Ernie, with many years of landscaping already under his belt, was instrumental in making the necessary calculations and many of the decisions about where to plant each of the shade trees.

With the holes dug by an excavator, we were ready to plant. An eager crew of volunteers arrived one Saturday to set the trees, backfill the holes, water them in and add mulch. By the end of the day, most if not all had been planted. It was a significant undertaking at a time when little evidence of plant life, or hope for it, was showing.

Now, a few decades later, it’s rather impressive to see how many of these trees have flourished and how much of an impact they have made on the grounds. Since that initial planting, more trees have been installed with equally appealing results. At present time, MOFGA’s landscape committee is involved in remapping the existing trees, many of them now dedicated, with an emphasis on making each one easily located by visitors to the site. A tree inventory and a program for continued maintenance (with guidance from a consulting arborist), is part of our immediate workplan.

Looking back on that original group of trees, I admit to being skeptical. Many of them looked to be questionable specimens. Other than regular watering those first years, they got little pampering. Still they thrived. There was some terrific energy on that first planting day that possibly bolstered them. Scrappy trees and committed volunteers with a passion to make a difference – that’s a combo I’ll settle for any day.

– Jack Kertesz, Unity, Maine

My husband and I lived in Northern California for a decade starting in the mid-1980s. We were young, idealistic and longing for more community. Finding others who shared similar values of living lightly on the planet and growing food topped our list. Early on in our quest, we spent a summer traveling around Oregon in our yellow VW Squareback (nicknamed “Velma”), looking for the community of our dreams. We visited several communes and they seemed to share everything, including income, personal resources and housing, which we discovered was not what we had in mind.

Then we learned about “cohousing,” and we thought this is it! This model of living is not new – it’s like an old-fashioned neighborhood or village, reimagined in the ‘70s in Denmark then brought to the U.S. in the ‘80s. Cohousing communities were starting up in the Bay Area and we wanted to join, but instead we made a cross-country move to Midcoast Maine for work.

We hoped to find others in the area that shared similar values. We got our chance when we heard about a small cohousing group that had formed in early 2007. In 2008, they purchased the former Keene Dairy Farm on Edgecomb Road in Belfast. At that point, we jumped in and became members of the newly formed Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage. 

We went on to self-develop, self-finance and design our community, energy-efficient homes and a common house from the ground up with the design-build team GO Logic. In 2011, we had approximately 22 of the 36 households needed to complete the community. We had been planning, meeting and going full tilt for over four years and were faced with the big question: Should we break ground and risk losing it all, especially during the U.S. and global financial meltdown in 2011? What if we weren’t successful and couldn’t find enough people and capital for this multi-million dollar housing project? We also knew that we ran the risk of losing people by not breaking ground. 

Looking back at that challenging time, we were just ordinary people doing extraordinary things with a clear vision of a different and better life. If we hadn’t taken that risk to break ground 10 years ago, it may have just remained a dream. Instead, we have a vibrant, multi-generational, close-knit community and intentionally ecological way of life that is deepening and growing with each passing year. 

– Wendy Watson, Belfast, Maine

When I think of breaking ground I think of spading. For years I spaded with an olive-green Celli. It had soil-polished paddles and a grate on the back to keep rocks from flying out and concussing anyone. Its exposed rotating joints looked like they’d been preserved in their original form from the early days of industrialization. When the rpm was right the whole metal frame would shake out a musical, meditative rhythm: perfect for thinking to.

I listened to some great podcasts while spading. If I go back and relisten to one now I can usually remember exactly what field I was in and which crop was about to be planted when I first heard it. I think this is a pretty common experience: you learn something interesting, your brain breaks new ground, you form a vivid memory around the new experience.

I can remember being on the tractor on a sunny afternoon late in August 2018. The bulk of the spading had been done for the season but there were still lettuce beds left to plant in “Field 2.” Since I was spading I was listening to a philosophy podcast, this one on Baruch Spinoza. I can remember coming to the end of the bed, putting in the clutch, taking out the PTO, lifting the implement, lining up for the next pass, and all the while the host was talking about how Spinoza saw everything – plant, animal, mineral – as expressions of one unified existence, a whole rather than parts.

It was ground-breaking stuff to my mind, this heady mysticism from some 350 years ago. I still think about it, usually on a tractor, encouraged by imagining what we share with the voles scurrying for shelter, swallows on the irrigation risers, and even the spader, which is doing all the work behind me.

– Peter Porcino, Newcastle, Maine

On March 3, 2020, an F3 tornado hit my neighborhood of Bells Bend, a farming community west of downtown Nashville. Uprooted cedars rode 150 mph winds across the bottomland, striking and killing cattle. A 2-by-6 skewered a pickup 50 paces from my bedroom window, and the historic barn it once belonged to lay in rubble. The next week, I made a record ­– generally the most expensive, high-pressure and cathartic event of an independent singer-songwriter’s year. My producer and session players checked phones between takes as the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. Every gig I had booked for the next six months, along with the income and housing they would provide, evaporated instantly.  

During the third week of March, I received a call from “back home” in Maine. Mary Leaming, my longtime friend and Veggies for All gleaning manager, had been fielding calls from fellow organizers and concerned citizens eager to strengthen hunger relief in Waldo County to prepare for the economic impacts of COVID-19. I spitballed with her on speakerphone while packing up my house for another move. Friends Colleen Hanlon-Smith of Daybreak Growers Alliance and Jonathan Fulford of Sierra Club were soon in the mix. MOFGA and Cooperative Extension staff and volunteers from Mainers Together and Unity Barn Raisers helped to articulate a vision, build an organizational structure, widen our circle and expedite on-the-ground work. Waldo County Bounty (WCB) was born from these conversations, from a global crisis, and even my personal upheaval. 

I stepped away from WCB in fall to focus on music projects, but continue to be inspired by the effort. We were not ground-breakers, maybe just seeds ready to drop into ground broken for us. Luckily for those of us who want to do meaningful work, the world is ever breaking open and calling for whatever we know how to grow.

– Sara Trunzo, Belfast, Maine & Nashville, Tennessee

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