“Neighbors”

Summer 2021

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

We are all neighbors, whether we live next door to each other or 5 miles away from each other. In my town, whether we know each other or not, we call each other neighbors: as in “Ned? This is your neighbor, Amanda,” I might say when I call up Ned. Or, “Hey Amanda, you know our neighbors over on Mill Road, the ones with the chickens that are always in the middle of the freakin’ road?” a neighbor once asked me. “Oh yes, I know them,” I probably answered, even though I didn’t know them, those neighbors of mine. I knew their chickens (quite well), but not them. Still, they were my neighbors just the same. That’s the way it was when Brady and Brendan of Morning Dew Farm came to us about using our field. We loved the idea so much that I asked our neighbors down the road if they would consider Morning Dew using their big field, and they loved the idea so much that they asked neighbors across the road if they would consider Morning Dew using their field, and then, soon after that, another one of our neighbors had Morning Dew in her field. Pretty soon, four of us neighbors had Morning Dew in our fields, taking care of the land lovingly, organically, productively. We were all thrilled about helping Morning Dew out in such a neighborly way – even though Brady and Brendan lived a couple of miles away in the next town over. Geography has nothing to do with being neighbors, come to find out: respect for each other and the land makes neighbors. Morning Dew has their Forever Farm now. They are no longer in all of our fields. Still, they are our neighbors and we are theirs.

– Amanda Russell, Edgecomb, Maine

With the nearest house about a half mile away, most of our neighbors are wildlife. This has meant a high fence to protect the young orchard trees. The vulnerable farm animals like chickens and lambs and sheep are another matter entirely, however. Any outlying farm with small animals is a magnet for coyotes, foxes, raccoons, mink, hawks, eagles and mountain lions, and these predators on the perimeters are not always good neighbors on their own terms. Historically, most management approaches have been lethal. As an alternative, we got a white dog pup, an Akbash-Pyrenees cross, and raised her on the farm. Roxy is instinctively protective of the farm animals, particularly the younger and smaller ones. Her guarding tendencies are somewhat cyclical, ramping up when lambs are born and tapering off a little in late summer. When chicks arrive, she focuses on them. And when our draft colt was born 2 years ago, she turned her attention there. This instinctive protectiveness even extended to a baby granddaughter we had laid on the grass – Roxy wouldn’t let the other dogs near the child, wouldn’t let them look at her, and when they did, she charged them in a snarling rush before returning to lie next to the baby. Her high and natural awareness of any young or defenseless creature has been fascinating to watch, and locals are often surprised that even without resorting to rifles, we haven’t lost any chickens or lambs. And protective as she is against coyotes and hawks, she is utterly affectionate and friendly to all humans, keeping us on the best of terms with those other neighbors of our own species and letting us enjoy the coyote song that so often comes at night.

– John Franson, Soda Springs, Idaho

An eighth of an acre lot in the city of Portland may not conjure up the image of the garden of Eden – it certainly didn’t for me when my husband and I moved here 25 years ago, but it was the yard we had. Our neighbors had similar yards and they were not using them to grow food. Nevertheless, I was determined to make the best of my bit of earth and began by composting in the way I had learned from Helen and Scott Nearing many years earlier. A year or so later, with the help of my daughter, we dug up a mound of sod, added some compost and made a small bed that became our salad garden. The next year I expanded a bit and put in a few strawberries. My husband, Chris, being a city boy from California, had never experienced gardening and at first had no interest in it. All that changed once he experienced the joy of walking out in the yard and picking and eating the most delicious salad he had ever tasted. Soon we were removing trees, hauling loads of compost to supplement our own and building raised beds. Chris eventually rebuilt my simple compost piles into what, I like to tease him, is “the fanciest compost enclosure in the state of Maine!”

Fast forward 25 years and we have five large raised beds, and we are adding two more this spring. We have two highbush blueberry bushes from which we get a year’s supply of blueberries for ourselves and some to share with our neighbors. Perhaps most wonderful of all, we have watched many of our neighbors plant gardens in whatever space gets the best sun, even if it’s just the little strip of earth between the street and the sidewalk in front of their house. Some have transformed lawns into gardens, put dwarf fruit trees beside their house, or a grape arbor over their deck, or chickens in their yard. One of our neighbors even has a commercial flower-growing operation. So much has changed for the better over the years in our little pocket of the city as we see yards transformed and neighbors sharing with each other the fruits of their bounty. I can only hope and pray that we, as collective humanity, all see the importance of growing food in harmony with each other and nature.

– Carole Crawford, Portland, Maine

As we roll into season two of farming under COVID-19 with the uncertainty of how things will evolve with some of us vaccinated and some not, and what that means, I look back to last season, Veggies to Table’s second. COVID-19 forced me, the founder, to put the needs of others before my own personal fears. As a closet germophobe, COVID-19 had me fully freaked out. I wondered if I could even go on with Veggies to Table. Figuring out a plan to keep everyone safe and the farm working seemed overwhelming. In my haze of stress and panic I kept remembering my community – my friends and neighbors – who needed the fresh, organically grown produce that Veggies to Table provides. With numbers of food insecurity rising, our mission of growing organic produce and flowers to donate to those in need within our community was vital. I pushed aside, as best as possible, my desire to stay snuggled on the couch with a book. I crafted a plan to keep our team, food and volunteers safe. I rolled with the punches and rounded up volunteers. I became a full-time farmer alongside running Veggies to Table and working another job – 80-hour work weeks were the norm.

After the initial panic wore off, we fell into a routine, welcomed over 44 unique volunteers on the farm and created a safe place where friendships were forged, meals were shared and lasting connections, spanning from high school-aged to the retired, formed. No one was alone when they were here. The farm gave us purpose – pulled us out of the hole we were in and made us stronger, more resilient people. We learned, we taught, and we grew and donated over 11,000 pounds of produce and more than 450 bouquets of flowers to those in need in our community. We laughed, we stressed, we shared books and recipes, we lived and we cultivated relationships alongside our crops.

Hearing from volunteers that their time on the farm created meaning in a time of chaos made it all worthwhile. Will we be doing it again? Yes.

– Erica Berman, Newcastle, Maine

The year was probably 1976 or 1977. I had been on our homestead with my late husband for just 2 years. We had been pretty lucky the prior year: We were far enough out in the woods that we didn’t experience any groundhog or raccoon pressure. Occasionally we would see prints in the garden but experienced few losses. And our first-year garden wasn’t really that productive anyway.

In late June, we were eating breakfast and looking out on our small, unfenced vegetable garden. Suddenly movement caught our eye – a deer, a moose? No, it was a heifer.

Our still incomplete, home-built house was on the northern edge of our 40-acre property. The nearest neighbor – a long-time dairy farmer, probably in his 80’s at that time – was 2 miles away. This neighbor owned the woodlot abutting our property on the south side where he had cleared a small pasture on which he put a few heifers each spring. He was a man of few words but many (I think 14) children. Rumor has it that his wife stopped talking after the thirteenth child.

Well, wanting to be good neighbors, we hooked a rope around the heifer and walked her down to the farmer’s house. He was surprised to see us and couldn’t at all understand why we had brought the heifer back. In his view, she would have returned when it was time for him to bring the cows some grain later in the day. He didn’t seem at all interested or concerned that she was trampling our garden.

He promised to see to fixing the fence at that pasture, although I recall seeing the heifers out on the road more than once thereafter. I also remember that as the summer when we fenced our garden.

– June Zellers, West Gardiner, Maine

Often when people think about neighbors, they think about the humans that live in the houses down the street. But as a wildlife biologist, I think about the wildlife neighbors that we have in our backyards.

I currently teach at a small state university in Middle Tennessee, and we have been monitoring wildlife on our campus using remote camera traps for the last 2 years. Interestingly, when we shifted to remote operations in March 2020, we noticed a drastic change in our camera-trap photos: We have many more wildlife neighbors on our campus than we think!

Prior to shutting down in March, the students monitoring the cameras would show me the list of animals they would record on the cameras, mainly feral cats, squirrels and the occasional raccoon. But once the campus became empty outside of a few groundskeeping folks, that list grew. Squirrels became skunks, cats became possums, and raccoons became coyotes. We even got a bobcat on one of the cameras we placed on our educational farm a little way from campus.

One of the more exciting parts about this little experiment monitoring who is in our backyards is the neighborly characteristics these mammals portrayed. On more than one occasion a coyote and raccoon were seen in the same shot, meaning they got along long enough to pose for the camera for a few minutes while finishing their dinners.

And it did not stop at our campus borders – many of my colleagues mentioned observing more wildlife in their personal backyards since the pandemic started. A family of foxes moved in next door to our ornithology professor’s house, to the delight of his children. I get excited when I hear these stories because living with wildlife is so important and learning that our day-to-day activities pre-March 2020 may have been impacting their lives is something to think about. And with this knowledge, we know of one good thing that came out of the pandemic: We learned more about our wildlife neighbors and how they sometimes get along.

– Catherine Haase, Clarksville, Tennessee

I moved to Twitchell Hill Community in 1976. It was started by folks who were tired of being beaten up in the anti-war protests in the Boston area. They wanted to establish an intentional community that lived more closely with the natural abundance of the earth and bought the 70 acres that we still own, camping on it the summer of 1971 while building the 50-by-50 three-story house that I later moved into. The land had 14 to 15 acres of wild blueberries that had been maintained through conventional agricultural practices that included spraying various poisons on the fields. This did not fit with their ideals, and they decided to stop the spraying – which essentially made them organic. When they found that the normal purchasers of wild blueberries would not accept the organic berries because of not passing the maggot tests, they collaborated with others who didn’t want to spray their wild blueberries and formed the Maine Organic Blueberry Growers Cooperative (the MOB). I immediately got involved in the organizing and marketing, as well as trying to figure out how to grow wild blueberries organically.

We found a dealer in sea worms who had a truck run the length of the Maine coast picking up worms and taking them to the Chelsea Market in Boston. The truck was never full, so we arranged to have the truck stop at various spots along its Downeast run and pick up blueberries on the way to drop them at the New England Federation of Cooperatives (NEFCO) warehouse at the market. NEFCO wanted organic berries so they weren’t concerned about maggot counts, which were never bad, and worked to get a top price for our berries. This lasted into the 80s until too many growers were overwhelmed with weed problems that made organic growing too difficult to maintain. Thus, we could not keep up a large and steady enough supply to work cooperatively.

Twitchell Hill was faced with so much tree growth that one often couldn’t see the rakers in the fields. Blueberries are a biennial crop, so the trees were 2-years-old during harvest. The University of Maine found that if anything taller than a blueberry plant was weed-whacked three times in the fallow field each summer, the trees would be defeated. That has made a huge difference for us: Now the fields have very few trees, and the other weed growth has been seriously diminished. I am able to mow the fields more often than burn them, and we can use a mechanical harvester with the reduction of weed growth. We were organic before MOFGA was certifying wild blueberries and have been certified by MOFGA since they began the wild blueberry certification. This past fall after leaf drop, I was stunned by the beauty of the fields as the different clones of berry plants have different stem colors: yellows, greens, reds and purples. With the sun shining gloriously on the field, it was an impressionistic splendor.

– Doug Van Horn, Montville, Maine

It was black fly season. To keep the flies away while working in the garden, my husband and I would build a fire in our smudge pot and then throw green plant matter on top to create smoke to drive the bugs away. The metal pot had to be big enough to keep a decent fire going, but small enough to haul around as we worked in different locations, and the green matter was generally weeds pulled from the garden beds we were preparing. 

We had a homesteading neighbor a mile down the road who kept a horse and chickens and sometimes raised a pig or beef cow for meat. At some point he got a bull, I can’t remember why. And the bull had its horns. I do remember my husband, who had worked on dairy farms in the past, talked with him about the dangers of bulls. 

One weekend morning, around 6 a.m., I woke to the sounds of an animal snorting and rooting around in the yard outside the house. I thought it was probably a moose and got up to see what was going on. I went downstairs and looked out the window to see our neighbor’s bull in my flower bed. The smudge pot from the day before was sitting by the path to the front door emitting a tiny stream of smoke when the wind blew over it. Sometimes there was a bed of embers built up in the bottom of the pot that made it easier to start up the smudge from day to day.

The bull got curious about the pot, maybe it reminded him of the vessel his grain was brought in. He stuck his nose in the pot, and his snout got stuck. No doubt he felt the heat, but as he tried to bawl and his jaw opened a bit, it made the pot hold fast. The bull yelped and swung his head up and down and all around with the hot pot on it. I got on the phone and called the neighbor. 

Luckily on one breath, the pot loosened and flew off. The bull took off through thick brush in the direction he had come from. The neighbor came, we hunted the bull down, and then he took him home.

– Audrey Zimmerman, Glenburn, Maine

I never really thought that much about groundhogs. I’d watched the Bill Murray movie, of course, seen one or two groundhogs ambling across our backyard, and passed a few of them on the road (in various states of well-being). But all that changed once we planted a vegetable garden.

We only have three or four small raised beds and a potato patch, and realized soon enough the importance of fencing around the beds. The first 1 or 2 years, we were remarkably fortunate in keeping away the critters, but then battle commenced.

The first signs we detected were some cautious nibbles on a couple of lettuce plants. A day or two later, the whole lettuce crop was gone, chewed to the ground. That was quite devastating … and a little mystifying as there were no signs of tunneling or other forced entry through the 3-foot-high chicken wire fence.

The mystery was solved the next day when I discovered two large groundhogs merrily enjoying a little kale appetizer. With shovel in one hand and pitchfork in the other, I approached the enemy … but didn’t have the heart to attack. I opened the gate and out they trotted.

Soon after that, I actually caught one of the hogs in the act of climbing the fence, which I must say surprised me. Since then, we’ve tried all sorts of preventive measures, from garlic and coyote urine to cayenne paper and castor oil. We grew a bed of clover, which they liked but not as much as the lettuce. (One thing they won’t touch, thankfully, is arugula, and we grow that in its own bed without any fencing!)

Remi, our former neighbor, also had a vegetable garden which always seemed to do much better than ours. I asked him what he did about the groundhogs and other critters. He was much more philosophical about it than I, answering that if he lost part of his crop, “I just go to LaBonne’s” (the local supermarket).

This year, I’ve vowed to be a lot more like Remi. I’ll listen to the various suggestions (trap the groundhogs with a Havahart, smoke them out of their home, etc., etc.), but I think it’s time for a little peaceful coexistence. Who knows, maybe we’ll start getting along just fine.

Without the groundhogs to worry about, I can finally turn my attention to the chipmunks who have the annoying habit of just taking a few bites out of our ripening tomatoes. Either that, or I’ll just go to LaBonne’s.

– Peter Chapman, Woodbury, Connecticut

One thing about old-time Maine Yankees is that they tend to be economical with their words and habitually choose the fewest ones to convey an exact meaning. If you ask them a question, they will take the language quite literally and, if it seems worth their while, will offer a literal response even if they know that was not the intent of the inquiry – just another subtle form of humorous entertainment at the expense of the unsuspecting.

One Sunday in church, it came to the part in the service where the minister asked the rural, Midcoast congregation for “joys and concerns.” A lady sitting near the back pews raised her hand and said she was thankful for the beautiful sunny day after the several days of rain we had had. The pastor allowed, as that was most certainly a joy, and called on another raised hand whose owner was thankful for the rain that we had had over the previous several days. He said it would help the grass turn green again and the mid-July flower and vegetable gardens would benefit considerably.

Pleased with the congregation’s responses so far, the questioning continued in this vain. The gardener in the pulpit, who knew full well that it was a few weeks too early to be eating ripe tomatoes from the home garden and well aware of the pride each gardener had in trying to be the first one to harvest a tomato, queried, “Does anyone have tomatoes yet?” The pastor looked across at the faces of the faithful flock. Not to be outdone by their neighbors, three or four hands shot partway up in the affirmative, and several smug voices replied tersely and literally in unrehearsed unison, “green ones.”

– Paul D. Lynn, Cushing, Maine

It was a sunny day last July when I was contacted by Kathi from Herbal Revolution, an apothecary and farm in Union, to see if I had any extra blue vervain on hand. I look after Meeting House Farm, a certified-organic herb farm in Scarborough. We grow about 80 different historic and medicinal plant varieties, so it was no surprise that we did have extra blue vervain, just not enough. Fortunately, in 2019, we had expanded the farm into an herb growers’ collaborative, which now includes nine different farm partners across the state, all growing organic herbs. So I harvested the blue vervain that I had here, and then I drove to Patch Farm in Denmark and on to Milkweed Farm in Brunswick, picking up fresh, organic blue vervain at each stop before delivering to Herbal Revolution. This single day exemplified how our farming community of neighbors works; there was a need for herbs and not one of us could have filled the demand alone. By coming together, we bridged an accessibility gap that has been a barrier for too many and for too long. We are blessed to live stories like this every day so more Mainers can make and grow local medicine for our communities.

– Emily Springer, Scarborough, Maine

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