My wife and I moved to mid-coast Maine from Boston in 1990. We both had grown up in the suburbs, and we both had lived an urban life after college. We enjoyed the Big City, but we wondered what was out there beyond the last street light. Mostly I wondered — having worked in many food services positions (cook, waiter, bakery manager) through high school, college, and post-college — where did the ingredients prepared and consumed come from before they were hauled through the service entrance in boxes, big bags, and tubs? I thought, “surely we could spend a year investigating that mystery and then return to Boston with wisdom and experience well beyond our peers?”
There was nothing like the “Local Food Movement” going on in 1989, but there was a culinary revolution brewing with which we sympathized: a chef cannot improve the quality of their ingredients; therefore a good chef will find the best ingredients and do as little as possible to them to highlight their ideal qualities. I remember during those years I discovered that fresh fish did not smell fishy, that apples picked right out of the tree sounded different when you bit into them, and that the best cheese was never individually sliced and wrapped.
Besides having a beautiful seashore and the biggest skiing mountains in the East, Maine was well known as the land of potatoes, blueberries, and lobster. We thought about moving to Vermont (cheddar cheese and maple syrup) or Central Massachusetts (asparagus, strawberries, and cigar wrappers) but the ocean was Maine’s trump card that drew us Down East. We found ourselves farm sitting three elderly nanny goats and an ancient ewe sheep, plus a huge vegetable garden ten miles west of Belfast — an Eden along the banks of Thompson Brook.
We cut and split firewood and survived a Maine winter. We planted a garden. We sheared a sheep and learned how to spin wool. We met some pretty cool neighbors, some of whom had moved to Maine with similar ideas, others were generations beyond their arrival. Eventually we found some jobs. Our “year of discovery” was extended indefinitely and soon we started looking for a house to buy, preferably with a good bit of land around it.
After a few mis-fires on other properties we finally found 100+or- acres in the nearby town of Monroe for sale with a neat old farmhouse, and a giant red barn that was not in the process of collapsing. We bought it together with my wife’s parents who thought they might like to build a temperate summer house on the other 99+/- acres for their retirement. When they later decided not to build that summer house we bought out their interest in the property.
“Windswept Farm” (as I learned it had been called for 100 years) was an old dairy farm that now had about ten acres of fields around the house and barn, a farm pond behind the barn, a small apple and pear orchard beside the farmhouse, and lots and lots of woodland. We opened many garden beds for vegetables and perennials. We pressed cider and sold it out of a cooler at the end of our driveway. We planted many trees that caught our eye in the Fedco Tree Catalog. We wrote a Forestry Plan with a forester after the ice storm of 1998 and began executing it.
A flock of egg layers had been one of my Boston dreams realized, but we also employed a few sheep to mow our fields. I discovered we would need many more sheep (and that much more shearing) to do the bulk of our mowing, so I transitioned to cattle. We picked, canned, cooked, butchered, froze, and ate as much as we could grow, and every year the farm revealed some new amazing thing. It was like discovering a tender golden nut at the heart of a stubborn overlooked shell each time.
Having achieved our goal to discover where food came from our professional careers evolved and we grew deep roots in the fertile ground around us. I started volunteering for MOFGA, was elected to the board, served as board president, then president of the newly formed MOFGA Certification Services helping it learn to survive and thrive under the USDA’s newly established National Organic Program. I was asked to be on several Farms for the Future teams assisting food producers write new or updated business plans that would help guide them into a sustainable future.
I began to talk to lots of farmers about the challenges they faced, the successes they had, and what had not worked. I helped MOFGA organize some food festivals — Dry Beans, Apples, Cheese, Grains — to stimulate public awareness about just how awesome (and accessible) the food in Maine was. At the same time I learned how to make yogurt and cheese, got a license to sell them commercially in 2006, then joined the Belfast Farmers Market in 2007. Now every Friday in the summer I am surrounded by a fascinating cross-section of Maine food producers, from New Beat Farm to Maine Water Buffalo Co. Recently one vendor sold “artisan marshmallows” at the market.
When my wife turned 50, we assessed the work we were doing to manage our farm projects: veggies, fruit, cows, chickens, cheese, open fields, firewood, and flowers. It was still manageable, but we also remembered how effortless it had seemed in our first few years in Maine 20 years earlier. We knew that ten years ahead we would remember how “effortless” it had seemed at 50… Therefore, we decided that sustainability included our physical capabilities and health. We did not want to abandon the farm completely and transition back to an urban life alone, we just wanted to live “lighter” on the farm somehow.
We gave ourselves a ten year transition period that we called our Ten Year Plan and we took our time thinking about our changing relationship to Windswept Farm. One of the things we did was enroll in the MOFGA Apprenticeship program and invited one candidate to spend the summer working with me making cheese, gardening, and going to the Farmers Market. We learned what it might be like to share our farm and our farm projects with someone else, which was very helpful.
It took five more years of thinking and talking and planning but eventually we decided to build a smaller energy efficient home up the hill from the farmhouse where my wife’s parents had once dreamed of a summer house. Then we could offer the “working” part of the farm, including the Farmhouse, to new folks who had the necessary energy and skills to farm but lacked land.
In October 2013, with the Boston Red Sox in the middle of winning their third modern World Series, we signed a design contract with GO Logic to build the house up the hill. And in January 2014 we listed 18.65 acres of our land (including the Farmhouse and Barn) on Maine Farmland Trust’s FarmLink service.
Beginning in February 2014 we started interviewing people who responded to our posted link, we listened to their plans and dreams for the future, and we discussed all the ways we could work together in some way that preserved the farmland and possibly led to transferring ownership. By May we had narrowed the choice down to one couple who were living in Portland. They were experienced farmers, they already had a business plan to establish a diversified farm producing food for their community, and they were very interested in locating in the Belfast area. We discussed many different ownership transfer options, and then we all decided to try to make this idea of a Farmstead Cooperative work.
Through the summer and fall I worked with a lawyer to generate the necessary documents, and I kept our prospective partners updated with drafts at various stages. We met to discuss details a few times, and then in January 2015 — just before slinging a few pizzas into the Farmhouse wood-fired masonry heater for dinner — we all signed papers on an agreement to form the Windswept Farmstead Cooperative and for them to work towards buying all of our shares in that FC from us over time.