Urban Farms Springing Up in Maine

Urban farms in Maine are growing big crops.

Young Girl in Urban Garden Plot

Getting children involved in gardening teaches them to be independent, as well as appreciative of the foods they eat.

iStockphoto.com/Chris Price

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With its manicured lawns and upscale summer clientele, seaside Camden, Maine, isn’t the first place that springs to mind to raise a flock of chickens. But Peter Lindquist and Sarah Ruef-Lindquist decided to try, both to reduce their global footprint and to ensure a safe supply of protein for breakfast. In 2008, they bought a flock of 12 chickens for their half-acre parcel in Camden. And that's only the very beginning of the urban farms boom.

The chickens soon became a hit in the neighborhood. The couple liberally shared the oversized eggs, neighbors brought over food scraps to feed the flock, and children enjoyed the chickens’ antics.   

However, under an old ordinance, Camden residents weren’t allowed to keep chickens unless they owned at least two and a half acres. Someone squawked to the code enforcement officer about the Lindquists’ flock, and in January 2009, the couple received a letter ordering them to lose the hens or face a $250-a-day fine. They reluctantly broke up their flock.

Instead of giving up, Peter and Sarah decided to fight to change the ordinance. In recent years, urban chicken lovers across the country successfully changed local rules to allow fowl, including several Maine cities: Portland, South Portland, Falmouth, Westbrook and Biddeford. The couple first approached the town council, but council members declined to make a change.

“The town didn’t even know how to make its ordinance,” Lindquist says.

So, the couple organized a referendum, and in June, Camden residents voted overwhelmingly to change the rules. Now anyone can keep up to nine small animals, barring roosters, in their backyards. The couple regained custody of half of their original chickens, and added three more for good measure. 

The Lindquists’ story is being played out in backyards across the state, as many suburban Mainers are returning to their agrarian roots to put food on the table, says Bob St. Peter, executive director of Food for Maine’s Future, a nonprofit group that seeks to decentralize the national food supply. St. Peter, who helped organize the drive to allow chickens in Portland, says chickens are a visible catalyst for the backyard movement because eggs are such a cornerstone of the American diet.

People are beginning to pick up their hoes again after keeping them in the shed during the 1980s and ’90s, he says. Partly, that’s in response to anxiety about the safety of the global food supply, especially after well-publicized scares of tainted milk and peanut butter. And interest in backyard food has surged since the recession hit, as those out of work or anxious about the economy have tried to put food on the table.

St. Peter says that when the Great Depression hit, many people returned to the family farm. Now, in the age of suburbia, there is no family farm. Instead, people are growing food in their suburban and urban plots. St. Peter hopes this trend will green suburbia.

“Suburbia can now be a place that’s desolate or it can be a little village,” he says. “The amount of food a subdivision could produce is astounding.” 

Growing between the rocks

Mary Blackstone has an acre house lot on the corner of two busy roads in Ellsworth, Maine, that looks just big enough to hold her house and a few tomato plants. But if a normal garden plot is like a ranch house, then Blackstone’s microfarm is like a skyscraper.

Her garden, consisting of a series of raised beds and greenhouses, maximizes every available inch for growing, including going vertical. Any plant that takes up a lot of room is tied to a trellis and encouraged to grow upward. On the ground, plants share close quarters, as Blackstone and her gardening partner, Jay Barnes, plant vegetables that get along together in terms of their nutrient needs.

Using organic gardening methods and a healthy amount of seafood compost, Blackstone grows enough produce to keep a well-stocked pantry, with plenty left to sell to restaurants and at her roadside stand.  

“I have a huge following for tomatoes and cucumbers,” she says.

Blackstone grew up in a gardening family, with her father selling seedlings in Franklin, but the family plot was not considered a farm by the standards of the time. The Blackstone corner lot was surrounded by larger working farms that have since disappeared. 

Everyone was growing something at that time, says Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). Suburban and urban gardening became very popular between the Great Depression and World War II due to hard economic times and the scarcity brought on by the war, as well as a sense of patriotic duty. Americans grew 40 percent of all produce consumed by the nation in backyard Victory gardens at the peak of the war effort. The evidence of these urban plots still can be found everywhere.

“You could go all over Bangor and see big old apple trees in backyards,” says Libby. “It was very common to have cows in town.”

But after the war, gardening’s popularity trailed off. The advent of synthetic pesticides and herbicides made food cheaper, and Americans wanted to spend rather than dig. Big farms became bigger, and many people put down their hoes in favor of lawn chairs.

Gardening and homestead farming regained some popularity during the 1970s, thanks in part to the writings of intellectuals Helen and Scott Nearing, who moved to Harborside, Maine, to continue their quest for the Good Life. The Nearings attracted disciples, such as Eliot Coleman, to their microfarm. Coleman, another Harborside farmer who co-wrote the famous gardening guide, Four-Season Harvest, has just an acre and a half in production.

Greg Joly, author of Almost Utopia, a history of the Nearings, says small farmers have taken root in Maine partly because the land is so poor for industrial farming. The soil is too rocky and overgrown for larger farmers to consolidate plots, which allows small farmers room to thrive in the state’s marketplace, he says.

Big markets for small farms

In the middle of Winterport is a half-acre microfarm called Living Land Farm that feeds 19 families. On the tiny plot, farmer Mark Allen has squeezed in two unheated greenhouses, as well as a small orchard. He also keeps a flock of chickens.

Allen is the first to admit his original gardening project happily got out of hand. While being a stay-at-home dad, he decided to contribute by growing food. This often took some juggling with his schedule.

“Three years ago, I couldn’t live without naps,” he says. “(Sometimes) I was out planting tomatoes at 11 p.m. with a lantern.”

Farming called to Allen after he watched his younger brother die of cancer. His brother’s death helped spur Allen to look for a way to make a world where fewer chemicals were used. 

“All the nastiness that went along with cancer, we went through it, and that changes the way you look at a whole lot of things,” Allen says.

Now, his farm can produce all the vegetables needed for a small community without the use of chemicals. 

“You can produce an ungodly amount of food on half an acre,” he says. “And I’m still feeling like I need to get more efficient.”

Other gardeners can only dream about such efficiency. Allen maps out every summer day during the winter to keep things running as smoothly as possible. He keeps all space in his plots in active production and produces a dizzying amount of vegetables year-round. He composts everything, including chicken bones, and lets the compost age at least a year before applying it to soil. Part of a growing movement of farmers looking to forgo even organic pesticides and herbicides, Allen focuses on soil health, and his garden beds have few weeds or pests. 

“Plants are like people,” he says. “If you give them what they need, they can take care of themselves.”

Allen is conscious that his farm is in the middle of a community, and he tries to be considerate of his neighbors. When one of his young roosters started to crow, it was permanently exiled to the freezer before anyone complained. He shares an open backyard with a neighbor, and the two raise pigs together. 

Allen loves raising his children on the farm, because it’s important they know how their food is grown.

“There’s an awful lot of talk about national security,” he says. “There’s nothing I can see that can make us more secure than growing our own healthy food.”

Small farms like Allen’s are reversing a decades-long trend in farm loss, according to a recent USDA report. Based on a 2007 census, the report found that while the amount of acreage farmed in Maine continues to shrink, the actual number of farms in Maine and New England has grown. More farmers are farming on smaller plots.

Small suburban and urban farmers have benefited from the growth of farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA). With CSAs, customers pay for shares of a farmer’s harvest in the springtime and receive weekly allotments of produce once the food is grown. In essence, a CSA is like a loan to a farmer without getting the bank involved. 

Anything a farmer can do to cut out the middleman makes the farm more economically viable, says Stewart Smith, a professor of sustainable agricultural policy at the University of Maine’s School of Economics at Orono. “In agriculture, in general, over 80 percent of value is post–farm gate. It goes to marketers,” Smith says. “What these local farms are doing is capturing that 80 percent.”

Small suburban farmers also capitalize on the growing desire among consumers to feel a connection with their food, says Mark Lapping, professor of public policy at the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service. “With what all these small farms are doing, they’re creating a far more intimate link between producers and consumers,” he says.

MOFGA’s Libby says Maine’s low population density has meant that the state’s small farmers have an easier time networking with each other. “In Maine, it’s really easy to find someone who’s doing what you’re doing,” says Libby.

Allen says that kind of grassroots support was critical for him, and he cites Eliot Coleman as a mentor. He first learned about Coleman when he picked up a copy of one of Coleman’s books while wandering through a bookstore. He was fascinated with what he read, including Coleman’s description of a tool to press soil into blocks for seedlings. When Allen couldn’t find the tool on the market, he called Coleman to see if he knew where to order it. 

“Eliot said, ‘I’m all done with it for now, why don’t you borrow it?’ He doesn’t even know my name,” recalls Allen.

Coleman is aware that many small farmers see him as an icon and use his books like a bible. “It’s really frightening,” he says. “I’m just the middleman.”

Coleman says small farmers are benefiting from new tools on the market that are making microfarming cheaper and easier, such as a device that bends pipe for making greenhouse frames. Coleman has come up with some of these tools himself, including a redesigned hose and a rototiller powered by a cordless drill.

“The tools I started with in 1965 when I got into this game were basically 19th-century tools,” he says. “When you’re doing a job that goes on for a minute or two, my mind tends to wander to ways to make it simpler.”

Different codes, different towns

City and town officials have no comprehensive view about backyard farming, and policies differ from municipality to municipality. While chickens are welcome in Camden, they technically are banned in residential Belfast, a city once known for its poultry production. 

Many municipalities are considering changes to allow chickens and rabbits, including Hampden. Some hope to change the rules to encourage backyard farming as a way to revitalize the local economy.

Some code enforcement officers are more sympathetic to backyard farming than others. The town of Ellsworth allows chickens and rabbits as long as they aren’t part of commercial production. The city’s code enforcement officer, Dwight Tilton, believes backyard farming strengthens national security.

“We need to get away from our dependence on China. We need to start making things here again,” Tilton says.

A few blocks down from Ellsworth’s city hall, Andrea Perry and Toby Stephenson have a microfarm behind their house, including a flock of chickens, meat rabbits, fruit trees and three large raised beds. Coming from a farming background, Perry always knew she wanted to raise her own food. She just thought she would do it in the country. “We thought we would buy six or 11 acres outside of Ellsworth,” she says. “We just fell in love with town living.”

Although they love to garden, the couple set out to raise their own food because they wanted their lifestyles to be more sustainable. That’s the main reason they decided to raise rabbits, says Stephenson, a curator for the Whale Museum at College of the Atlantic. Rabbits are the most efficient meat to raise, he says. For every five pounds of grain, the rabbits produce a pound of meat. Also, rabbit droppings can go directly into the soil to enrich their garden. 

Raising meat has changed their diet to be more plant-based, says Stephenson. “When you have something to do with raising it, you don’t need it as much,” he says. “It assumes a much different value and a more important value.”

The couple’s production has attracted attention. Children from the school across the street have visited the couple’s farm, and neighbors love the chickens. Next year, Stephenson hopes to build a smokehouse with others on his block. 

The couple says growing their own food makes life richer, and the food tastes better. They are happy their children have a connection to their food. They want to continue to showcase their backyard farm to inspire others to know how easy it is to grow what a family needs in a residential area.   

Craig Idlebrook has written for more than 30 publications, including Mother Earth News and Chicken Soup for the Soul. He lives in New England with his 5-year-old daughter who likes to quote Shakespeare.