by Emily Mitchard
Wholesome. That’s the word that instantly springs to mind as I pass through the Rose Gate and into the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, Maine. You can see it in the laughter and enthusiasm of kids sledding down the grassy knoll on recycled cardboard boxes; in the mounds of obscure varieties of colorful squash brought for sale from local Maine farms; in the composting toilet, called the “Common Throne”; and in the milling crowd dotted with plaid shirts and sundresses, suspenders and skinny jeans, overalls and fleece vests, students, urbanites, gardeners and famers, all coming together for food, music, arts and crafts, and a celebration of sustainable organic agriculture.
Ellen, Julia, and I have arrived on Saturday and the fair is in full swing. At any given time, there are at least a dozen and upwards of forty different activities going on for all backgrounds and interest levels. Farmers share experiences in low impact forestry, urban gardening, small scale irrigation, seed cleaning and saving, bee keeping, animal rearing, and sustainable pest control. Crafters provide tips on weaving, basket making, spinning, felting, and cutting stone. Activists and advocates spread information about bike commuting, recycling, composting, solar energy, and biodiesel. And that’s just scratching the surface. I have a flashback of being a kid in the bulk candy store, holding my little bag open, ready to fill, absolutely paralyzed by the overwhelming selection. I finally settle on basics of home composting, something called full cycle farming, productive conservation, and a lecture on the raw milk revolution.
Hours fly by as I scribble down notes, excited to complement my nascent classroom-based understanding of agriculture with personal experiences of farmers. Most noticeably, I’m aware of my lack of knowledge about actual practices and techniques that form the basis of sustainable, small-scale, organic farming. Mark Fulford, an expert in biological agriculture, delves into the topic of full cycle farming, or the nutritional pathways from the soil to the plant to the table. His deep admiration for the amazing natural coordination between soils and plants is palpable as he shares tips on how to coax your soil and plants into perfect harmony in a natural and closely managed way. It strikes me as the epitome of precision agriculture. Having learned in class predominantly about synthetic fertilizers, compost, and manure as the primary amendments to soil, I am surprised to learn of the range of rock and mineral ingredients (gypsum, montmorillonite, zinc sulfate, aragonite calcium) that can be crushed, combined and added as a dry amendment to the soil.
While the lectures on techniques and best practices draw together casual observers as well as enthusiastic gardeners, the lecture on the raw milk revolution brings together a core of more serious activists. The journalist, David Gumpert, author of “The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights” and the blog www.thecompletepatient.com, lays out the history of the government’s regulation of the raw dairy business and describes the increasing number of battles over raw milk taking place today. He points to the unusual behavior of the FDA in targeting small businesses and individual farmers engaged in herd-shares and private individual contracts as evidence of a vicious government vendetta to eliminate the sale and consumption of raw milk nationwide. The presentation and nature of the topic elicits strong reactions from the audience and provides a glimpse into the depth of many fair-goers values and beliefs around issues of food sovereignty and food rights.
In between lectures we wander through animal stalls, arts and crafts tents, and demonstration plots of cover crops and gardens. I linger around the cover crops, finally getting the chance to see in real life what hairy vetch looks like after those countless references in ASP I. Our wallets thin as we eagerly taste the selection of foods, all products of Maine organic farms, and stuff our bags with farmers’ market produce. As the sun begins to set, the warmth of the farmhouse beckons and we amble between rows of tables displaying prize-winning fruits, vegetables, flowers, and bowl after bowl of colorful beans.
Finally it’s dark and we retreat to our tent pitched in the heavily forested campground. Snuggled in my sleeping bag and deeply satisfied, I reflect on the day’s activities, noting that all of them, from the lectures to the sheepdog trials to the cooking demos, built off the notion of reclaiming the value of time and taking joy in the small things in life. They encouraged you to take that time to engage in sewing, knitting or carving wood; to learn about the unique characteristics of your soil, the particular needs of the crops you plant in it, and the opportunities for natural fertilizers; to rediscover food varieties that long ago disappeared from our industrial food system; to stop and think about where our food comes from; and most of all, to learn from each other and strengthen community ties.
Emily Mitchard is a second year dual MS/MPH student doing the AFE program at Friedman and an Epi/Biostats concentration in the PHPD program. She enjoys spending her free time going on long bike rides and spending any time outside.