A Look at Tessier's Farm and Somerset Coffee and Tea in Skowhegan, Maine

by Emily du Houx

Tessier’s Farm and Somerset Coffee and Tea are small-scale operations, and that’s the way owners and operators Carrie and Jason Tessier want it to stay. “We said, ‘nope, we don’t want to get any bigger,’” said Carrie, referring to a conversation she had with a financial advisor about growing their successful business. “We want to keep it in the community.”

The size of the operation allows them a flexible way of doing business. Instead of focusing on a single crop or product, they juggle multiple projects, from raising rabbits to roasting coffee beans, which means they’re constantly busy, always learning, and also well-positioned to respond to fluctuating markets and their own production levels.

“Everything has its own season in a sense,” Carrie said, when I spoke with her on her farm. “If something kind of slows down, I can pick up on this area, push that one product a little bit. Like maple syrup was a terrible year this year. I thought, oh no, no one is going to come to Maine Maple Sunday this year, but it was the biggest year yet, and our meat sales tripled.” In this way, one fluctuation helps to balance another. The real expertise in the business lies in being able to move between multiple and sometimes seemingly unrelated forms of production.

Carrie’s coffee-roasting business, which works in tandem with the farm, grew gradually. She spent two years juggling the responsibilities of her full-time job at the Waterville hospital while starting the coffee business on the side before she gave notice. Most nights she would roast her beans after her kids were in bed, and during the day she had her hands full as well. “I’m in a few coffee shops, and they would actually come to the hospital and get stuff our of my vehicle. Then after work I would go and deliver to some stores,” she said. She finally made the jump from one line of work to another in February of 2013 and doesn't regret a thing. “It was a long haul, and I can’t ever see going back. This is the ultimate.”

Carrie claimed her training as lab technician helped prepare her for her coffee business. She saw a lot of connections between the two lines of work, even though few around her did. “A lot of people at work were pretty surprised. It seemed like a leap. There’s actually a lot of maintenance to it,” she said referring to upkeep on the roaster. “Coffee is oily, sticky. The chaff gets everywhere. As a lab tech I had to work with instruments a lot, take things apart, fix things, so that is right up my alley.”

An interest in procedure and method as well as research and chemistry also form a kind of through-line. “I’m a lab tech by heart, and there’s a lot of chemistry and science behind roasting the beans and where they come from. I love researching the different countries, the climates, the altitudes where they grow,” she said.

She rattled off facts as I talked with her, about everything from the location of the oldest coffee trees in the world (Africa), to the fact that coffee is sometimes planted in alternating rows with macadamia trees in Indonesia so that the coffee plant picks up the flavor of the nut. “The most amazing fact to me,” she said, pausing for effect, “is that one coffee tree can only produce a pound of coffee at any one time.” She reflected on how many harvests went into the 3-4,000 pounds of coffee she roasted and ground in the previous year. “It’s crazy.”

She gets the raw beans in large sacs, and then flavors, roasts, grinds, and packages them in her kitchen. The flavors are named for her family members or are plays on aspects of farm life, like “Haymaker’s Brew,” “Chic Starter,” “Half Calf” (with half the caffeine of regular coffee), and “Bull Calf Decaf,” organically grown in Mexico and water-processed, a method of removing caffeine that retains more flavor and avoids using harsh chemicals. She also produces an assortment of teas.

Tessier’s Farm, founded in 1999, ran on a parallel track as the coffee business developed. In 2009, after two years of working with the government for certification, Carrie and Jason started processing rabbits. In the last year they doubled the size of their rabbitry from one hundred to two hundred animals. “To be honest with you I can’t keep up with the local demand,” she said.

They grow the rabbit feed directly on their farm instead of feeding them grain purchased from a supplier. “We started making our fodder in the bathtub,” Carrie said. They eventually expanded; Jason constructed a small building dedicated to sprouting GMO-free barley, which they grow on hydroponic trays. They produce the equivalent of 60 pounds of feed every day. “The rabbits eat everything, from the grass that grows, the seed that’s left and the root mass, and if anything drops through the cages our ducks clean it right out.” Feeding the rabbits barley grown on their farm is less expensive than buying grain fodder from a supplier, though it means that the animals take longer to mature, since they grow at the rate that they would naturally.

Carrie processes the rabbits herself, which includes quickly breaking each neck individually to end their lives as humanely as possible. She showed me the stick she uses to complete the process and explained how to use it. “I press down here,” she said, demonstrating in the air. Although she had no previous farming experience and grew up in coastal Owl’s Head to non-farming parents, she said that working in a hospital helped prepare her emotionally for the stark realities of life and death in nature, “Being in the medical field, blood doesn’t scare me, I’ve seen all that – I’ve seen a lot of traumas.” She added that her dad worked in funeral homes as a side job. She would often drive to crematories with him or attend funerals, which made death seem less scary.

They keep twelve breeder rabbits, “which are our pets, you could say.” Their children, Mackenzie and Kelly  allow themselves to get emotionally attached to these animals, petting them and giving them names, but they keep some distance from the animals that will eventually become a source of food.

Jason grew up on a farm, so he was used to the visceral realities of the cycle of life since his own birth. Even so, he had some anxiety when it came time to process his first cow with Carrie in the early days of their farm. He wanted to make sure that it didn’t suffer. “It was a beautiful animal,” said Carrie.

They got the cow right after Carrie got a horse for riding, over five years ago. "Jason said, ‘If you get to have a horse, I get to have a beef critter,’” Carrie laughed, recalling her husband’s turn of phrase. “I said to him, what’s a beef critter?” she continued, still laughing.

They went ahead and purchased and raised the cow and then processed it after it had grown to the right size. “We had eight or ten guys help us. They thought it was fantastic, like the biggest deer they ever did. We used a book for reference and did the best we could,” she said. It took all day, and then it had to hang for ten days, but it fed them for a long time afterward. “They say one steer can feed a family of four for an entire year."

They’ve learned a lot since then, upgraded their equipment, and added maple syrup, rabbits, ducks, chicken, geese, and pork to their operation.

“I took a humongous pay cut, but the quality of life is amazing, and I find that you don’t need to sort of stuff you thought you needed,” Carrie effused. She said she lost eight pounds, feels well rested, and has time to do things she never had energy to do before, like make yogurt from scratch for her kids. “I regret nothing about the decision to do this full-time,” she said.